Half a century ago my grandmother used to walk home from church with an aged retired Canon who had come to live in the village with his unmarried daughter. The Tomlinson pair lived “round the back”, in a characterless modern bungalow on a new development. The lean and egregious daughter made of their garden a bizarre work of kitsch art. People came on the sly from miles around to see Miss Tomlinson’s garden. She didn’t like you to stand and peer: you had to walk briskly past with a discreet but searching “eyes right”.
I always aim for a riot of colour in my own plot. Miss Tomlinson achieved this in spades by an obvious but unusual trick: every flower she planted was artificial. Plastic, wax, bakelite, plaster and nylon bloomed in tropical profusion, regardless of the weather and untroubled by blight. There was no regard for season or clime: cattleya orchids, daffodils, chrysanthemums and forsythia were all jammed in together. Roses, snapdragons, snowdrops and daisies were tied onto trees, the garage roof and entwined on the wire perimeter fence.
The Tomlinsons kept a magnificent – if perpetually furious – tabby tom. I never saw his name spelled out or written down. Phonetically, it sounded like Cinna or Sinner: either a nod to classical Rome – “Cinna the Poet”? – or a reminder of the fallen nature of us all and of the Beast in Man. Both versions seemed possible in this eccentric ecclesiastical menage. The sibilant cat was not allowed beyond the confines of his ersatz paradise. He was contained, raging, amid all this unnatural floral splendour, under a great trellis woven of sprays of pink rubber peach blossom with chrome yellow stamens. “Tiger! Tiger! burning bright”. Sinner – being in his full and unashamed state of nature, and not “arranged” – added to the strange smells of this garden of very earthly delights. The feral ammonia reek of cat blended on summer days with the olfactory blare of hot plastic; and with that hard, stinging chemical redolence of man-made fibres baked by the sun; a smell that is so unnervingly akin to sweat and human skin. Tarmac, tile, brick and concrete – all the scents of the brave new housing estate – thrummed in the August air, threaded through with the fake sugary haze exuded by the Messrs Softee and Whippy. Those suffocating mobile smells of low-grade vanilla, petrol, gas fridges and heavy syrup were as cloying as the saccharine van chimes. Fluorescent orange and shocking pink fruit – garnish for the Sunday sundaes – swilled around in white plastic pails like fairground goldfish spawned of sugar and Kia-Ora.
Do you remember the garden of talking flowers in “Through The Looking Glass”? Lewis Carroll – almost inconceivably for such an erudite man – had assumed that passion flowers were so named from their connection with an evil temper. When he discovered that they are in fact an ingenious Jesuit metaphor of the Passion of Christ, Carroll was appalled at himself and substituted ferocious tiger lilies for the purposes of his tale. I think today most of us are even vaguer about plants and horticulture: we don’t have the time. Botany – with its walks and pressing and curating – is a subject that has long dropped off school curriculae. A pity. For most of us the science of flowers is a reductio ad absurdam. Either they have an agreeable smell – or they don’t. Period. I remember Marshall & Snelgrove in the 1960’s selling a whole flower market of pre-perfumed silk and velvet blooms to adorn one’s tenue de soiree. Individually packaged in exciting cellophane and mounted on tiny gilt pins, they must have been rather old-fashioned even then. Nontheless they seemed infinitely desirable even if the camellias, the poppies and gardenias all smelled alike: a kind of Essence of Superior Soap.
Nowadays I find artificial flowers – despite their having never been more lifelike – almost unbearably triste. At least, that is, artificial flowers made of fabric. I grant you that Queen Alexandra’s jewelled garden of Faberge flowers – with diamond tremblant dew drops all complete – has a genuine charm and beauty. But a vase of dust-gathering blue rayon carnations is a sorry sight. I think, you see, it harks back to that paradox we discussed the other week. Flowers – like perfume – are not intended to live forever. Trying to defy this ruling of Mother Nature can only lead to dreariness and disillusion unless, in the process of copying, another work of art is generated.
Mind you, real flowers so bizarre that they appear artificial have a great charm. I revel in the explosive glorious grotesquerie of strelitzias – those spiky orange and blue bird of paradise blooms so inappropriately named for George III’s severe and homely Queen. I get excited by orchids and calceolarias; carnivorous fly traps and lobster claw cacti. I’ve got some giant tower lilies incubating in pots: I don’t think they’re going to reach the promised six feet – not this year – but they are full of buds and I can’t wait for the supreme moment of revelation.
Perfumers know they have to offer an impression of a flower: not an exact and accurate reflection, but the famous Lie That Tells The Truth¤. You can talk about Head Space Technologies and Living Flower Vacuums till you’re blue in the face but too literal and accurate a translation of a plant’s scent does not, on the whole, amuse. Perfumers are chary of reproducing the odours of traditional cottage-garden flowers. Sweet pea, wallflower, petunia, lily and lilac are rarely attempted. Even jasmine – in isolation – is rare. Perfumers say – and I do ask them, on your urgent behalf – that such notes when used in soliflores, rather than as allusive components of an intricate pattern, appear crude and hackneyed; too unsophisticated for modern taste. Those brave souls and gallant hearts currently taking our Great Ingredient Challenge know how hard it can be to identify concentrated natural oils, however apparently familiar the source. We love what appears to be a blushing crimson rose no matter how little actual rose oil may be present.
The old legend that Guerlain’s glorious Nahema has not a drop of natural rose within it may or may not be true, but it shows us that our noses play us wonderful tricks. How much more delightful than that novelty of my youth: an Incredibly Lifelike Plastic Rosebud, given away FREE with every packet of soap flakes, and Genuinely Indistinguishable from a living Etoile d’Hollande!”
¤ as expounded by both Picasso and Susan Sontag.