A microcosm of England’s problems

Kew Gardens personify much which is great about England. But, as the blog discovered on a recent garden tour, it is also a microcosm of some of the problems England faces.

Kew is exemplified by superb planting, massive trees, exotic plants, world class scientific research, young school students rushing from place to place to place to research assignments, colourful Indian wedding parties and amazing vistas.

The Director of Gardens, the Australian Richard Barley, and his team are also systematically re-thinking what the gardens will look like with climate change and how they can adapt in a way while many nations are laggards on the issue.

But a little dirt path illustrates one part of the Kew problem. The treelined walk up to the massive pagoda will always be wonderful but now there is a dirt path, created by thousands of pedestrians, in the middle of the lawns between the trees. Do you let the path spread and get larger and deeper, do you put in some form of hard surface or do you do something else?

It seems a minor problem but is one part of a much bigger one – the question of how to maintain the magnificent Kew greenhouses. They like, much English (indeed British) infrastructure need massive repair or reconstruction. But how to go about it? You can’t park the plants outside given English weather and instead you need to build massive alternative accommodation while you fix the original beautiful buildings.

…and of course, it will be immensely costly. This sort of problem is also sadly replicated in many other English institutions.

At the same time the Chelsea Garden Show which is – along with Ascot – one of the major events of the English social calendar sought to feature resilience in the face of climate change. To the blog The Great Pavilion was a delight although it did skip the sections on garden tools. But the 36 show gardens seemed to be obsessed with weeds – a blog’s lay observation confirmed by a two-page spread in the Weekend Financial Times and a wry column from their gardening correspondent, Robin Lane Fox.

Incidentally the tour featured visits to lots of famous gardens including Hidcote, Sissinghurst and King Charles’ Highgrove. The Highgrove visit didn’t challenge the blog’s republicanism but it did provoke wondering about this complex man and his many strange and progressive ideas. The champagne afternoon tea was also something else again – a physical manifestation of immense privilege.

Sissinghurst was a reminder of Adam Nicolson’s (Vita Sackville West’s grandson) appearance at an Adelaide Writers Week some years ago He mentioned that he always knew when there was new translation of the book about his parents as the garden was invaded successively by various European lesbians. Today he would be cancelled but at the time there was just some tut tutting and amusement.

But being back in England after some years it is clear that, despite some enduring magnificence, problems multiply across the country. The Underground is currently better than it has been in decades – fast, reliable, clean and safe. But the privatised rail lines outside the capital are a disaster – expensive, unreliable, unsafe and with mind-bogglingly complex ticketing systems – particularly compared with the simplicity and ease of the Underground.

Water and sewerage companies are discharging raw sewage into rivers and waterways while charging customers excessive rates. Australia’s own Macquarie is part of the problem.

On the other hand, commercial theatre still thrives and on any night in the West End you can choose from Tina Turner, The Lion King, the Mousetrap or a new play based on Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. A superb performance in an amphitheatre space brought out new perspectives on The Lehmann Trilogy and great music is easily accessible all the time.

A new art space – Lightroom – has been launched with a major David Hockney art installation. The project is difficult to describe in words but a simple explanation might be: imagine a Lume installation in the Melbourne Convention Centre. Then erase from your mind all the crassness and imagine you are part and parcel of a series of immersive Hockney artworks narrated by Hockney himself. One can only hope it comes to Australia at some time in the future.

But despite these successes major cultural and civic spaces are in dire need of help. The Houses of Parliament buildings are unsafe and in any other circumstances would be required by authorities to be shut down and fixed. Instead, the physical surroundings simply illustrate the political dysfunction inside.

Westminster Abbey is not in great shape either and the post-coronation crowds don’t make navigation easier. One interesting sidelight of the visit was to spot the memorial in Poets’ Corner to the four founders of the Royal Ballet – Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, Constant Lambert and Margot Fonteyn. What Fonteyn would have made of being commemorated with Lambert who she hated – with good reason – is another issue.

And this visit finally uncovered the small plaque recording where Oliver Cromwell was buried before being dug up and beheaded. Sadly, the Cromwell statue in the Parliament gardens is largely obscured by scaffolding.

The National Gallery is also in dire need of major maintenance and Tate Modern’s top floors are encased in plastic wrapping – not as part of some Christo-type project but just major building problems. One meagre exhibition of Hilma af Klint and Piet Mondrian in the spaces which are open does favours to neither of them.

At Tate Britain, in contrast, there was a magnificent exhibition of Isaac Julien’s work. The 2022 Adelaide Festival featured some of his work at the Samstag Museum of Art but a major retrospective on the Tate Britain scale would be welcome in Australia.

There is, nevertheless, a tragic element to all these English problems and successes. Some remind us of the best of English history but many epitomize the challenges a once powerful nation needs to meet as it slides into being a little nuclear armed island off the European coast still fixated on notions of past glory.