Sunday, 7 July 2013

A Life in Letters - Dear Friend & Gardener

Dear Friend & Gardener: Letters on Life and Gardening by Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd

This is the first post for my Sundays in summer theme: A Life in Letters.

Dear Friend & Gardener is slightly unusual for a letter collection between two correspondents as it was published, in 1998, whilst both writers were still alive (Christopher Lloyd died in 2006). As both Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto are very popular garden writers, I suppose the publisher thought that a series of letters written by the two friends, over the space of two years (1996 and 1997), about gardening and their wider lives would sell well.

The letters didn't feel particularly contrived when I read them, and as Christopher Dixter writes in his last letter of the series,
"The main difference, from a totally private letter, is the extra explanatory matter that is necessary, as, in this letter, 'the autumn-flowering Crocus speciosus'. Obviously, 'autumn-flowering' would be omitted in a wholly private letter, as we both know this perfectly well. Apart from that, perhaps the odd indiscretion had to be foregone, but nothing much."
Perhaps, "the odd indiscretion" would have made the collection more thrilling to read, but I was happy enough with Chatto and Lloyd's discussions on plants, planting trends, fellow horticulturalists and horticultural students, the vagaries of the English weather, reminiscences of previous lecture tours they had taken together,  health problems, Glyndebourne and opera, family and friends and from Christopher Lloyd lots of news about Fergus (Fergus Garrett is now head-gardener at Great Dixter).

In addition to singing Fergus' praises in nearly every letter, Christopher Dixter also mentions his dogs a lot. Canna, in particular, gets plenty of mention in his letters, probably because at the beginning of the collection she is only about 6 months old and is not fully trained (or, perhaps she is, and she is just naughty). Some of his comments on Canna's behaviour were really quite disgusting: "Canna greeted me effusively, when I called the dogs, early this morning. That is ominous. She usually lies in bed. Sure enough, she had left me a 'present'. After I had rubbed her nose in it, she knew that that was over, and was effusively affectionate." He is obviously very attached to his "girls" as he calls them, and his letters see him relaxing on a sofa with the dogs alongside his right leg and sitting in the garden with his dogs at his side.

If you like gardening then this letter collection is definitely for you. However, if you have a passing interest in gardening but like to read about genteel days gone by then this collection would also appeal to you. There was something quite touching about these letters written by two (sometimes quite opinionated) experts in their field who were facing the challenge of dealing with the constrictions of aging bodies, if not, minds.

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