Summer in the City

All proper tribes have a battle cry. My favourite belongs to the fearsome thirteenth century Almogàvers: ‘Desperta Ferro!’ (awake iron!) It’s best bellowed at at dawn while sparking sword from stone, but I’ve taken to yelling it whenever I pick up a spade.  Garden designers have their own distinctive whoop; ‘Rhythm, Unity, Movement!’.  It’s a pretty vacuous battle cry, better suited to a choreographer than a horticultural professional, but it seems to work for them.

This is because most garden designers were indoctrinated to The Principles Of Garden Design while in training. The Principles Of Garden Design is an aesthetic theory that breaks horticultural design into three essential and easily digested dogmas; a beautiful garden must have Balance (or order, proportion etc) Unity (harmony, oneness) and Movement (flow, rhythm, transition). Of course it’s all platitudinous rot and spread-too-broad nonsense, but that doesn’t stop it being influential.

I was thinking about the principles, particularly movement, as I cycled through the city last week.  After a month of rain the temperature had risen sharply and the air felt like broth. Away from ventilating tracheal roads, urban pockets lay torpid; parks, alley-ways, back gardens and playgrounds felt thick and still, stupefied under a haze.  Nowhere does lethargic like London in late July.

The omphalic centre of this inaction was the Regents Canal, its Victorian prime – horses, ice-barges and gunpowder tugs – long forgotten. The locks were closed and the water motionless. I watched three Canada geese, too idle for their ancestral life of migration, circle in a small opening in the duckweed. Eventually one ploughed out and the others followed in his slip stream. All along the banks the canal boats sat motionless.

You shouldn’t be able to get much more movement in a garden than in one built on the top of a boat. Don’t like your ‘borrowed landscape’? Cast off! Pitch up somewhere with a better view. Shaded by a protected tree? I’ll take my flowerbeds elsewhere. Yet in the fever of that afternoon I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more motionless set of gardens.

Most of the roofs supported vest-wearing tattooed river dwellers, crashed-out in the heat. They like to pose as vagabond adventurers, not tied down to neighbours, corner shops and residents association meetings. But I cycle down the Regents canal six times a week and their boats never ever move. I have seen lock-gates open just once. Barges with names like Geronimo (another famous war cry) hint of a life of wandering excitement and conceal the truth: the owners are just as tethered as the rest of us – we live in flats, they live in tiny floating bungalows.

They do like to garden though. Every boat has a roof filled with pansies, violas and tomatoes. The plants are naff, small and mismatched; they wilt and they don’t flutter, perfect for bungalows. There’s no rhythm and no sense of transition, but they work because they’re jolly.

The evening wore on, the temperature stayed high, I stopped cycling and opened a beer. Sitting on an overgrown bank, surrounded by mallow and hedge mustard while watching a low sun turn the duckweed golden I wondered: what’s so essential about movement?