Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why does Robin Lane Fox have to drag his sexual fantasies into a review of a garden book?

Let's face it. If I had had a good review from Robin Lane Fox I would have been worried – a sign that I (and by extention Piet Oudolf) had sold out, joined the establishment, become a safe pair of hands, retired to planting petunias and pruning hybrid tea roses. Like the artists who cherish their rejection from the Royal Academy, we know that condemnation by particular people is a sign that we are doing the right thing. 

Robin Lane Fox is one of those treasures of British life, a long-standing, opinionated and conservative commentator on gardening. He is one of a kind – the 'crusty old fart', who we do particularly well in Britain, annoying, but in the end, rather lovable. The sort who hang around in gentleman's clubs in London or senior common rooms in exclusive Oxford colleges, with an intravenous drip of vintage port into their veins, fulminating at every opportunity about the silly mistakes of the young, the idiocy of letting women into the club, blah, blah, blah and blah. Lane Fox's day job is “Extraordinary Lecturer in Ancient History for both New and Exeter Colleges”. You get the idea – clever chap, just not very clued in to the modern world, the sort of person who when you say “estate” to, thinks of a friend of his with a big house and deer park and a couple of tenant farms 'on the estate', not a crap place to live on the edge of town with a library and swimming pool that's just been shut, and a rip-off bus once an hour into town and the job centre, where the only thing that makes life worth living are the fantastic drifts of flowers that the clever guys from Sheffield University have just done between the tower blocks – this is what 'estate' means to most people. 
A pasting from Robin Lane Fox is like a thrashing with a wet lettuce, a back-handed complement playfully received. But quite why he drags in “actress Rosario Dawson, full-frontally naked from head to toe” into a review of a gardening book, I completely fail to appreciate; for God's sake you old goat, leave your sexual fantasies out of reviews of our book – perleeze.

Reading in a bit more detail, Lane Fox is revealing his prejudices a little. He admits of course to subjectivity (what a relief that is); he clearly does not understand that some people want a vision of nature, either in their gardens or their public spaces – that is a big shift in the aesthetic, one of those world-changing paradigm shifts that the ol' boys in leather armchairs in their clubs and senior common rooms had better get used to, the guys who like their double roses and camellias, and peonies out in the quad spaced out neatly with bare earth between them, lined out politely around the outside of that beautifully lush hallowed green, striped grass that no-one is allowed to walk on. And which the rest of us can hardly ever even see, because we are not even allowed in past the porter's lodge.

Our book is addressed to all gardeners and designers of planted spaces: private gardeners, community gardeners, volunteer gardeners, professional gardeners, and of course landscape designers. It is about trying to communicate a vision of nature which may be small-scale and private or big-scale and public. That is quite a challenge to get into one book, but the principles are the same. But the public aspect is important. Lane Fox can sneer about “German garden shows” but the whole point of those German garden shows is that they are about regenerating places which will then give pleasure to the entire community, not just for one summer, but ever more. The whole thrust of the despised “German planting” is actually about making beauty democratically available. Public space has been too often overlooked and under-utilised. Isn't quality public landscape a democratic right? I would like to think that some of what we discuss and show will help bring alive those public spaces, so we can all benefit. 

Here's the book in question: Planting, a new perspective

If Robin Lane Fox is not careful he'll end up with a cameo performance in my ongoing soap opera of gardening life, the latest episode of which is just up on Amazon Kindle.


Kiko Simch said...

Robin Lane is so antique..., it's a shame that anyone with low level of knowledge may use such a powerful vehicle of communication and say whatever passes on "its" mind. I'm surprised that such a developed society may allowed that such a poor spirit may remain in this place. Noel, congratulations for your ideas and vision of the world. Mr. Lane must have a mirror instead of a window ...

Kiko Simch said...

Brave words, Noel! Mr. Lane got this important position been so ignorant like that? Such a developed society with such a rich gardening culture do not deserve such a poor spirit ! He's the past...The arrogant and blind past.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Well, I definitely agree with your humorous definition of Robin! I've often enjoyed his articles and the knowledge behind them, even if I mostly disagree with his ideals and visual taste - there is more to gardening than roses and delphiniums, and I just can't understand his hatred of grasses and some other plants, after all, they are all part of nature. Also, I definitely don't share his oft-confessed love for Miracle-Gro.

There's nothing wrong being an opinionated garden writer - we can all think of several great writers who have professed strong opinions and written splendidly. But in this case, Lane's article bordered to the xenophobic. I was seriously wondering what makes him feel so threatened - after all, no-one is going to take his roses from him, or force him to plant Miscanthus in his borders?

There's a big difference between disagreeing on a subject and discarding others' work as worthless, as he did. Accepting diversity is all, even in gardening. If you don't like grasses, don't plant them, but do not condemn others who do so. If Mr. Lane can't accept that, I think we are many who think he has past his 'best by' date as a writer.

Anonymous said...

Well said! I have a weekly rant with Robin after reading his column in the FT - in my head! I actually think this column spoke to me on many levels. Some of the new design leaves me cold.

Huub Schoot said...

The link to the Dutch version of the new book is:

Read the text on Piet Oudolf

Tristan said...

RLF will remain influential because his vision of gardening transfers better to the real world of limited money, space and lets be honest interest that most people face.
Regarding the New Wave I admire much about it but you must admit that it has one or two practical problems when it is faced with our landscape.
Regarding strident comments we should remember what public bickering did to the landscape movement; everyone got laughed out of business.

Anne Wareham said...

Hi Noel,
I see thinkingardens hasn't made it on to your blog list so you probably won't have seen the response to your blog post there. Or rather, here:

It's been a very popular read.


Denise said...

RLF's review neatly embodies the hysterical pushback of the old guard. I see no future in copying RLF's rigid vision for gardens here in So. Calif, but am very excited about learning from and adapting Oudolf's principles to our mediterranean climate.

catharine Howard said...

I am very much looking forward to reading a plantsman's (or mens) explica of how to combine plantings. What are the leather armchair set fulminating about? Every garden should be looked at with the eye of maintenance considerations. Bare earth and bedding? Out of the ark.

Roger Brook said...

But he is so stimulating. Great for gardening professionals to get on there high horses. I know I do when I read things with which I do not agree!
The best gardening writer of all was Arthur Hellier who preceded RLF in the FT - many years ago

Steve14771515 said...

I read the book the first time around, and I must admit I was torn between keeping it or giving it away.

But last week I read what Thomas Rainer posted regarding the matrix on the High Line and it suddenly clicked. This book is not going anywhere - I've always wanted to have structural perennials rising out of low grasses and this is an inspiration.

anna piussi said...

Wow Noel, well said. As a first-timer to Chelsea flower show, and avid reader of Robin's column, I was in a cold sweat when he came up to me last year at press day, and more or less gave me two minutes to defend my garden. I attempted, but told him that it was as hard as defending my doctoral thesis, which I had started at the college across the road from his at Oxford. He harrumphed and wondered what academia had to do with it. Well, everything. Free association evoked by Greek myth was clearly not sufficient because I can't tell my Hadrians from my Hectors, no delphinums were involved (well, it's prob. delphinii in plural) but some of his dreaded grasses were. In the end I didn't get mentioned, but I escaped being flogged with a wet lettuce.
I have to say it was stimulating - you need a bit of the old guard to rail against, or where's the fun?
Congratulations on your work and your very rewarding blog.