As we read through the diary for 1957 (see previous Jot) we gradually learn a little more about the anonymous chrysanthemum fancier and DIY fanatic who wrote it. We now know, for instance, that he probably lived in Welling, that he was a civil servant in the Treasury, regarded himself as no great shakes as a gardener and indeed scolded himself after his gardening failures .We know a little more about his work colleagues, friends, and relations, although he doesn’t do us a favour by providing surnames to go along with their Christian names. We have already established that he was a man of culture, especially with regard to middle of the road classical music, but our superficial assumption that his interest in the visual arts was negligible may have been mistaken. For instance, he found a book on the famous art collector Duveen ‘ very interesting ‘. He may have been a linguist too. While many of his fellow civil servants may have taken the ferry to Dieppe or Boulogne for their summer break in France our gardener and his wife jetted off to Zurich for three weeks.
In addition, he seems to have been rather taken by the idea promulgated by an anonymous correspondent in the Times for 28thMarch that a diary that mainly recorded gardening exploits was essentially a ‘ lie-book ‘.‘ My own lie-book is a very superior production.’, the writer declared:
‘True, it started modestly enough with the simple entry for January 5th, 1950, “Planted out Anemone pulsatilla from P. Contained hedging. “ But as I have warmed to the job the entries have increased in length and scope until most of them, I feel, are quite equal to any of the essays in “Our Village”. Everything connected to our life in the country goes in: the weather, the comings and goings of the birds and the butterflies, wild flowers and garden flowers, fruit picking and bottling…’
Evidently, our Welling gardener was so impressed by this article that he cut it out and placed it in his own ‘ lie book’, where it has remained to this day. Moreover, from then on he referred to his own diary as a ‘lie-book’.
On 11thMay Madge and her gardener husband left London for Petersfield on a Horticultural Club outing to Hampshire. At noon they arrived at Lord Horder’s garden at Ashford Chace, near Steep. Mervyn Horder (b 1910), an amateur musician and writer was then Managing Director of the publisher Duckworth. He had inherited the house and garden—described by the diarist as having ‘beautiful woodland scenery with a stream & a hillside, but rather understaffed for its size ‘—two years earlier from his eminent father, the first Baron Horder, one time physician to George V. However, he evidently found it irksome to maintain and so sold it in 1958. Incidentally, I actually met the rather eccentric Mervyn Horder through my friend, the biographer and onetime bookseller Geoffrey Elborn, who published a very rare pamphlet on him following his death in 1997. After Ashford Chace the party moved on to Froxfield to inspect Brigadier Otho Nicholson’s garden at Coles which, sixty years on, is still open to the public. Our diarist was charmed by what he saw: ‘a new garden made out of a farm, with nice oaks—lovely grass(and) house’. It has come on a lot since then.
Further evidence of our diarist’s broad interest in art and design can be found in the entry for 14thMay, when he visited Heal’s in his lunch hour. He admired the ‘ pottery and exhibition of cartoon drawings of cats, each of which, to his surprise, was priced at 20 guineas. If these cat pictures were by Louis Wain, the price was very reasonable, even in 1957, when the average weekly wage in London was around £12. In 2008 a watercolour and gouache drawing by Wain fetched £15,000 at Sotheby’s, London.
On 21stMay our civil servant took a day off to visit the Chelsea Flower Show. Then as now, this was a major event in the calendar of any serious gardener, and Madge and husband tried to do it justice, spending over nine hours there, despite not having the time to ‘ do’ the ‘ Flower Arrangements ‘. At Chelsea the couple bump into fellow gardener Rip, who they discover has recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and thus ‘will be away for six weeks’. We are not told whether this is diabetes type 1 or type 2, but in 1957 it was a year before sulfonylureas, the first line of defence against type 2, came onto the market. Later in the diary we are told that Rip is on insulin, has been hospitalized has lot a lot of weight, and is weak because of insufficient food’. So, we must assume that he had contracted type 1, which if he is middle-aged is very unusual. Having said that, we must remember that Theresa May was diagnosed with type 1 in her mid fifties. One must also try to imagine how painful it must have been to deal with the huge needles that came with the syringes back in the days before single-use syringes were invented in 1962.
On 28thMay our diarist discovers to his dismay that the gladioli planted in April were ‘almost a 100% failure through drought and ‘carry over of neck rot’ He concludes that he is ‘not a very competent gardener’. There seems to be further evidence of this on 9 June when he manages to break both shoots of a ‘mum while tying them up. ‘Twerp’, he upbraids himself, ‘ I should have remembered they were a brittle variety’. Three days later he makes exactly the same mistake again: ‘Oh, heavy-handed clot!’ he cries.
Around mid June the UK experiences a heat wave, with temperatures well into the 80s. Our diarist becomes concerned for the welfare of his potted plants. At one point he takes his shirt off. On 16thJune he, Madge and his Mum go on a Chrysanthemum Club outing to Littlehampton where they ‘fry on the beach all day with all the other flies—millions of ‘em ‘. He decides that it is ‘really too hot for just sitting on the beach in trousers and jacket. Should have been in the water.’ It takes the party 4 hours to get back because of traffic jams. Luckily he finds ‘mums OK on return’.
[To be continued]