Me and My Hollyhocks

Me and My Hollyhocks

Daily Mail, June 2018

Someone broke the growing tips off two of our hollyhocks last week. For some wanton reason he or she stopped on the West London pavement outside our front garden, leaned over the fence and removed the tops.

At this stage in the summer, hollyhocks are only about four to five feet tall. By mid-July, had they not been so viciously stunted, the decapitated two would have been seven giant feet high, and other passers-by, who are not of a barbarous nature, would have paused to admire them.

Mothers pushing toddlers in buggies would have lingered on their journeys and pointed at them and agreed that they were indeed ‘pretty flowers’; young women, and it is always women, would have taken photographs of them (or had their photographs taken next to them); and hollyhock enthusiasts may have rung our front door bell wanting to know the secret of how we’d managed to grow such a colourful harvest.

That happened twice last year, and my answer was that I’d no idea. I just happened to get lucky when I bought a couple of plants fourteen years ago, stuck them in the ground, and, low and behold, the two went forth and multiplied. There are nine at the front now and further twelve in the back garden, and maybe many more elsewhere, as I give the seeds away every year.

As you can imagine, I’m the hollyhock king in our neck of the woods, and that being so, I take exception to any casual, thoughtless amputation of any of my plants as I would to a brick flying through our front window, or an unprovoked poke in my eye. I don’t like it. It’s personal. But more than that, I don’t understand it.

Like most of us, I take a little pride in my front garden – actually more pride in the garden than in the house, which could do with more than a lick of paint. The garden, which in our family is my domain, is, I suppose, how I see myself – a bit overgrown, casual, going to seed, but friendly and harmless enough.

Just look around the gardens in your area in this glorious summer, starting with your own, and you’ll probably see your own personality and those of your neighbours mirrored in them, too.

Because, it seems to me, if your house is your castle, as they say, your garden is a mirror to your dreams and inner self.

My Grandad Connolly never had much of anything in the way of worldly goods in his two up and two down cottage. But his tiny patch of a garden that blazed with roses every summer, was where he found contentment. I can understand that. Those white and pink blooms in that industrial landscape, brought a quiet beauty that he helped nourish through decades of a hard life.

We almost take them for granted, but nothing that mankind has ever created can come close to the splendour that flowers bring to our world. That’s why every society on earth uses flowers to adorn its ceremonies. Why try to make decorations when nature, in a dazzling array of colours, gives them to us for free?

We remember our dead with flowers, we deliver bunches of roses or tulips on Sundays and Mother’s Day, we teach our children how to make daisy chains, and we festoon our churches and reception halls with floral displays when we celebrate our weddings.

Think only of the door to St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle when Harry married Meghan. Paper ornamentations woven around that archway, no matter how brilliantly devised, wouldn’t have been nearly as lovely.

But there’s more. Flowers don’t only act as pretty embroidery around the hems and cuffs of our lives. They also serve as symbols and metaphors for us. The poppies of Flanders’ fields in World War 1 have forever since been associated with bravery and loss, while a gift of a bunch of red roses signifies loving devotion, and a pure white lily is a metaphor for innocence.

On a personal level, my first sight of a vast bluebell wood when I was seven and a white apple blossom outside a hospital window fifty seven years later never fail to conjure up my late mother’s face. It was her last day. We all have reflections like this.

Because whether it be the colour or the scent, or both, flowers dress our memories, and, by planting them in our gardens and window boxes, or buying them to be put in a vase for a special event, they don’t just beautify our homes. They also reconnect us with parts of our lives long gone by, and with the very nature from which we spring.

The pleasure we enjoy from the scent of lavender or that of honeysuckle was predetermined for us thousands of years before we were born. It’s part of what makes us human, and we don’t have to dig many generations back to discover that most of our forebears would have lived cheek and jowl with nature as they tilled the earth to make a living.

Back-breaking labour may have traditionally defined the life of the common man, but, in literature, drama and song, flowers and gardens adorned earlier times just as much as they do ours. Shakespeare, for instance, came up with at least fifty different kinds of flowers in his plays and poems (how many modern writers could do that?), Ophelia’s character in Hamlet being defined by them.

While the litany of different blooms listed in the lyrics of the ever-popular song ‘English Country Garden’ – ‘roses, foxgloves, snowdrops and forget-me-nots’ not to forget the ‘tall hollyhocks’ – have reached us by way of an eighteenth century Morris dance.

The great Victorian urban reformers who won the fight to open public parks for the masses, understood well that vital connection we all have to nature, that unconscious relationship we have with flowers and trees and wildlife.

Many of us now live in towns and suburbs, amidst bricks and mortar, but, though environmentalists rightly fret about the damage being done to our fields and woods by industrial farming, there has, ironically, probably never been a time when our country has been more colourful.

Two hundred and sixteen years ago William Wordsworth almost swooned in poetry when on a walk in the Lake District he came across a bay of golden daffodils. Today local authorities plant daffodil bulbs by the many thousand along roadsides and at traffic islands. Seeing them may not give us the same thrill that Wordsworth described when he discovered ten thousand ‘at a glance’ growing wild along a bay, but they bring a springtime gaiety to miles of grass verges.

As for our suburban gardens, they’re almost in technicolor at this time of the year, as each weekend since March we’ve been coming home from garden centres or supermarkets, laden with pots of dahlias, lavender, jasmine, scabia, hydrangeas and a hundred types of clematis.

Professional gardeners may groan at the ignorance and impatience of ‘magic, instant gardeners’, and the economies of scale and mass production growing techniques employed by the vast nurseries who now provide us with all this colour. But they can’t deny that our world is prettier because as a result. And because of that our spirits are lightened, too.

My front garden would have been prettier, too, this summer, had it not been for the individual who couldn’t resist casually destroying a thing of beauty simply because he, or she, could.

Quite why anyone should do such a thing is impossible to understand. We get used to the odd beer can ending up on the path when Chelsea are playing at home, and the cardboard cartons and cups dropped by the late-night guzzlers when they’ve finished their take-away meals.

But the litterers are just being thoughtless. The hooligan who broke the tips off the hollyhocks must have stopped, thought about it, and then, quite purposely, decided to damage a thing of beauty.