Sound trumpets and beat the great war drum! Stop all the clocks and hold the press! Wave flags, raise hands and slap bottoms! This May I fight my debut fight in The Chelsea Battledome. For a tender young shoot of a gardener this is a momentous day – typing this I can almost hear the baying of the crowd and scent the blood, as my collegiate companions and I do battle in the Continuous Learning category. Winners will go home strewn with rose petals, to hagiographic reviews on school web-pages; losers will be scraped up and unceremoniously composted.
This year theme is……………. The Power of Plants.
My college class will be exhibiting “plants power to reduce crime.” This is an area that I find fascinating. Introducing greenery to crime ridden areas has been shown to encourage community interaction and foster a sense of wellbeing and civic pride that has a measurable effect in reducing crime. Antisocial behaviour breeds in grey voids of lonely shabbiness; a display of colour and the demonstration that someone cares about the area has a great effect on the amount of residents stabbing each other. Current American research shows that far from providing places for airborne rapists to shelter, trees in urban areas act as a meeting places and conversation facilitators – if you bump into a neighbour under a tree you are far more likely to start chatting than if you meet them under a graffiti-ed metal road sign. Green areas provide the liminal space needed to strike up the relationships that are vital for community cohesion and safety, and people who meet under trees are far more likely to one day end up having sex, fact, and its virtually always consensual.
In an effort to prepare myself for the creation of this horti-sociological knowledge booth I have been trying to acquaint myself with some of the nasty, grim, dangerous and deprived areas of London. The ones that only seem to exist in Dickens’ novels. I found some, but Dickens’ were much more fun, so I’ve re-read Nicholas Nickleby instead.
I’m not sure a presentation ‘on the power of gardens to reduce crime in Nicholas Nickleby’ was really what the Chelsea organisers had in mind when they accepted our proposal. They’d probably say it ‘lacked universal appeal’ or was ‘a bloody stupid idea’, but it’s what I ended up researching, anyway, I’ve made significant findings, my foot is in the door and I will not be denied my stage!
The protagonist who would have felt the most benefit from a nice garden in Nicholas Nickleby is the malevolent Uncle Ralph. Uncle Ralph is not a nice man, and in the words of Charles D ‘Ralph cared for nothing in this life, or beyond it, save the gratification of two passions: avarice, the first and predominate appetite of his nature, and hatred, the second…. The only scriptural admonition that Ralph Nickleby heeded, in the letter, was ‘know thyself.’ He knew himself well, and choosing to imagine that all mankind were cast in the same mould, hated them.’ A prime candidate for criminal skulduggery if we’ve ever been introduced to one. But how easily could he have changed! Listen to this passage:
Mr Nickleby closed an account book which lay open on his desk, threw himself back in his chair and gazed with an air of abstraction through the dirty window. Some London houses have a melancholy little plot of ground behind them, usually fenced in by four high whitewashed walls and frowned upon by stacks of chimneys, in which there withers from year to year a crippled tree, that makes a show of putting forth a few leaves in late autumn, when other trees shed theirs, and drooping in the effort, lingers on all crackled and smoke dried till the following season, when it repeats the same process, and perhaps if the weather be particularly genial, even tempts some rheumatic sparrow to chirrup in its branches. People sometimes call these dark yards ‘gardens’.
It’s no wonder that old Ralph found himself up to his chin in nefarious happenings. I’m sure that if I had had to look at that blighted little square I would be setting up unprincipled muffin companies, sending my sickly illegitate offspring to brutal northern boarding schools and stealing wills in the blink of an eye. If I were a generous and horticulturaly benevolent Charles Dickens (I can but pray) I would have written:
Mr Nickleby closed an account book which lay open on his desk, threw himself back in his chair and gazed with an air of abstraction through the dirty window. ‘Oh blast he gasped, another rheumatic sparrow!’ Clutching his sparrow stick he rushed into the garden, yelping and cackling, ushering the old bird away from his crocuses. Once outside in the warm smoke dried air Ralph could not face heading back inside and upstairs to his dusty accounts and the sordid affairs of the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company. So he whiled away a pleasant hour in day dream, until he was broken from his reverie by a young man.
‘Good afternoon sir, I am you Nephew Nicholas. I hate to intrude, but my father has just passed away and left…’
‘Say no more’ Ralph interrupted. ‘I’ll write you a check, what’s the damage? No, actually, crumb it, take it all. Why do I need it? After all I’ve got my crocuses and they’re all I want.’
So there we go. Studies in America can show what they like about the power of plants, but this simple and logical re-imagination shows that the humble crocus can effectively cut 700 pages from one of the greatest comic novels ever written. Come to Chelsea where I will be expanding on the theme, and asking what would have happened if Jude the Obscure had preferred the water meadows of Christminster to its watering holes and if Heathcliffe had been drawn to Physic gardens over foggy moors.