Thursday, 21 June 2012

Modern Manners: 22 June

It’s not easy knowing how to be polite in the modern world. This week: what are the politics of gardens and gardening? Thomas Blaikie advises

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,

I was going round a garden open to the public last week. A very respectable-looking woman, hoping not to be seen, had sent her husband into a flower border to steal some poppy seeds. 'More! More!' she was saying. With the gardening season well underway, I was wondering what you think about gardening manners generally.

Alice Gordon, Tenterden

Dear Alice,

You're quite right; it's stealing. But many paying visitors to gardens, otherwise highly civilised and not in the least members of the criminal classes, think nothing of snipping bits off shrubs for cuttings and marauding in the borders for seeds. If you're visiting a small garden, perhaps rarely open and with only a few visitors, you could ask the owner for permission to take cuttings or seeds, but don't take offence if refused. In the larger, more famous gardens, you have to pay – ie, visit their nursery or plant centre.

Garden enthusiasts, in gardens open to the public, are propelled to trample among the plants for another reason – they're in search of labels. 'What is it? What is it?' The late Christopher Lloyd, at Great Dixter, provided no labels for this reason. These days you can take a photo and show it later to someone likely to be able to identify the mystery item. Hurrah for modern technology!

If I overhear fellow visitors in a public garden trying to identify a plant and getting it wrong, I always put them right – in the nicest possible way. But when someone is boomingly declaring that a Sweet William is a petunia, they certainly won't care to be contradicted. Best to avoid.

Gardeners are frightfully bossy and know-all with each other. One part of Iris Murdoch's garden was known as 'Iris's concentration camp for roses'. It's a shame because deep down they really appreciate each other's gardens. Why not say so? It's the insecurity. Gardening is fraught with failure. Some gardeners are dismayed by the complete indifference to their fabulous floral displays of their non-gardening friends. It just has to be accepted that the world divides into gardeners and nongardeners, and there's an end to it.

All the same, some are so bored by gardens, they take no trouble to keep their feet under control. Actually, the tobacco plants won't grow again if accidentally kicked – or worse. Lady Anne Rosse, the mother of Lord Snowdon, was leading the President of the RHS and a suite of world experts towards a single monumentally rare pear hanging on its tree (the first fruit in centuries) at Birr in Ireland. They rounded the corner just a second after a premature, suddenly peckish visitor had eaten it. Let that be a lesson to you.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER.

WHAT TO DO ABOUT... mobiles in public places

I know, I know, I've mentioned this before, but I've got a surprise answer. Which is: nothing at all! Let's strike an optimistic note for once. I was travelling back from Paris on the Eurostar yesterday. First of all, a businessman was making a call – something about share options. I couldn't be sure. Then a young man directly behind me was speaking in French into a telephone. But, do you know, you won't believe it – they were speaking quietly. Not shouting. Using a normal conversational tone. You had to strain to hear. Only an older Englishman had not got the message. He even had his phone on speaker, so both sides of the conversation were blasted around the carriage – but only for a while. His wife put a stop to it.

At times, the campaigner for courtesy might feel condemned to eternal moaning and banging of the head against a brick wall. Some manners enthusiasts, to be fair, get trapped in a sour attitude of complaint.

So be encouraged. Most people really don't mean to be rude; they just develop bad habits and are defensive when challenged. But they can, and will, change.

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