Many of you will remember I’m sure the best-selling comic history book 1066 And All That by Sellar and Yeatman, published first in 1930 but reprinted almost endlessly ever since. What you might not know is that they followed it up with several others, including, in 1936, a guide to gardening.
They did so because they said their earlier success” amply qualified them to compile the History of British Agriculture (post-Saxon) which they left out of that book. They cover the whole subject of Gardening (including Golf, but omitting chestnuts), Country Life and Scouting. … Everyone who loves (or hates) a garden will wallow in the rich loam of their wisdom.”
As you can probably tell even from that brief extract from the intro Garden Rubbish and other Country Bumps is very much a piece of its time. Its humour is often dated and laboured but parts of it can still raise a smile and as a recent critic noted when it “hits its stride, it nails the British infatuation with competitive gardening with great gusto.
Apologies for the brown tinge to all the images. My copy was printed in 1977 on cheap paper which has discoloured badly – and the digitised version has similar problems.
WC Sellar [never Walter Carruthers] and RJ Yeatman [never Robert Julian] met at Oxford and struck up a lifelong friendship, and much shorter working partnership which began with contributions to Punch in the 1920s and ended with the outbreak of war. The first part of 1066 and All That first appeared Punch in 1930. They then worked on a sequel, And Now All This, a parody of all sorts of general knowledge including Woology [knitting], Psycho-babycraft and Archipelagoes, which is now unsurprisingly largely forgotten. A follow-up Horse Nonsense which came out in 1933 has also largely disappeared without trace. Finally in 1936 came Garden Rubbish which was largely Sellar’s work with illustrations by Stephen Dowling “Licentiate of the Royal Raspberry Society.”
It opens with a look at gardening experts because “having decided to write this rather deciduous little book, we thought it might be rather a horticultural idea to graft on it some forwards by certain exceptionally green-fingered friends of ours.”
In those days programmes about gardening had only been on the radio for a few years with talks by Marion Cran, Vita Sackville-West and of course Mr Middleton, who had also only just started the first TV programme. But such luminaries were not the target of Sellar and Yeatman’s wit. Instead they aimed mainly at the more pretentious garden writers of the day and at the supposed ignorance of “professional” gardeners. They invented 5 of them and then wrote a few words of introduction to the book from each in turn. They are all lampooned vigorously. I’m sure you’ve read reviews of books where you think the reviewer can’t actually have done more than read the dust jacket or the publishers PR handout. Judging by the characters imagined by Sellar and Yeatman so had they.
First up was Dean Nuisance, verbose clergyman and author of a long list of gardening texts with titles like Tomorrow in My Flowerpot, The Golden Hoe and The Marauding Grub. He claimed to have “all too scanty leisure to peruse” the book before adding “who doubts that another volume added to the rich harvest of the quill which Our English Gardens have inspired should be reckoned all for joy ? … For in Gardening, as indeed in Life Itself, there is haply no Royal Road to Perfectness; yet in the dark and chillsome eventides when golden hoe and & pruning-hook recline in idleness enforced, can we not find in Books such Wisdom as, when cuckoo and when willow-wren return, will recompense a hundred-fold (and more) our studious squanderings of midnight oil ?” You get the drift. The Dean was indeed gushingly over the top.
He was followed by Mr Knatchbull Twee who is almost certainly a parody of Beverley Nicholls. Author of What the Poppy Told the Primula and My Tiny Acre, Mr Twee was ” sure your book is a lovely book, because all garden books are definitely delicious. Of course I haven’t read it, but if one is a real Garden-Lover it isn’t really necessary to definitely read garden books—just fondling the covers is thrilling.” And I’m sure we all know that feeling.
Incidentally there’s a lecture about Beverley Nichols coming up in our on-line programme. Click here for details.
The two “professional gardeners were the almost unintelligible Angus MacFungus, a caricature based on centuries of stereotypes of Scots gardeners, and his assistant Broccoli Bill who was illiterate but commented “Moy vayvourit viowers is turmuts”. That last was very reminiscent of Bill Sowerbutts on Gardeners Question Time whose favourite flower was, he said, the cauliflower. Real Life imitating Art.
The final comments came from Captain Pontoon, author of My Garden is a Loathsome Thing and other works intended for the garden hater, who claimed that since garden writers go on in a way that simply wouldn’t be allowed if they were writing about anything else” he “had little hope that theirs would prove different
The book is extremely patchy, with the first chapter very off-putting, but when it hits its stride, it is particularly effective at shooting down the pretensions of many so-called gardeners who merely wish to outdo their neighbours.I won’t go through all the chapters – some are full of obscure comments that must have resonated at the time but now fall completely flat – but just pick out some “highlights
“Take it from us, it is utterly forbidden to be half hearted about gardening. You have got to LOVE your garden, whether you like it or not. If you don’t this for a moment, how do you account for the fact that all the gardening encyclopaedias, diaries, manuals, articles, magazines and even (alas) the seedsmen catalogues are unanimously addressed to GARDEN LOVERS ? There is simply no literature, no help, and evidently no hope for people who merely like having a garden, don’t mind if they do, or, fatalistically, just have a garden”
“We propose to take you right through all the essential parts of gardening, sparing you nothing, not even succulents. And if at any point your love falters; if, for instance you failed to adore all Mr Knatchbull Twee’s lovely Thoughts or takes sides with Captain Pontoon against Dean Nuisance you will know (alas) that you are unworthy of The Garden Beautiful, a weed upon the face fair of the Earth, a human plantain, and had better stay indoors and hide your head in a seedsman’s catalogue forever…. On the other hand if you come through with a riot of flying colours you will know that you are a certified snobgoblinatious gardener in fact The Real Thing.”
And they start with “Planning the Modest Plot”
“In order to make a clean start (you’ll get dirty enough before you’re through) let us imagine that at present your modest plot is not a garden at all, only a flattish place of the usual oblong shape, on which in theory it will be possible to grow things some day.”
“What next? Well, all the best garden books and even some real gardens begin with a plan. So take a modest piece of foolscap [Hieratica Basildonii] and plot out a modest list of all the things you will require in your garden.”
Of course it is not a modest list at all.
“You will certainly require herbaceous border, a lawn, a box-hedge, a rosery, a gravel path and a rockery.” But that’s not all and this list goes on to cover the rest of the page and the whole of the next one because” it is usual nowadays to have a crazy pavement, a sundial, some terracotta dwarfs and a Flagstaff, or at least a pole for the wireless.” And then of course ” your wife will demand a kitchen and garden, an orchard, a garden seat, a sandpit for the children and a lovely goldfish pool with waterlilies.” and so on and so on including amongst many many other things, a pagoda, a pleasaunce, an Unpleasaunce, monkey-puzzle, vinery, tool-shed, a lotus-grove, a statue of Peter Pan and a Primrose Path.
This leads them to quote from Gertrude Jekyll: In garden arrangement one has not only to acquire a knowledge of what to do, but to gain some wisdom in perceiving what it is well to let alone.”
So now, inevitably, the would-be gardener is told how to prune the plan. Amongst the suggestions, which reveal Sellar’s schoolboy-like humour – were to “plant monkey-puzzle in bathing-pool. Place garden-seat under monkey-puzzle. Consolidate bathing-pool in centre of croquet-pitch (new game water-croquet) Well pruned!” Next “Store sundial in the pagoda. NB before doing this, tear off dial, cement on own head, thus enabling self to bow to neighbour and ask for the right time with some hope of getting right answer. Think carefully about pagoda. Visualise pagoda. Gradually regret pagoda. For pagoda read pergola.”
At the end the practical gardener will be left with something like this…
After a detailed analysis of garden soil they discuss manure (“dressing” for those of a delicate disposition) and then some favourite pests. These include “Weevils. Ignore them—remember the old warning ‘“‘ Hear no weevil, see no weevil, speak no weevil ”” and cut them dead.” Greenfly on the other hand are “a splendid subject snappy thumb-and-finger work, enabling you acquire green-fingers in a few seconds without all the bother of having to inherit them.”
The question Sellar then asks is “why exactly are you doing all this? Because purposeless gardening will get you nowhere except into a state of all over unpleasaunce” He then goes on to propose that the gardener should take up one of the four Recognisable Frenzies. The first of which is almost the epitome of my view of a 1930s garden: Rock Gardening.
“On the face of it, a rockery appears to be an attempt to pile up rocks and then hide them with invisible plants or to pile up invisible plants and then hide them with rocks. The true purpose of rock gardening, however, is to triumph over nature as well as the neighbours by first making gardening as difficult as possible and then succeeding in growing minute flowers… Tiny saxifrages, teeny febrifuge’s and weenie weenie sweet sarcophaguses…in the face of all difficulties or even on the face of all the rocks…”
“In this way the gardener can delude himself into thinking he is in Switzerland, in which case providing he never go to Switzerland he will be able to keep up the illusion.” But Sellar warns whatever you do “don’t get carried away: don’t order a whole mountain over from the Engadine complete with chamois, avalanches, glaciers and pine forests careering up and down it. Even the textbooks say be economical at first in the use of stone. We agree: no use overdoing it see the figure below”
The next fashionable frenzy that Sellar mentions is Parade Gardening where ” a sort of horticultural tattoo with scarlet tulips marching and countermarching ‘twixt the serried ranks of wallflower.” This he warns “is apt to get out of control resulting in what is (alas) only too well known as a riot of colour.” It was followed by a look at the English passion for lawns… “Greenswardmanship”.
and finally Crazy Gardening “the purpose of which is to triumph over such irritating things as common sense, common decency, and those common people next door…” It included an obsession with crazy paving, garden gnomes and even Collecting Mania especially of cacti and succulents.
The authors did not neglect other important aspects of practical gardening such as digging, sowing, planting hoeing and watering, each accompanied by a few well-chosen words and a sketch.
But you should remember “there are about A Thousand and One Lovable Doings and Don’tings for Garden Zealots which we hadn’t the heart or the time to mention.” So what is the reader to do since they can’t possibly have time to do everything?
It turns out there are only two kinds of garden that give you ” time to love your garden and turn up at the office (with or without your green fingers) frequently enough to hold down your job and keep off the dole”. They are “Dumb Gardening and Wildflower Gardening.”
“Dumb Gardening is when you keep your nose glued to the grindstone until you’ve got a cool unctuous £5,000 a year and can delegate the whole snobgoblinatious garden nuisance to a know-all Head Gardner (not Angus MacFungus) and his seven earth-bound assistants, while you sit about and don’t do anything but just keep on loving in the same old way and explaining at the office that everything is lovely in the garden and that you’ve always been a keen Gardner yourself.”
Like Mr X!
Wildflower Gardening is simpler still, because all you have to do to be a Wildflower Gardener is to amble out every weekend with a stick and a dog and a note with approval or in a bad season with contempt, the rather ramshackle results of Dame Nature’s endeavour to do a bit of gardening on her own without reference to the Impossible Gardening Manuals.”
The book finishes with short chapters on bee-keeping, and chickens and a slightly off-subject section on “Campers, Trampers and Empire-Savers”. It begins with the news that “a short while ago newspaper readers awake to a new scare, a new terror of the countryside in the word – leather jackets. What were they? Insects? Fungi? Fascists? No one seems to know, but everyone agreed that they were multiplying rapidly becoming a pest, almost a plague…” It turns out they were cyclists [don’t ask! go read]. The book finishes with a section on Boy Scouts. All rather weird.
If you know 1066 and All That and are expecting something equally clever but dated I suspect you’ll be disappointed, as I was on my first encounter. It reads like a series if overlong and contrived articles for Punch in its dying days, but there are still some wonderful moments especially on planning and pruning your garden which are problems many of us have. I suspect they were simply trying too hard to be funny – and although of course much has changed or been lost in the 90 years since it was first published, and the nearly 50 years since it was last in print – unfortunately the trying shows. But flick through it on archive.org and see if you agree with me.
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