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The vote for social justice in Chelsea

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 30 May 2022, 11:58

Last week I asked colleagues to consider voting for the Hands Off Mangrove garden at the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show. There was a great response, people were enthusiastic about the opportunity to show our support for both racial justice and re-forestation. 

Probably none of us are surprised that the garden didn't win - and wasn't even in the top three. There is a long way to go before racial justice is a popular cause - particularly in places like the RHS Chelsea show. However, it was great to be able to discuss social issues in this elite context. 

A lush green garden, set out in formal lines, with white and plum colour planting.I did laugh when I saw that the garden which won was the one that I admitted was my personal favourite - which I had set aside in the voting in order to support my political convictions. However this choice by so many other people made me think. 

The Perennial Garden: 'With Love', had won a silver medal, to the disappointment of its designer. Loose, wilder planting (including a beaver dam landscape) had been more highly favoured by the judges. Hands Off Mangrove, which will be relocated in inner city London, is about reclamation of an urban site with a loose informal mixture of flowers and edible plants and won a silver-gilt medal. 

However, the Victorian formality and the romance of The Perennial Garden: 'With Love', was a big favourite among the visitors. Two couples even got permission to go into the garden and propose marriage under the Tennyson quote on the neon sign: If I had a flower for every time I thought of you. Unlike many of the large loosely planted garden sites, those of us with ordinary gardens to plan could see how we might take a section of the garden and replicate it, in even a small space. I myself liked the garden because it helped me realise that loose planting (which I generally favour), needs formal structure to support and contain it, otherwise it becomes messy, and that tall spires of white flowers will add depth and perspective to a flower bed. 

Wildflower meadow with pink dog rose, scarlet pimpernel, buttercups and ox eye daisies growing loosely.I have put aside a square of garden for loose wildflower planting, but in the rest of my garden I use arches and a trellised arbour seat to give a sense of structure.  


Richard Miers is not really looking back in a pastiche nostalgia. His garden has modern art installations as well as the formally clipped Victorian look. However I suspect that it was chosen by people who are looking backwards, in a time of great uncertainty about the future. The uncertainty we face is made even more difficult under a government which has been severely criticised for the way it manages the economy. Families on low incomes are under intense pressure, while ever more money appears to have flowed into the pockets of those already in the top 1% earners in the population. Policies which feed people's fears about Black, Asian and minority ethnic refugees and asylum-seekers, and by extension - UK citizens too, are used as a distraction from this poor record. 

(This is why it is significant that Hands Off Mangrove was built at RHS Chelsea, showcasing the work of two Black gardeners. We had the chance to both think about issues of social and environmental justice, and to realise that Black - and Asian and other minority ethnic, people are not that exotic; we might be gardeners as well as political activists.) 

Paul Gilroy has written about the phenomenon he calls 'postcolonial melancholia', originally in his After Empire and now in a book called Postcolonial Melancholia. This is an idea which adapts Freud's 'melancholia' - the state in which people fall when they are unable to let go of someone who has died, and properly mourn. Freud's argument is that people behave strangely in order to avoid acknowledging that death. 

At a social level, Gilroy argues that many are in denial about the loss of empire and consequent descent of Britain from Greatness into ordinariness. This is evidenced in strange behaviour like chanting: "Two world wars, and one world cup," which English football fans would shout at German fans, or Brexit, or the constant cultural impression created by anti-immigration legislation that Britain is under threat from immigration, when in fact we depend on immigrant workers to keep vital services like the NHS going. (My students on DD102: Introducing the Social Sciences, are about to write an essay in which they could use evidence from the module about this.) Why would we want to shut hard-working people out of our country, instead of welcoming in help for our failing economy?  

Historically, white working-class cultures and people get pitted against Black, Asian and minority ethnic cultures and people. Upper classes do not have to introduce economic management which redistributes to those on low incomes if they can identify a common enemy whom they encourage people to blame for problems like high unemployment. Tapping into nostalgia for an era when Britain was Great (conveniently forgetting that it wasn't particularly great for those in e.g. Manchester slums - again see DD102 material showing one of Engels's sketches of how factory workers' houses were laid out, without any gardens) takes people's attention away from the worrying problem of spiraling energy costs and food prices. 

Are the Emperor's clothes starting to look skimpy even to those with postcolonial melancholic longings? While much of the population are still reliant on newspapers owned by the elite, which unsurprisingly continue to claim that it's the elite who are best placed to manage our economy, I am not confident we can soon move to a vote for social and environmental justice - in elections where this would not just be a symbolic vote. However, with a garden like Hands Off Mangrove built and shown on prime time television, so we can discuss its message openly, maybe we are slowly getting there. 

What would I like to see in the future? Well, maybe a garden by someone like Cleve West that is formal and that showcases how much we have gained from the rest of the world: roses, lupins, peonies - all classic Victorian/Edwardian flowers featured in The Perennial Garden, and all immigrants from elsewhere in the world. Or a cottage garden that is not full of flowers and nostalgia: that shows clearly how 'cottage gardens' were for people who had to use whatever space they could find to grow food and medicinal herbs after they had finished a hard day's work. Maybe a garden that is a solitary auricula in a pot, like weavers used to keep because that was all the garden they could afford.   

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light skinned mixed heritage woman writing letters.

Voting for social justice in the garden

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 30 May 2022, 09:22

As a keen gardener, I've always been aware of the Royal Horticultural Society's glamorous Chelsea Flower Show: the pinnacle of gardening aspiration. Although I did go once, a long time ago, I think I prefer watching it on tv. It was crowded even then; it's easier to see the gardens from the viewpoint of cameras actually inside them. 

Part of the BBC coverage involves a 'people's choice' for best garden, [voting now over!]. My actual favourite garden is The Perennial Garden 'With Love'. However I am going to vote for the Hands Off Mangrove by Grow2Know garden. This isn't in a knee-jerk way, to support the Black garden. This garden represents the future I would like generations to come to grow up in. I'm writing this blogpost to encourage you too to vote for Hands Off Mangrove. Even if you don't care about gardens - click on the link and vote for the future. 

Garden with long narrow pool and white and purple flowers.The Perennial Garden 'With Love' by Richard Miers (@richardmiers on Instagram) is a return to formal garden design, with playful touches. Its model is the arty witty Laskett Gardens, now the home of the charity Perennial which supports horticultural workers. 

In recent years, Chelsea show gardens, gardening tv shows and garden centre sales have been dominated by loose informal planting and the drive to encourage wildlife through letting it all hang out (dried seedheads and weeds, that is 😳). I was delighted this year to find wildflower plant plugs on offer in my local garden centre, since I know it's illegal to dig up wild plants out in the hedgerows and stick them in the rewilding bit of your garden. (And when a seedhead has happened to fall into my pocket, it has been incredibly difficult to get it to germinate! compared to putting a plant plug in and allowing it to self-seed.) 

In previous years, Chelsea show gardens were architectural and formal, with clipped trees and clean rectangular stone-edged pools - usually sponsored by some big Bank. Gradually the wet and the wildness, the weeds and the wilderness - as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in Inversnaid, have crept and spread through these spaces enjoyed by the rich and famous. 

The last couple of years have seen a more rapid social shift at RHS Chelsea, with Banks receding into the background and social causes coming to the fore. Mental health and wellbeing were early harbingers of a new focus on gardens as social phenomena, this message going mainstream during the pandemic, when an estimated 3 million in the UK took up gardening. (Only garden centres were open, one newbie gardener featured on Gardeners World reflected, so I had to go there to shop.) 

Garden with metal structure rising out its centre: 9 iron bars shaped like mangrove tree roots.This year, the Hands Off Mangrove garden (designed by Tayshan Hayden-Smith, @ths62 on Instagram, and Danny Clarke, @theblackgardener on Instagram) brings racial justice sharply to the forefront, in a showcase event which has been a traditional preserve for those at the highest levels of society. Even the Queen comes every year to RHS Chelsea. I would like to be able to say, this shows that society is shifting towards a time when we might not see a Black schoolgirl strip-searched by police, or a Black schoolboy losing a finger trying to escape from bullies. However, I know it seems like a sticking plaster on a festering sore - virtue signalling by a wealthy white elite who control RHS Chelsea, Banks and much of our lives. 

NB - the Hands Off Mangrove garden is about global deforestation as well as social injustice. The garden designer Cleve West (winner of many Chelsea medals), has commented that blue tits were seen flying around its hedges - they were picking caterpillars off for their chicks. Chelsea gardens are normally manicured to perfection, with the bugs and crawlies we are supposed to encourage for wildlife cleaned off to show the judges a pristine garden. Cleve West urged them to see this real life wildlife in the Hands Off Mangrove bushes as a plus, not deduct marks for it. 

(Pictured here, my vegetable patch, or 'potager' - ornamental edible flowers and vegetables grown in a decorative way. Tall plants and metal obelisks give the garden structure.)  

Vegetable garden with edible flowers and decorative iron frames for climbing plants.Personally I did like seeing a return to the formal design represented in The Perennial Garden 'With Love', its explicit reference to Victoriana and the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I grew up visiting gardens with my mum, and inherited her books about Italianate gardens where roses gracefully soften the lines of stone ruins. Like many immigrants, mum carefully studied and reproduced English style in her life, particularly in creating her elegant garden. I favour a loose informal planting style myself, however seeing Richard Miers' garden made me realise how I prevent this becoming just a plant-y mess by using a framework of formal structures. 

The Banks and businesses may have retreated into the shadows at RHS Chelsea, but they have seen huge profits during the pandemic. Their discretion is about self-protection more than respect for those who have suffered and struggled. In the wake of Partygate and revelations about the non-domiciled tax status of government Ministers, nobody wants to have the spotlight turned to their greed and selfishness - causing us to realise how much privilege and power they enjoy, and what that costs ordinary people. 

Showcasing a garden that highlights and celebrates the fight for racial justice fifty years on is a small concession, maybe it is just intended to be virtue signalling. However it moves that struggle into the mainstream. To use my favourite figure: Bourdieu's sketch of doxa, it enables the struggle for racial justice to come out of the 'universe of the undiscussed' and allows it to be heterodoxy. Our thinking about racial justice can then engage in argument with the 'normality' of orthodoxy, on more equal terms. (More equal - not 'equal' yet.) 

(Illustration of the 'field of opinion and doxa', Bourdieu 1972/1977, p. 168, downloaded from Researchgate.)

Illustration of Bourdieu's concept of doxa. 

I'm tempted to vote with nostalgic and whimsical pleasure for the Victorian gardening style I like. It's only a garden show! But with the eyes of the rich, the poor, global minority and majority audiences on primetime tv showcasing of gardening for fun and for food, I'm going to vote for the argument for racial justice and re-forestation to get a bit more time in the sun.  

Black cat walking under an archway in a garden.

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