Saturday 6 October 2018

In an English Country Garden

Those aren’t plastic flowers, those are “faux botanicals”.

Weybridges know the Latin names of house plants. Fiona Stow Crat gives hers nicknames. 

An Escape to the Country participant says his ambition is to have enough grass for a sit-on lawnmower.

No good house should have to suffer the indignity of being covered with climbing plants. It is architectural bad manners almost on a par with plastic doors and windows. (Letter to Times, May 2017)

I was once sternly told not to plant Russian vine in my garden – so I did, and it flourished. I couldn’t understand why my mother wouldn’t plant any beautiful, romantic Virginia creeper, found all around us in Surrey climbing up half-timbered Arts and Crafts villas. She also vetoed pampas grass (suburban) and my father outlawed nasturtiums (too orange), but she grew them anyway.

In the 70s a clump of pampas grass in the centre of your front lawn was supposed to signal the home of wife-swappers. (What did other wife-swappers do? Just come and ring your doorbell?) The pampas grass would be in the middle of a perfectly kept lawn in front of the house, with no fence or wall. This was thought to be American and hence utterly naff. If you didn't have pampas grass, you probably had a laburnum. (What happened to them? Health and Safety? The seeds are poisonous.) Laburnums were naff, as were any "weeping" trees including willows and silver birches. In fact silver birches were verboten whether they wept or not. According to Nicky Haslam, hydrangeas were posh in Edwardian times.

Garden no-nos from the Times 
Times writer Anne Treneman has inherited a garden – she bought it from someone called “Malcolm”. Unfortunately it contains:

pampas grass
poisonous plants
orange flowers

She also frowns on:
tiny Zen gardens
invasive bamboo
anything that grows too big (Don’t plant a Scots pine in a  suburban front garden)
climbers (that strangle your TV aerial)

To the Brits, horticulture is about the gardens of stately homes, not breeding disease-resistant bananas. Cecil Beaton (The Glass of Fashion) makes the point that flowers were part of your interior d├ęcor, and you renewed them every week, or every few days. If you had “grounds”, your flower garden was designed to produce flowers to decorate the house. Per Nicky Haslam (Redeeming Features), this is called the “cutting garden”.

Until the mid-60s, women still “did the flowers”. In a large country house, either the wife or one of her daughters had the task of picking the flowers and taking them (in a wooden trug basket) to the “flower room”, where there was a big sink, and vases on a slate shelf. Here she arranged bouquets for the drawing room, dining room and hall, and possibly guest bedrooms and her own.

In the 50s and 60s women went to flower-arranging classes (a relative was very witty about being told to put “blooms” in a “container”). They dabbled in ikebana, and read Constance Spry. Post-war domestic writer Ethelind Fearon (The Reluctant Gardener) advises on which plants to grow and how to turn them into “arrangements”. This sometimes involved clipping leaves into more aesthetic shapes. And then women got jobs, and we did without flower arrangements, or substituted trailing variegated ivy (60s) or spider plants (70s).

When Upwards, forced out of inner London, move to Stratford or Walthamstow, all they can find are houses with “state of the art” kitchens and gardens that have been “cleared”. They immediately start making the garden look wild and untidy again. If they can afford it, they “rip out” the gleaming cabinets and replace them with dangerously rocky 50s “kitchenette” larders and a pine table. If they’re really well-heeled, they pull down the extension and turn it back into a patio.

Monty Don in the Times on John Seymour’s self-sufficiency books: Nobody apart from “a few bedraggled hippies on wet Welsh hillsides” really wanted to fend for themselves. (Self-sufficiency also required you to use your children as slave labour. Though didn't the Downton Abbey inhabitants live off their estates? They were self-sufficient in venison, peaches and everything else – easy if you have enough land and can pay gardeners and farm-hands.)

‘Well, well,’ said Colin. ‘Some front garden!’ 

It was indeed a model of surburban perfection in a small way. There were beds of geraniums with lobelia edging. There were large fleshy-looking begonias, and there was a fine display of garden ornaments — frogs, toadstools, comic gnomes and pixies. 

‘I’m sure Mr Bland must be a nice worthy man,’ said Colin, with a shudder. ‘He couldn’t have these terrible ideas if he wasn’t.’
(Agatha Christie, The Clocks)

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday 4 October 2018

What to Wear 8

Caro Stow-Crat says: “Please, no fancy dress after 40. Though Harry did once go to a fancy dress ball as a bishop...”

A welcome erosion of class structures has seen top hats relegated first to the top shelves of cupboards and wardrobes, and then donated to become a staple of Amateur Dramatic Club costume collections. (Lucy Adlington,
Stitches in Time) Thomas the Tank Engine’s Fat Controller (Sir Topham Hatt) was originally the “Fat Director” – a 20s caricature capitalist in a morning coat and top hat, grown fat on the profits of a private railway company. When the railways were reprivatised, why didn’t he revert to being a director? He's still an outdated stereotype.

Caro wonders when a bowtie became a “dicky bow”? A dicky is a fake blouse consisting of a Mao collar and enough material to show under a V-necked jumper. It's a useful way of using up remnants, and will delude your friends that you own more blouses than you actually do. A “dicky bird” is what common people call a bird.

Samantha says “I refuse to buy my grandchildren clothes covered in writing and logos”. She buys them clothes at Muji and Uniqlo. Sharon Definitely buys her daughter Madison pink T shirts that read “Little Lady” but also “Girls Can Do Anything”. Her son Jayden dresses in scaled-down army uniform.

Lower middle-class Jen Teale uses shoe deodorisers, Caro chucks smelly trainers, but Samantha insists on wearing them out. She may Google for an old-fashioned home remedy (baking soda) that doesn’t work. 

“Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” This advice made sense in the days (80s and earlier) when a secretary wore a blouse and skirt, while the lady boss wore a suit.

I’m old enough to remember when we called face veils “yashmaks” and made jokes about them. Perhaps those old white men who moan about “political correctness” could cast their minds back. Nobody forced us to stop joking about yashmaks, we just stopped. We don’t give small children replica guns any more, either. Or sweet cigarettes.

Young people holiday in the far East and come back with batik sarongs. (In my day they went to India and came back with kurtas and kaftans – but not saris.) But no Upward goes to Whitechapel or Ridley Road market to buy a long flowery dress as worn by Muslim ladies, or a glittery shalwar kameez – or even a cotton shalwar kameez. They’re very cool in hot weather and are perfect for the office. Likewise, Boris is appalled by niqabs but not by a Carmelite nun’s outfit. The Times (August 2018) shows “manxi” dresses that are very like a Muslim woman’s dress, but no connection is made. Is this crossover? Cultural appropriation? Caro wears a genuine pashmina to the opera, over an oxblood taffeta evening dress with a wide skirt. Her great-grandmother wore a genuine Indian paisley shawl.

When I arrived at university in the 70s my sunglasses with pale pink frames puzzled other students. I seemed to be middle class – didn’t I know that the colour pink was common? And pink plastic! I also wore a pink mohair jumper – I was going through a 50s phase. I was ahead of the trend – lurid mohair jumpers were a punk fashion in the later 70s. And this was in a decade when we were supposed to be breaking down barriers of all kinds and creating an egalitarian society, free of all prejudice. They dressed entirely in blue denim or brown corduroy. (Can you still get brown denim? They never seemed to grasp what “prejudice” meant, either.)

In 2018 Teales wear 7/8 jeans, white T shirts and cardigans or jackets in a subdued, plain colour. Usually blue, navy, and grey. They look almost Boden. They achieve this look by buying cheap clothes and discarding them as soon as the material goes sad and shabby. They ruthlessly “edit” their wardrobes, and wash everything after one wearing. They iron their T shirts. Upwards, on the other hand, have “favourite” pieces they are sentimentally attached to and persist in wearing them however grey, bobbly and sagging. They fail to notice that modern fabrics don’t last like the old-fashioned kind. Teale clothes, being featureless, have no associations and are just replaced by more of the same.

More here, and links to the rest.

Canny Upwards in the 70s used Catherine Milinaire's Cheap Chic as a style bible.