Thursday, 29 October 2009

An Apology To Veronica Read

When we lived in London, a yearly ritual was for us to take my mother to the Tate. These visits invariably followed a set itinerary, we’d weave our way through the exhibits I'd get excited by the various new contemporary works on show and rambling about art history while my mum would make non-committal umming noises. Eventually one of two things would happen, either my mum’s patience with “this sort of nonsense” would run out, sending Pete scurrying to hide behind a Damien Hirst to avoid being associated with the fierce exchange of views that would then ensue, or she would amaze us both by suddenly getting incredible enthusiastic about something that both Pete and I would have thought fell firmly into her ‘this sort of nonsense category.

In 2002 one such piece to inspire a cessation of hostilities was The 4 Seasons of Veronica Read by Turkish installation artist Kutlug Ataman. Four screens hung in the obligatory darkened space, across which a series of face to camera interviews were conducted with the eponymous Veronica, a collector and expert cultivator of Amaryllis plants, which charted her life across a year. What fascinated us was the way in which Veronica’s emotional and physical state seemed to be inextricably linked to the seasons and to the wellbeing of her plants. In Spring she was gleeful and bursting with enthusiasm showing off her plants with the pride of a new mother. In Winter she was more sombre and guarded, seemingly uncomfortable with the whole process and when an infestation of mites devastated her plants she seemed to disintegrate in front of us.

At the time it struck me as a document of a particularly English piece of eccentricity, of becoming so involved in a passion that it takes over your life. Having said that I must confess I’ve always been affected by the seasons, never quite to the extent of those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, but there is a fundamental shift that takes place in my nature when the clocks go back or forward. It’s manifested in the books I read, the music I listen to, the food I want to eat. From March to September I’m a Mad March hare guzzling Woodehouse, Waugh and Harry Potter, my Ipod sparkles with The Byrds, The Stone Roses and three minute pop songs, I munch mountains of fruit and crave the bustle of the South Bank or Bristol’s Floating Harbour. Come the winter and I transform into an altogether more serious animal, my bedside table groans under the weight of worthy tomes of non-fiction, horror and crime novels, my musical tastes become glacial and minimal, Coil, the Aphex Twin, Nyman and Glass soundtrack my ventures into the outside world where routes are planned to avoid as many people as is humanly possible.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t get miserable or maudlin – a touch more grumpy and prone to ranting perhaps, but I actually generally like winter. I love the crunch of frost under my feet, the interesting shapes of skeletal trees. I even love fog. I just get..well, different I suppose. The tricky bit though has always been the transition from one state to another – a few weeks of borderline multiple personality disorder that my beloved other half has to weather with good humour, never quite knowing whether he’s going to come home to a garrulous chatterbox full of gossip and babble or a misanthropic reptile curled up on the sofa spitting venom at News 24.

But now, for the first time in my life I’ve got a garden, and I’m beginning to understand Veronica Read. Previously my horticultural record has not been good, houseplants would wither before my eyes in shops if I even entertained the notion of buying them. Over the years I’ve left a trail of dead yukkas, cheeseplants and kitchen herbs in my wake. I even once managed to murder a cactus. But now on Windmill Hill I have a vegetable patch – and it not only has living things in it, it has edible things in it and I’ve become obsessed. Gardener’s Question Time is no longer something that burbles quietly away unnoticed in the background like a spoken word Orb album, I actually listen to what’s being said and take notes. Every day brings a new little triumph, or defeat whose impact on my state of mind is far greater than I ever could have imagined. Yesterday I discovered that the slugs has decimated a couple of my dwarf bean plants and I was in a foul mood for the rest of the day – this wasn’t particularly helped by the fact that the shops, in their wisdom, have now put all their gardening merchandise away for the winter to make way for aisles and aisles of Christmas tat (Do garden pests take the winter off? Can I kill slugs with tinsel?) Today though, the sight of my first purple floret of sprouting broccoli poking it’s way through the leaves put such a spring in my step that I’ve been incredibly productive today.

So Veronica, my apologies for branding you as eccentric all those years ago, my green-fingered passions may only just be beginning, and I’ll never reach your levels of expertise (I doubt very much that I’ll ever cultivate anything that will win a gold medal) but now I understand. Oh and to my long suffering other half – if you want to know whether you’re going to be greeted by Jekyll or Hyde when you come home, check the garden before you step through the door.

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