Monty Don reflects on the differences between British and French horticulture and explains why he believes gardens and ghosts go hand in hand
One advantage to interviewing Monty Don by telephone is that I’m not distracted by his rugged good looks. But as a flat-dweller with a lone pot plant to her name, who’s not even sure when Gardeners’ World is broadcast, I admit I wasn’t prepared for the golden treacle voice oozing seductively through the fibre optics.
Nevertheless, I hang on every word of our conversation about his new book, The Road to Le Tholonet, A French Garden Journey. It’s part travelogue to some of France’s best and most historic gardens, part treasure trove of historical anecdotes, about everyone from Napoleon and Josephine (a keen rose fancier), to King Louis XIV, who grew so inflamed with envy while enjoying the hospitality of Nicholas Fouquet, at Vaux le Vicomte, that he had the man jailed, comprehensively looted Vaux, scooped up Fouquet’s designers – including the incomparable Andre Le Notre – then deployed every last scrap in the conception of Versailles.
Delve deeper, and you’ll discover a book that’s also a philosophical exploration of national identity, a partial memoir, and a meditation about the role gardens play in conveying our aspirations, our values – even our memories.
Don says: “It’s long seemed to me that one of the weaknesses of the gardening genre is also one of its strengths, that it’s so niche. Gardening is seen as a pastime that is almost like belonging to the Church of England – a sign of maturity and wisdom and right thinking. And I agree with that – god knows, I’m the greatest supporter there ever could be for that. At the same time, it’s always struck me as very odd that in Britain, gardening is divorced from all the other intellectual disciplines, art forms, philosophy. It’s seen very much as a practical thing that you master.”
There are, he writes, two aspects of the French character on display in their gardens. “The first is the inherent and learnt respect for and adherence to prescribed form... The second... is their love of intellectual debate and concepts.” Conversely, in the UK he’s endlessly asked how to do things, but rarely asked why.
It’s funny, I say, flinging a few stereotypes around, one thinks of obedience as more Germanic than French. “Much of last year was immersed in all things Francophile,” he says. “What struck me most was a post-Napoleonic adherence to form. In a sense they’ve sussed out what matters in life: eating proper meals, treating each other with respect and courtesy, making things look nice, all those things that can be sneered at for being bourgeois, but actually tend to make life more pleasant for everybody involved.
“The other side of the coin is a slavish adherence to form for form’s sake. The example I use is that in France, the educational system is really quite rigorous. Children are pushed much harder and the expectations are higher. Very early on they learn that it takes hard work and application to pass through certain stages. So when you attain those stages – it doesn’t matter whether that’s being a postmaster, a prime minister, or a surgeon – there is a real mutual respect all around because everyone knows how hard you had to work to get there. The down side is: ‘I am good at my job because I’ve got my job. How could I have my job if I wasn’t good?’ Therefore the rigour and scrutiny and open criticism that we take for granted in this country isn’t there.”
Where does his own gardening ethos sit on this continuum? “That’s a very good question because I don’t know the answer. Certainly I don’t feel comfortable within the conventional British tradition. It’s complicated, because I do feel comfortable being an outsider. I want to be outside it, and that’s in itself a stance.
“What I love about French gardens is the combination of formal elegance and intellectual questioning. Intellectually the French are wonderfully open, in a way the British just don’t begin to be. You can question ideas in France, endlessly. In Britain, two things happen when you do that. Either you’re branded an intellectual, which is fundamentally mistrusted, or you’re branded a phony and pretentious, which people despise. The thing the British hate more than anything else is people who are getting above themselves. There are a hundred different expressions for it all around the country, but it comes down to the same thing: this inherent mistrust of authority, and trying to topple people off a pedestal. What the British love are people who they feel are like them, and share things with them. Intellectual ideas are seen as something that are not practical and can’t be demonstrated.”
The French, he continues, have a “very clear and absolutely inherent idea of what it is to be French. This applies to their gardens, by the way: everything can be seen in the garden. “One interesting thing is this idea that all colour, race, creed, can be absorbed as long as it becomes French. Whereas in Britain, our whole idea is that it’s civilised to acknowledge people’s differences. At what point do those two things meet? We want people to assimilate, but we want them to want to assimilate. Whereas the French regard that as a nonsensical idea. How can you be French unless you’re French? It’s the same with their gardens. There’s a way to garden, and all the challenging of that is within the world of ideas. I find that incredibly stimulating, but at the same time, my whole background is about doing. If I want a plant planted, I dig a hole. If a Frenchman wants a plant planted, we discuss the best way to do it. And then finally get someone else to do it for you.”
Many writers say that it takes a reader to complete a book. Can a similar analogy be drawn here? Does a garden require someone to view and appreciate it? “That’s a point I discuss a lot with my wife, Sarah, who I think would say that a garden is a work of art, therefore it is entire unto itself. Whether one person sees it or a million people see it, that doesn’t affect its existence. I think I’m on the other side, that it doesn’t really come fully into being until it engages with other people. There are lots of different things going on there. For instance, there’s a big social element. A garden is part of your house, therefore hospitality and entertainment comes into it, as well as serving the household itself. A garden is very rarely totally hidden. You can see gardens from trains and planes and streets, and looking over your neighbour’s fence. When you make a garden you’re aware of these things.
“So it’s rare for a garden to be totally out of view unless you’re invited in. What’s interesting is that I think it’s terribly important for gardens to have some part of them that is totally private. A walled garden, a bower, it could be just a seat that nobody can see, not even the people in the house can.” Why is that? “In terms of design, you need to be taken somewhere. In order to enjoy a garden fully, you need to be able to have some place where you feel wholly private, then you can give yourself into it. And the it – it could be a flower, the birds, the sunshine, all sorts of things. Gardens need to hold the promise of seclusion and retreat.”
I suspect that Don could make a nature girl out of this city mouse in a few quick tutorials. “If you see nature as something that happens to you, then it becomes complicated. I feel like that when I listen to Portuguese. I simply don’t know where to begin to understand it. Whereas if you see it as something that you are speaking, albeit as badly as it’s possible for a human being to do so, it becomes a process, and by definition, is happening. It may not be happening very well, but it is happening. That’s why I have very little sympathy for people who say ‘I don’t have a green thumb so I can’t grow anything’. In fact you can. You may not be able to do it very well, but you can. And by doing it you’re learning how to do it, so inevitably it’ll get better. It’s everything to do with the attitude that goes into it. If it’s something you have to learn from outside, it’s never going to happen. If it’s something that you learn from inside, and you make happen and give as much as you take, then it happens. And it happens differently for everyone. There’s no exam to pass at the end of it.
“This goes back to my problem with British gardening. On the whole, there is a dominant school that does objectify that process and says, ‘There are exams to pass and there is a right way to do things and you can be measured as a good or a bad gardener.’ That’s bollocks.”
In a chapter about visiting Cezanne’s home, Don writes: “It is my experience that buildings and landscapes act as batteries, taking the charge from significant acts, good and ill, and holding a trace of them.” The book is haunted by ghosts. I picture Don walking through landscapes waiting for them to manifest. What “charge”, therefore, does he hope to leave at his own garden, Longmeadow, in the Herefordshire marshes?
“Oh gosh. First of all, that’s exactly how I see it. I remember as a child, feeling the ghost of my grandfather walking under the walnut tree. I didn’t see him, I just felt him very profoundly there – and he made that garden. When I go to a garden, I always say, ‘Leave me alone for a while because I need to find the garden.’ I walk around and let it come to me. I don’t know what it is that’s going to come. I feel like a medium. Nine times out of ten, something arrives – a plant, a corner, a reflection, just something, and of course it’s the ghost; they come and talk to you.
“I think the charge I’d leave at Longmeadow, well, I’ve never thought about this, because my engagement is entirely in the present. But, as it accumulates history – it’s 20 years since I started planting and 22 since I first got it, so it’s starting to move into a different generation. What I get from Longmeadow is space, and light. I’ve created spaces using plant material, in the main, that are filled with different kinds of light – which is a very, very un-British horticultural thing to say.”
But it’s the quintessential Monty Don thing to say. “I am thrilled by light. It could be dawn light, it doesn’t have to be bright blazing sun. I love it when light is just caught, either in branches or through a gap in a hedge, or it spills into a doorway.”
Going back to his grandfather, the book contains a quote that says: “We love the gardens of our early years and they are inevitably gardens that we are intimate with.” What’s Don’s most important early garden?
“Our childhood gardens are associated with Eden, they’re associated with innocence and the security and safety of childhood, though of course there are things that are frightening. I grew up in Hampshire, middle England. We had a villa with a five-acre garden, and it was somewhere that was very practical, because our mother made my four brothers and sisters and me work in it. We all chopped wood, fed the chickens, got coal, mowed the lawn and dug. Also, it was a place where we played.
“The house was built by my great-grandfather, who laid out the garden. And he died there. And my grandfather died there. And my grandmother. And my mother died there. So people lived and died in that place.”
This sense of continuity suffuses Longmeadow, as well, he says. “There’s been a house here since at least 1200 and probably pre-Roman times. There are not just one or two ghosts, there are armies of ghosts, and quite a lot of archaeology. There is layer upon layer of history. People have been living on this site and if not gardening it, certainly farming it, for at least a thousand years and probably 2,000. The buildings you see are just the latest, and even they are 500 years old.
“I’m really aware of my role. I’m just passing through and adding a layer without wiping anything away. Another layer will be laid on top of mine. All kinds of things literally reinforce that. For example, it floods quite regularly, so layers of silt build up. I don’t see myself as having created a monument, I see it as having made a layer, and it’s gossamer thin. I find that profoundly inspiring and empowering. I don’t see gardens as permanent at all. They’re ships in the night.”
The Road to Le Tholonet is out now, published by Simon & Schuster, priced £20.99. It is also available as an ebook.