I’ve been having an occasional week. My partner started it with a joke about an occasional chair, wondering what they were the rest of the time, and then I heard Todd Longstaffe-Gowan give a lecture about 18thc Town Gardens which included a nice anecdote about “an occasional garden” in a short story by Saki. I’d heard of Saki and many years ago must have read some of his stories, because there’s a “complete” edition on the bookshelves but I didn’t remember any occasional garden…
…so what had I missed?
The sad thing is there, as far as I can see, very few images of any historic “occasional gardens” at least in the sense that Saki meant, so I have used images of equally ephemeral gardens from theatre designs.
I’d missed a typically waspish bit of Saki one-up-manship succinctly compressed into a clever story about half the length of one of these blog posts, so I might even be able to get away with including most of it with a few comments! But first a word about Saki himself, because as you might have guessed that’s a pseudonym and was taken from the name of the cupbearer in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
He was born Hector Hugh Munro in 1870 in Burma to an inspector-general of the Indian Police but after the death of his mother was bought up by his grandmother and maiden aunts near Barnstaple in Devon. His own career in the Indian police was cut short by illness and from 1896 he had decided to try his hand at making a living from journalism and writing history. His real success started in 1899 when he began publishing satirical short stories in various national newspapers including The Morning Post and the Bystander. They examine the culture, social conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England in a similar way to Oscar Wilde and his stories are often compared to those of Dorothy Parker. The Spectator summed them up in 1914 as “a handbook of the gentle art of dealing faithfully with social nuisances – bores, cadgers, ‘thrusters,’ and ‘climbers'”
Short story writing is a difficult art and Munroe was very inventive as well as humorous as I hope you will agree. The story Todd referred to is called “The Occasional Garden” and begins: “Don’t talk to me about town gardens,” said Elinor Rapsley; “which means, of course, that I want you to listen to me for an hour or so while I talk about nothing else.” Well we all know garden bores like that of course but Elinor is not a gardener by any stretch of the imagination.
“What a nice-sized garden you’ve got,’ people said to us when we first moved here. What I suppose they meant to say was what a nice-sized site for a garden we’d got. As a matter of fact, the size is all against it; it’s too large to be ignored altogether and treated as a yard, and it’s too small to keep giraffes in.” But she does have imagination of a rather febrile kind “You see, if we could keep giraffes or reindeer or some other species of browsing animal there we could explain the general absence of vegetation by a reference to the fauna of the garden: ‘You can’t have wapiti and Darwin tulips, you know, so we didn’t put down any bulbs last year.’ ”
Then she reverts to the standard gardener’s complaints about cats in an almost endless and very breathless stream : “As it is, we haven’t got the wapiti, and the Darwin tulips haven’t survived the fact that most of the cats of the neighbourhood hold a parliament in the centre of the tulip bed; that rather forlorn looking strip that we intended to be a border of alternating geranium and spiraea has been utilised by the cat-parliament as a division lobby. Snap divisions seem to have been rather frequent of late, far more frequent than the geranium blooms are likely to be. I shouldn’t object so much to ordinary cats, but I do complain of having a congress of vegetarian cats in my garden.”
And if you were bemused by the idea of cats being vegetarian – especially knowing the horrible damage wreaked by my own on the wildlife in my garden – she explains: “they must be vegetarians, my dear, because, whatever ravages they may commit among the sweet pea seedlings, they never seem to touch the sparrows; there are always just as many adult sparrows in the garden on Saturday as there were on Monday, not to mention newly-fledged additions.”
But why for a non-gardener, and seemingly one not even slightly interested is she going on about it – and telling us that “the one consoling point about our garden is that it’s not visible from the drawing-room or the smoking-room,so unless people are dining or lunching with us they can’t spy out the nakedness of the land.”
It’s because of what other people will think when they do dine or lunch with them: “That is why I am so furious with Gwenda Pottingdon, who has practically forced herself on me for lunch on Wednesday next; she heard me offer the Paulcote girl lunch if she was up shopping on that day, and, of course, she asked if she might come too.”
Gwenda clearly has some knowledge of gardens and “is only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden. I’m sick of being told that it’s the envy of the neighbourhood; it’s like everything else that belongs to her — her car, her dinner-parties, even her headaches, they are all superlative; no one else ever had anything like them…. she’s coming on purpose to stare at my few miserable pansies and the gaps in my sweet-pea border, and to give me a glowing, full-length description of the rare and sumptuous blooms in her rose-garden.”
The person to whom this diatribe is addressed is “The Baroness” who quickly provides the answer to the problem: “My dear Elinor …you would save yourself all this heart-burning and a lot of gardener’s bills, … simply by paying an annual subscription to the O.O.S.A.”
Rather like me, as I suspect you, Elinor has never heard of OOSA so the Baroness explains that it’s “The Occasional-Oasis Supply Association…[which] exists to meet cases exactly like yours, cases of backyards that are of no practical use for gardening purposes, but are required to blossom into decorative scenic backgrounds at stated intervals, when a luncheon or dinner-party is contemplated.”
Now while that might seem like a joke it actually isn’t. You could in the the late 18th and early 19thc hire a temporary garden, or indeed indoor display of plants. It suited society hostesseses who only lived part of the year in London and probably just rented a house for the season who wanted an impressive grand garden or floral backdrop to their parties or soirees. The Baroness explained : “Supposing, for instance, you have people coming to lunch at one-thirty; you just ring up the Association at about ten o’clock the same morning, and say ‘lunch garden’. That is all the trouble you have to take. By twelve forty-five your yard is carpeted with a strip of velvety turf, with a hedge of lilac or red may, or whatever happens to be in season, as a background, one or two cherry trees in blossom, and clumps of heavily-flowered rhododendrons filling in the odd corners; in the foreground you have a blaze of carnations or Shirley poppies, or tiger lilies in full bloom.”
The firm of contractors we know most about is James Cochran of Marylebone. Cochran was a nurseryman but in 1816 he took over an existing garden and plant contracting business and set up a retail florists shop. His staff would carry out routine maintenance work but, because of the short life expectancy of most plants in London’s heavily polluted air, the business also offered plants on an extended rental system, and even leasing by the day or night. For that they turned up, decorated the garden, or the house, with hundreds of plants to create an impressive display then “as soon as the lunch is over and your guests have departed the garden departs also, and all the cats in Christendom can sit in council in your yard without causing you a moment’s anxiety.”
Better still it was possible to be even more specific: “If you have a bishop or an antiquary or something of that sort coming to lunch you just mention the fact when you are ordering the garden, and you get an old-world pleasaunce, with clipped yew hedges and a sun-dial and hollyhocks, and perhaps a mulberry tree, and borders of sweet-williams and Canterbury bells, and an old-fashioned beehive or two tucked away in a corner.”
Not a bad service really but there was more: “Those are the ordinary lines of supply that the Oasis Association undertakes, but by paying a few guineas a year extra you are entitled to its emergency E.O.N. service.”
Again I was, like you, bemused. “It’s just a conventional signal” explained her ladyship “to indicate special cases like the incursion of Gwenda Pottingdon. It means you’ve got some one coming to lunch or dinner whose garden is alleged to be ‘the envy of the neighbourhood.'”
And don’t we all know people like that? What can possible happen to fool someone supposedly that sophisticated? It’s “something that sounds like a miracle out of the Arabian Nights. Your backyard becomes voluptuous with pomegranate and almond trees, lemon groves, and hedges of flowering cactus, dazzling banks of azaleas, marble-basined fountains, in which chestnut-and-white pondherons step daintily amid exotic water-lilies, while golden pheasants strut about on alabaster terraces.”
Such floristry as set design sounds impressive! Indeed said the Baroness “The whole effect rather suggests the idea that Providence and Norman Wilkinson [ a fashionable theatre designer of the time] have dropped mutual jealousies and collaborated to produce a background for an open-air Russian Ballet; in point of fact, it is merely the background to your luncheon party.”
But if that’s not enough you can do what everyone seeking to cut someone like Gwenda down to size would do: catch them out, but subtly. “If there is any kick left in Gwenda Pottingdon, or whoever your E.O.N. guest of the moment may be, just mention carelessly that your climbing putella is the only one in England, since the one at Chatsworth died last winter. There isn’t such a thing as a climbing putella, but Gwenda Pottingdon and her kind don’t usually know one flower from another without prompting.”
You can guess what happened: “Gwenda Pottingdon did not enjoy her lunch. It was a simple yet elegant meal, excellently cooked and daintily served, but the piquant sauce of her own conversation was notably lacking. She had prepared a long succession of eulogistic comments on the wonders of her town garden, with its unrivalled effects of horticultural magnificence, and, behold, her theme was shut in on every side by the luxuriant hedge of Siberian berberis that formed a glowing background to Elinor’s bewildering fragment of fairyland. The pomegranate and lemon trees, the terraced fountain, where golden carp slithered and wriggled amid the roots of gorgeous-hued irises, the banked masses of exotic blooms, the pagoda-like enclosure, where Japanese sand-badgers disported themselves, all these contributed to take away Gwenda’s appetite and moderate her desire to talk about gardening matters.”
Now Elinor played the trump card card: the climbing putella Gwenda retorted “I can’t say I admire the climbing putella,” she observed shortly, “and anyway it’s not the only one of its kind in England; I happen to know of one in Hampshire. How gardening is going out of fashion; I suppose people haven’t the time for it nowadays.”
The ploy worked!
“Altogether it was quite one of Elinor’s most successful luncheon parties.” That in itself would have been a moderately successful little tale, but there was one more twist to come which turned a moderately successful short story into a great one. Elinor thought she’d got away with it so “It was distinctly an unforeseen catastrophe that Gwenda should have burst in on the household four days later at lunch-time and made her way unbidden into the dining-room…. Hullo, what on earth has happened to your garden? It’s not there!”
Luckily Elinor was a quick thinker: “Suffragettes,” said Elinor promptly; “didn’t you hear about it? They broke in and made hay of the whole thing in about ten minutes. I was so heart-broken at the havoc that I had the whole place cleared out; I shall have it laid out again on rather more elaborate lines.”
And once she’d recovered from the shock, as she said to Baroness later “That,… is what I call having an emergency brain.”
For more on James Cochran and other contract gardeners look at Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The London Town Garden which has a detailed account of how they operated. The sad thing is there, as far as I can see, no images of any of these temporary gardens or even of a climbing putella.