For most of us, gardening is something we do at the weekend, having visited B&Q for that must-have dibber we spotted on The Alan Titchmarsh Show. But for others the very act of getting down and dirty among the petunias is a deeply political exercise, whether planting geraniums on the bonnet of a passing BMW or placing a line of turf on Winston Churchill's statue, as happened at the Guerrilla Gardening protest on May Day 2000. Indeed, Churchill once said to Siegfried Sassoon that "war is the natural occupation of man...war and gardening", a quote that stands for the polemical nature of a book that looks on gardens not as tranquil retreats or places of contemplation but rather sees them as places of ideological conflict and disputation, places where politics is made in earth and flowers.
At least that's what George McKay would have us believe in his new book about the radical politics of gardens and gardening. McKay, professor of cultural studies at the University of Salford, has written extensively on the do-it-yourself mix of protest, green issues, spontaneous music festivals and contemporary political agitation, from fluffy to spiky, that has defined British counter-cultural movements since they emerged during the 1990s. So there is no better writer to tackle the thorny issue of agitprop down by the potting shed. He rolls his sleeves up and goes to it with gusto.
This is not, of course, a book about how to over-winter tender perennials, and the issues of the history of garden layouts and the cultural signification of decking is entirely absent. So, in a way, this is not a book about conventional gardening or gardens at all (although Gertrude Jekyll does get a quick mention). Instead, we are led into the garden as both a plot of land and as a plot of a quite different kind, where to dig as the 17th-century radical Gerrard Winstanley and his followers did on St George's Hill, or to imagine a new type of "green" city in the manner of Ebenezer Howard, the inventor of the garden city movement, is to enter the utopian politics of rebellion and hope in which the stakes are "a new life and a new civilisation", as Howard put it in his influential 1898 book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, reprinted in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-Morrow.
McKay's is the sort of book I relish. It is not only expertly written but written with the type of bravura that only someone on the inside of a movement they care about could achieve. Its five big, baggy chapters ramble around topics as diverse as Royal Parks, the Nazi Party's gardening policy, feminist housing in Letchworth and New York's community gardens. This book is less formal knot garden than English rambling cottage garden, full of twists and insights.
Hardly surprising then that the author cannot resist making various guest appearances in his own text. At one point, he even gets rather too enthusiastic in his imagined rapport with the reader. "Do let me know", he asks, "if you've any cuttings or good seeds to share" - an invitation to every green-fingered nutter to stalk you via Twitter. And for me, there is something rather grating and naive about comments such as "if we are radical gardeners together, is it possible that we might be able to save the world, just when it needs saving - we need saving - most?".
If enthusiastic overwriting should have met the blue pen of a vigilant editor, these are only temporary blips in a truly important book that fills a gap between the overt political action of immediate protest and the slow cultural protest, both ecological and environmental, that might bring about the deep structural change in society envisioned by many small steps that begin with the planting of a tree or the laying out of a park on wasteland.
Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden
By George McKay
Frances Lincoln 224pp, £12.99
Published 5 May 2011
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