Colin Ward

Wander into any bookshop in any high street and you will find an endless stream of books on two topics: cooking and gardening. Even though everyone cooks and though gardening is this country's most popular outdoor pastime, it is evident that many of these books are read not for instruction on food preparation or cultivation instructions but for sheer pleasure. Now if anyone deserved the epithet 'armchair gardener' it is me. I am the world's worst, or most erratic gardener (though fortunately all my neighbours are very good practical ones). But I am fascinated by the social history and sociology of gardening, and I notice that all through the history of garden literature the modest instruction manuals are full of political assumptions.

Candide, the hero of Voltaire's nice little book of that name, was unable to agree with his instructor Dr. Pangloss that we live in the best of all possible worlds, but concluded that, whatever else happens, we must go and work in the garden. His famous remark is often taken to imply a withdrawal from political issues, and half a century ago George Orwell reported that when he chanced in his column in Tribune to mention his pleasure from the sixpenny rambler roses he bought at Woolworth's, he got an indignant letter from a reader who said that roses are bourgeois. He found that other readers, too, assumed that "any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism".

Gardening writers tend not to be supporters of the political left. One exception was the celebrated Dr. Harry Roberts, famous as a 'penny doctor' in the East End of London early in this century, who wrote a long series of gardening books, and in his Keep Fit in Wartime of 1940 argued that '"we must apply the old communist formula: to each according to his need, from each according to his ability".

Another was Edward Hyams, a pioneer vine-grower in England known to anarchists for his excellent, but posthumous, biography of Proudhon (Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: His Revolutionary Mind and Works, John Murray, 1979). His long series of garden books included A History of Gardens and Gardening (Dent, 1971) and English Cottage Gardens (Nelson, 1970; Penguin, 1987) in which he described how between 1760 and 1867 the English ruling class stole seven million acres of common land, the property and livelihood of the common people of England", which he called a "gigantic crime, by far the grandest larceny in England's history".

Since Hyams died (in Besancon in 1975) there has been a gap in left-wing garden literature, but it has been filled by a writer and gardener called Martin Hoyles who has produced a series of gardening histories which are pricey but desirable (this is why your local public library exists). The first was The Story of Gardening (Journeyman Press paperback, 1991, L12.95) where, in his very first sentences, he takes up Orwell's point:

"It comes as a shock to put the words politics and gardening together. Usually they are seen as two completely separate spheres. What can gardening have to do with politics? Gardening is surely an escape from politics and the garden is a refuge from harsh political realities."

He only cites this conventional wisdom in order to refute it, and his comprehensive history supports the view that access to land is an intensely political issue. When I first read this book I noted that Hoyles has an index entry on "Politics, incompatible with gardening', and there's an obvious sense in which this is true. There is seldom time for both.

For example, when I talked to the hard-working secretary of the Birmingham Allotments Council, which federates more than 100 local societies, he ruefully explained that he had been obliged to give up his own plot, as negotiating with the city council's politicians and officers exhausted all his spare time. And it reflects my own garden neglect. With David Crouch, who is a better gardener than me, I wrote The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture (Faber, 1988; Mushroom, 1994, but out of print again) and travelled the country talking to gardeners, while my own garden was taken over by thistles and nettles.

Martin Hoyles, on the other hand, has pursued his investigation of the history of garden literature in a pair of books. He has. written a two-volume book on gardening books from 1560 to 1960. The first was Gardeners Delight (Pluto, 1994, L22.95), quickly followed by a second, just out, which is Bread and Roses (Pluto, 1995, L22.95). Both will be paperbacks sooner or later.

Having explored in his earlier book the social history of plant cultivation against the background of exploration, empire building and the horrors of the enclosure, he moves on to exploring the variety of pastoral idylls that motivate garden makers. In the first of these books he classified over two thousand works, from sixteenth century herbals to admonitory wartime manuals for vegetable production. He gave special attention to the division of labour between master and man, mistress and serving-maid, with particular attention to efforts to ensure that children became gardeners, whether in family or school.

In the latest book, Bread and Roses, he examines a further series of themes in relation to the literature of gardening, from the disputes between royalists and their opponents in the seventeenth century onwards. He is, for example, careful to show how the English landscape garden of the eighteenth century, constructed to the designs of Capability Brown and repeated all through the period when the plutocracy was scattering off-the-peg country houses around Britain, was at the expense of the displaced poor. And he cites the opinion of another garden pundit of the time, Uvedale Price, whose motives were not of "libertarian outrage at the injustice that attended enclosure and the creation of extensive gardens", but were both aesthetic and political:

"In Capability Brown's designs Price sees 'something despotic in the general system of improvement - all must be laid open - all that obstructs levelled to the ground - houses, orchards, gardens, all swept away'. He condemns such tyranny, which 'for the sake of mere extent and parade of property, only extends the bounds of monotony, and of dreary selfish pride; but contracts those of variety, amusement and humanity'."

Hoyles pursues this egalitarian approach through the subsequent history of gardening in England, observing how the tradition was dependent upon an army of cheap labour, and watching the consequent shift from "bedding-out" plants to herbaceous borders, as well as the twentieth century impact of the two world wars and the changing place of women in gardening. And he concludes by observing how "English gardening literature reflects the ethnocentrism of English culture in general".

Now this kind of study of the literature of gardening might have been seen as purely academic, but for the fact that scattered around Britain today there are people making token occupations of land and citing the printed opinions of the Digger, Gerard Winstanley, and the invasion of common land at St George's Hill in Surrey in April 1949, when the Council of State was informed by a local landowner that people were sowing the ground with parsnips, carrots and beans, with the intention of restoring "the ancient community enjoying the fruits of the earth".

Suddenly access to land has been put back on the political agenda, except among the politicians of right or left, except for the threat from the Criminal Justice Act. See, for example, John Rety's report in Freedom of 13th May 1995, 'Land is the big issue', which was echoed by sympathetic reports in the press from the Guardian on the left to the Daily Telegraph on the right.

It might even be that, just as farmers are claiming a subsidy for their 'set-aside' land, given on condition that they grow nothing, the claims of the landless for freedom to grow could be pushed back into the list of issues that actually involve people. Then the immense literature of gardening might actually become important.

Colin Ward