Ministry of Controversy

Don’t Talk Down to The Gardeners!

(Of course, John McCain has become just as inauthentic in trying to appeal to conservatives.  Don’t miss Todd Purdham’s terrific Vanity Fair piece about the devil’s deal McCain has made.  But at least when McCain hits the podium and reads some conservative-pleasing statement with complete contempt for what he’s saying–he seems to be indicating disrespect for his handlers more than anybody else.)

I think I resent inauthenticity doubly from Clinton precisely because I remember very well when she first appeared on the scene in late 1991, with her nifty turquoise jacket and crisp turtleneck, looking like a really successful boomer lawyer, and saying sarcastic things about milk and cookies right and left.  She seemed terrific then!  Clearly, she’s made the coarsest of bargains for a public life since.

We can say the same, of course, of Beverley Nichols, 1898-1983, a British bon vivant and hugely successful author of you name it, from novels to children’s books to garden books to polemics to plays.  He was, as Licata says, a terrifically charming writer.  And when I bought Merry Hall a few years ago, for about three chapters I thought, "This is the absolute best house and garden memoir ever written." 

The book begins with Nichol’s purchase, in 1946, of a fantastic, decrepit 22-room Georgian manor house he can’t afford in the English countryside.  Nichols naturally cannot bear the idiotic things the previous owners have done to this neo-classical masterpiece, including planting an ugly holly hedge that hides the front of the house. 

So when a friend arrives with a bottle of champagne to celebrate the house purchase, the two of them get drunk and decide to burn down the hedge, burning themselves in the process and nearly lighting the house on fire, too.  I laughed out loud–and completely recognized the impulse.  Aren’t all gardeners dangerous when they decide something has to be done about some problem in the yard?  There are certain days when, if you put a Swedish bow-saw in my hand, I am also a menace to life and limb.

But from then on, Merry Hall deteriorates into complete puerility, and its sequels Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn follow on in the same idiotic vein.  Why?  Because they are essentially dishonest.  Nichols obviously didn’t feel safe writing the truth about the household at Merry Hall, which included an unmentioned male partner and the fact that the butler, a fantastic character named Gaskin, was also gay.  Instead, Nichols fills these "memoirs" with ersatz drama about flower shows and local spinsters, and not a word of it reads true.

Of course, in England in 1951, when Merry Hall was published, gay men were actually thrown into prison merely for living their lives.  And off the page, Nichols was apparently quite brave, startling the female fans of his house-and-garden writing by ending his lectures with a plea for sexual tolerance. 

So, okay, we can forgive these memoirs for lacking the first prerequisite for authenticity, both in politics and literature: fearlessness.  A willingness to reveal rather than conceal the truth about oneself. 

But here is what’s not forgivable–according to Nichols’ biographer Bryan Connon, Nichols didn’t even tell the truth about the house and garden!

The real story of Merry Hall had enough drama in it to put any sane man off the purchase of old properties for ever, but the facts that the strain nearly drove Beverley mad and the cost almost crippled him financially were put to one side in fictionalized account of the process of rehabilitation.   

This suggests a second reason for Nichols’ inauthenticity: a lack of respect for the audience.  My instinct about the Merry Hall trilogy is that Nichols was writing down to the women who kept him in silk waistcoats and 18th century urns.  Why focus on the nitty gritty of the struggle with house, when really, you’re just talking to an audience of women eager for a bit of domestic fantasy?  Rats in the cellar and desperation over the bills would simply burst the bubble.

This same problem infects most house/garden/family/food writing today.  The sense that the subject is small, the audience is silly, and a bunch of phony blather is all either one deserves.

Well, most of life is domestic life!  These subjects deserve to be dealt with some degree of respect.  Or at least, not with complete smarmy dishonesty.  But generally, that’s all we get.  They move to Provence, they move to Lucca or to Long Island.  They make a house and make a garden.  They tell us about the funny locals–and nothing about themselves, or what they’re really running away from, or why any of this matters at all.

By the way, there are some authentics on the house and garden front.   Check out Amy Stewart’s dignified little memoir From the Ground Up.  (I know–you think we spend too much time promoting Amy.  But I got to know her because I loved her book and not the other way around. ) Also try Laura Shane Cunningham’s A Place in the Country.  She’s a got a bit of a Nichols problem in that the book is really about her split with her husband–but she doesn’t want to discuss it.  Still, on every other subject–the landscape, houses, children–the writing is so elegiac and beautiful, Cunningham just ought to be read.

As for the authentics amongs the politicians, alas–I’ve had my heart broken too many times by people who seem brave today, only to piss it all away tomorrow.  So I’ve got my opinions, but wouldn’t assume that they are worth anything to anybody else.   

Posted by on March 17, 2007 at 4:16 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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19 responses to “Don’t Talk Down to The Gardeners!”

  1. Just what the hell is going on in the world? That’s what I want know. I come over here for some earthworm-heronswood-“gardeners don’t get any respect”-“some-guy-says-put-diet-coke-in-your dirt” -“what makes a garden crappy” kind of stuff… good stuff. And I get recycled truck-tire grass and Hilary Clinton.

    Sure it’s well written. Sure it’s well reasoned. Sure it is intelligent. Hell, it is probably even IMPORTANT. But can’t we talk some more about guns and gardens and crazy people and such?

    I’m going over to
    http://www.Guns_Gardens_WackJobs.com

    Somebody call me when your done.

    :)

    H

  2. Hmmmmm, where in his garden books does Beverley Nichols state that what he writes is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Exactly, he doesn’t.

    I read his books as fiction loosely based on real life. The guy was writing to earn a crust and guess what, these kind of books made him money. He wrote other kinds of books too but with much less success. We all have to make we living, don’t we?

    Beverley is, for me, one of the best writers about gardening. Why? Because he shows what it is all about: having fun! And reading his gardening books? Loads of fun too!
    But YMMV of course. :-)

  3. Susan Harris says:

    Thanks, Michele, for giving me license to rant off-topic – as long as I stick the word “gardener” in there somewhere. What a relief.
    Now if I can remember the wry emoticon Ellis Hollow used recently – maybe ;-7?

  4. Ellis Hollow says:

    Geez, Michele. Politics and gardening. There’s a flammable mix with the potential to burn down more than the holly hedge.

    More meta: When it comes to authenticity, I’m a firm believer that *healthy* online communities are good at distinguishing authenticity and sniffing out the horse manure. Witness recent posts on this site taking on The Gray Lady and comments taking posters to task on other matters.

    So it’s not surprising that Hillary — despite her popularity in generic polls — doesn’t do well in the straw polls over at the popular left-of-center blog, Daily Kos. John Edwards, who has been quick to call his war authorization vote wrong and withdrawal from the Fox-sponsored Nevada debates scores well. See poll results here: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/3/16/122057/600

    Would love to get back to gardening, but I gotta go shovel snow.

  5. Ed Bruske says:

    Reminds me of the story about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier on the set of “Marathon Man.” Supposedly Hoffman had purposely gone days without sleep to give himself that haggard, tortured look in the film. Whereupon Olivier, the consummate pro, remarked: “My dear boy. Why don’t you try acting. It’s so much easier.”

    We’re all acting, to a greater of lesser degree, whether in a political campaign, on the job, or in a marriage. We have our game face, and we have the face we reveal only to ourselves. A politician who was completely revealing and completely truthful all the time would wear pretty thin. Dennis Kucinich springs to mind. Ralph Nader.

    You mentioned “fearless” and “authentic,” to which I would add “appropriate.” You can’t escape the culture you are in, so I give Beverly Nichols a bit of a pass. The politicians we truly admire are those who push the boundaries, who force us to examine the culture we are in and think beyond ourselves. Pretty rare birds. In your own state, I would certainly include Daniel Patrick Moynahan, proving that such politicians do exist, but usually do not enjoy mass appeal. It’s that dratted common denominator that gums up the works.

    Jack Nicholas’ primal howl also applies: “You can’t handle the truth!” Most people don’t want the truth, at least not all the time. They would rather be entertained, and they would rather have some clear boundaries around what they consider their sources of entertainment, and their sources of truth, as evidenced by some of the comments on this posting you have already received. It took quite a few years working at a major metropolitan newspaper for me to realize that while it was fine to write about the truth on the news pages, it was quite another to wear the truth like a badge of honor around the newsroom. People would rather be entertained and have their ego stroked, their own preferred version of the truth reinforced. That’s called getting along.

    But in the writing biz a whole bunch of other concerns arise. It is true, and perhaps a bit ironic, that writing truthfully is far easier in fiction than in non-fiction. There are these libel laws, don’t you know, and so many social customs and expectations that get in the way. Pretty soon you are nipping here and tucking there, shaving a bit off this side, then off that side. And before you know it, what you’ve written is not completely true any more, not the way you know it yourself, but it’s the best you can get past your editor, the only way you can sell the thing. Then the poor damn readers pick it up and injest it as if it were the whole, unabashed truth, not knowing what you know.

    I now confine most of my writing to personal experiences because I at least know what I’m writing is true. I’m not pretending to know what is lying behind someone else’s mask. And that is the joy of blogging: I can write as much or as little about myself as I want. The readers will judge whether my truth is the one that interests them. Or they’ll just tune in to someone else.

    So go on, write about whatever you like. The subject matter is less important than what you think about it…

  6. Molly says:

    Michele, the roll you are on is rocking my world (same goes for you, Ed Bruske). Sorry to add yet another item to my growing library of grumpy comments, but you are so very dead on about Hillary Clinton. After reading the Congressional Record transcript of her why-I-HAD-to-vote-for-this-war speech, in which she lied through her teeth claiming that New York City, my city, had demanded that she do so, I wanted to hit myself over the head with a frying pan. I would’ve fantasized about doing myself in with a nice, sharp spade shovel, but I was not to begin my gardening odyssey for another couple of years.

  7. Dear readers, thanks for indulging me. I did get a little off-topic, didn’t I? But, hell, it’s a blog, not a glossy magazine, and momentary lapses of sanity are permitted.

    And Ed Bruske, every word you say is true. Maybe “authentic” is a pose like any other–maybe there are just better actors and worse, better writers and worse. In any case, YOU are an amazing writer, and please don’t fail to tell us when there’s a book for us to read.

  8. To think that politics can operate on an authentic level is so overly naive that I am hunched over in pain laughing hysterically.

    All the worlds a stage.
    Some are better actors and actresses than others.

    Don’t kid yourself, the American public is not all that smart.
    Just look to the last two presidential elections.

    I’m leaving to go hang out with The County Clerk , he has the right idea.

  9. eliz says:

    Well, there’s a juxtaposition I didn’t expect: Nichols and Clinton!

    Here’s my response: if writing works for me, it works. The page is my reality, and if what happens there is satisfactory, I don’t give a hoot about what may have been “really” happening in the writer’s personal history.

    Having said that, I agree Nichols can get a bit silly; I guess I have a weakness for it. I do think the fact that he was gay is pretty apparent (big time) in all I’ve read of his, and don’t see why he would need to say more about it. That would be a different story.

    But thanks for an interesting and enjoyable (ri)post(e)!

  10. “The political life of this country would improve vastly if the politicians understood that the voters are not stupid, not at all.”

    Politicians understand exactly the opposite. The vast majority of voters are either stupid or so busy juggling a lifestyle of consumption they don’t have the time or the interest to dissect the nonsense and doublespeak that flows out of Washington like poisoned honey.

    Politicians, much of the major media and to add more fire to this post, most religious institutions actively promote stupidity by appealing to the lowest common emotional denominator and hiding the truth in “truthiness”.

    There has been an active, deliberate and ongoing campaign to demonize all the institutions that hold this republic together and keep the citizens informed.

    Science, collages and academics are discredited as biased.

    The judiciary is labeled activist.

    The media is still liberal despite the takeover, corporate buyouts and radical right shift.

    Government as an institution is not as good as the private sector.

    All of this is done to prop up and promote the Big Lie that an unfettered free enterprise capitalist economy will be lead to justice by consumer choice. Making money is good and will always lead to good.

    It is easier to gain and keep power when the citizens are uninformed and impoverished,

    Hillary is irritating because she sits on the fence between power and the common citizen, unable to choose sides and uses the same dumbing down methodology of speech and image to appeal to the distracted masses.

  11. Ellis Hollow says:

    Damn straight Ed speaks truth. Except in one small detail: Jack Nicholas’ primal howl was “Fore!”

  12. Ed Bruske says:

    Drat! You are absolutely correct. It is Jack Nicholson, not the golf great, to whom I was referring. Where is that editor when you really need him?

    I just want to add one thing, and that is an observation on the drinking habits of Daniel Patrick Moynahan. Maynahan, if I am not mistaken, was a martini drinker, and that may account in large part for his brilliance as a politician. I hope that he was a good ol’ blue-blooded gin martini drinker. And this may be the test we want to apply to all our politicians. Give each a martini glass filled with a couple snifters of Bombay Saffire and a big, ripe cocktail olive and see what they do with it. You’ll know the winner by the fire in his (her) eyes and the suggestion of a knowing grin.

  13. virginia donkey says:

    I trust your ranting colleagues will take you out to the garden shed. Maybe they’ll leave you there until a majority of us do our best to elect an authentically qualified, inspired, woman President. By filling their hard-earned garden blog with polarizing, Hillary bashing manure, you’ve gone over the hedge.
    Your unfortunate garden writer’s block affects even your photo choice. Try hillaryclinton.com to see pink roses coupled with “I’m in to win”,glimpses of tulips and mixed bouquets with conversations outlining real problems and inspired domestic policy proposals. You’ll find videos with Hillary in her garden room next to a healthy Kentia palm, and a yellow spider mum on the stage with her in Selma.
    gardenrant is really good. Don’t spoil it.

  14. garden grouch says:

    I guess I must be living in a parallel universe. I don’t see humans as actors, but servants to their own unchallenged thoughts. Most people are largely unaware of the fact that they have ceded control. If we are all acting in our own movie who the heck is directing? It’s the height of conceit to think we know why someone does what they do. Clinton or Nichols or Owens. It’s our constant need to play with our toy/mind that makes it so much fun to “rant”. But to me it’s mostly hot air. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” saith Will S. Fearless? Authentic? Appropriate? Who I am to judge?

    I think most people are doing the best they can given their life circumstances. Guess that makes me an optimist. (How else could I be a gardener?) But it’s really hard in such suspicious and cynical times. Now I’m off to find more fertile soil.

  15. Reading Dirt says:

    Nichols did fictionalize his house and garden books, beginning (as one must begin at the beginning) not with “Merry Hall,” but with “Down the Garden Path,” the first installment of a three-part story of his first garden in a village he dubs “Always.” “Down the Garden Path” is precisely where Nichols (with great tongue-in-cheek) leads you. Readers of “Merry Hall” when it was first published would have already been familiar with his fictionalized style.

    All the characters (except Gaskin, the cats, and a lopsided dog named Whoops) are fictional, though based on bits of real people. The gardening incidents are part fiction, part fact. That is simply his writing style. Can you imagine the reaction if he’d described real people with his sometimes acid style? Dear, dear.

    Nichols himself was a 19th century man writing for a 20th century world — save for his views on sexual freedom which were rather ahead of their time. To call him dishonest is to analyze his writing through an entirely different lens than the one applied when he wrote it. How honest is that?

    Nichols is what he is. If you can’t accept him on his own terms, don’t read his work.

  16. Molly says:

    For me, Daniel Patrick Moynahan will forever be the hulking, red-faced, khaki-suited Senator who, obviously hopped up on martinis, nearly knocked me and a fellow intern on our asses in the basement of the Capital building as he plunged toward the Senators-only elevator on the way to a floor vote back in 1991.

    That near miss was only the beginning of an education in Amerian democracy that only working on the Hill can buy (given the pitiful salaries they were offering in those days, one really did have to “pay” for the experience). The upshot of those few, precious years was that some of the most kindly, beloved members of Congress were also the most legislatively backwards. There was nary a Senate staffer who did not have kind words for Jesse Helms, just as there was nary a one who didn’t have at least a few curses for Daniel Patrick Moynahan.

    I’m sorry all of this blathering is so painful for some of you, but it seems to me that if gardeners aren’t speaking openly with each other about these things, we risk trapping ourselves inside something akin to the newspaper paradigm so neatly described by Ed Bruske.

  17. Martha says:

    Totally support your right to blog whatever you want, but i for one am so glad to find a well-written gardening spot and would hate to see it drift too much off-topic, even if I support those off-topics…y’know?

    Just a thought.

  18. Ellis Hollow says:

    Yes, Martha. I agree we shouldn’t drift too much. But gardening is a political act. And gardening is a spiritual act. So it’s not unexpected there should be a little drift into politics and religion while some of us are still waiting for spring.

  19. Chris says:

    Wow. This is my first visit to gardenrant, and just this morning I got an email from a fellow liberal telling me to remove his name from my “Hillary Hate Group”. I had sent one too many critical articles, I suppose… Anyway, thanks Michele, for such an entertaining rant. I’ll look forward to many more.

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