The word ‘inspirational’ gets barrowed around the garden world with great enthusiasm. It is rarely clear what it means, and it is rarely clear what the book, article, garden, blog post, plant description, photograph or similar is intended to inspire people to do. It’s ordinarily just ‘inspirational’, full stop.
That has been a minor irritation to me for some time, but my mind went into overdrive on the issue when I was asked to judge the ‘Inspirational Book of the Year’ for the Garden Media Guild Awards.
I resorted to the dictionary. ‘Inspire’ according to the Millennium edition of the Collins English Dictionary means ( to abbreviate slightly) to ‘exert a stimulating or beneficial effect upon (a person), animate or invigorate.’ That this word recurs so frequently in the garden world suggests that the garden interested are seen as very dull people, needing kicking into life or otherwise improving.
I was then, along with my fellow judge, presented with two huge boxes, filled with twenty one extraordinarily diverse books with some relation to gardens or gardening. These ranged through an entire book dedicated to a particular plant, books full of recipes associated with a plant or garden theme, books of garden history, books on making presents, on Chelsea, books on Wild Plants and tame plants (bonsai), and books on gardens. The latter full of glossy photographs of varying quality or of quite a lot of botanical paintings of plants. The prose ranged from embarrassing to engaging, pedestrian to challenging.
The books arrived while I was away on holiday, leaving me a book a day to get through on my return. It happened that the first book I read was excellent and a most enjoyable read. But after that it did tend to become rather a bumpy ride.
The garden world really is that diverse and it is a problem that confronts me quite often in my encounters with gardens and gardeners. For example, I am drawn to the larger picture and am not entranced by the stigma and styles of a flower. I don’t grow vegetables. I find most garden techniques irrelevant or outmoded. I am deeply suspicious of garden photographs as I have seen many gardens with as little relationship to the pictures of them as a bee to an ostrich. I am married to a garden photographer and know at first-hand how hard it is to persuade him to take a picture simply illustrative of an aspect of a garden as opposed to a beautiful (inspiring?) image. On this occasion I had to rise above all my limitations and normal preoccupations.
So these books took me into strange new worlds. I learnt about bonsai and became quite fascinated by this precise practice. I read about gardening in the last war. I learnt about garden catalogues in America in the nineteenth century. That sounds arcane, but it took me nostalgically back to my earliest gardening days when I was bemused by my encounters with Burpees catalogues in Katherine S White’s book of articles from The New Yorker, ‘Onward and Upward in the Garden.’
I learnt about bee keeping. I read endless garden descriptions, religiously, but with effort as I am not good at imagining a garden from descriptions like ‘The luxuriant borders are planted to provide interest…. The woodland garden is full of interest…’ and transforming it into my own interest.
The overall selection was uneven and so were the books themselves, with the quality perhaps let down by pictures which failed to illustrate critical points made in the text, or by pictures which were much more beguiling than the text. Or conversely, pictures arranged in such a manner as to confuse and irritate. I worked very hard at it. I wondered why people prefer books about England so much that Wales and Scotland vanish, only sometimes to sneak back in surreptitiously. There were recipes to try, but my judging colleague bottled out of the challenge to try a recipe for dead squirrel. (I know – better than a live squirrel. Foraging gone mad?)
How can such vast, various worlds fairly get compared with each other? It was as absurd as perhaps the garden world itself is and it made me wonder, not for the first time, what some of these garden books are for and who for? How well will a beautiful book devoted to the Ginkgo sell? Perhaps to someone interested in bonsai’ing one? But such specialist books may be easier to understand than books which roam somewhat erratically between picture porn, garden praise or complacency and remorseless description. Is it useful, educative or inspiring (ahem) to read about other people’s gardens, illustrated and described in such a way as to be impossible to aspire to?
Did I get inspired? There were times when my imagination took off and I suddenly became rich in ideas and possibilities. But that kind of inspiration ruled out most of the books and certainly did not apply to beekeeping, even though I could imagine deciding on the basis of reading about beekeeping that I would love to do it. Most of the books seemed to be mostly about motivating people to do something, whatever thing it might be. (bees, bonsai, eating, painting..) Or they offered an opportunity to idle over gorgeous pictures. Or to (rarer) have a good read.
These were questions, with others, that my colleague and I came back to and went round and round. It really was a rather silly decision to have to make, given the enormous disparities. We fretted over it for days. I’m sure we made the correct choice but we were also pulled in quite a different direction. We agreed with each other in our difficulties and that didn’t help.
The one that nearly made it? ‘The Healing Hut’ – a novel which achieved the previously impossible – it makes gardeners sound real. A good though not great read. Inspirational? Might make some people think they’d like an allotment.
And the word ‘inspiration’? I think we could do with that being exiled, along with ‘lovely,’ for a long sabbatical. What to replace it with here? Well, judging by what we were offered, perhaps it should be ‘The Garden Media Guild Leftovers.’