Two weeks after I started first grade, a six-year old boy was kidnapped in Kansas City, Missouri, by a woman who came to his school claiming to be the boy’s aunt. The Bobby Greenlease kidnapping case was almost as famous as the Lindbergh baby case in the 1930s and I pushed my fledgling reading skills up a few levels in order to read the gruesome daily accounts in the local paper. This was in that once-upon-a-time when parents hid bad news from their children, so I felt it was my job to warn my fellow six-year-olds about strangers posing as relatives. Each morning at recess as we gathered round the swings I told the latest instalment. We all cried when the little boy’s body was found, and we hollered when the kidnappers were caught. Then parents complained and I was kept in at recess with a stack of Easy Readers. I never did get to tell the bit about the electric chair.
However, through no fault of my own, the smoky fire of nervous melancholy was laid. Here’s the formula: happy excitement – new shoes, new dress, and then – a thousand miles away another six-year old is kidnapped. Give me a happy occasion and I’m instantly on the lookout for the little patch of heartbreak lurking round the corner, a small nub of unease to chew away at. This week it was Chelsea. Truly, nothing fertilises my fear and sorrow like the Chelsea Flower Show.
On the Monday, Chelsea is like the opening night of an opera on a biblical scale. In less than three weeks wild-flower meadows, slender canals, tunnels of weeping hornbeams and prairies of miscanthus grass have been created, a miracle of human endeavour, nature, luck, genius and adrenaline. Every Iris sibirica opens, 50ft bamboos take root and the vital hard stuff – slate from Lancashire, granite from Africa, pebbles from India – slots in place. Fountains gently gurgle in this self-contained five-day cameo state of grace.
And now my anxiety begins. I flinch as I hear the waspish comments of amateur judges searching for defects. (The real judges, all 122 of them, are tight-lipped.) I cringe at the quick gazes that pass on in search of something even more amazing/stunning/perfect. I ache for the tired designers, craftsmen, nurserymen and gardeners required to distil their long labour into the briefest soundbite. My tour of the gardens becomes a Lamentation for the Loss of Our Sense of Awe.
Then, nestled in its corner site, the requisite 230sq m, another world: a slightly unkempt village green, a fuzzy, neglected pond, a human-sized pub, a vegetable patch; ‘A Soldier’s Dream of Blighty’, the dream that kept the British soldiers going during the Second World War. Two Chelsea Pensioners’ retired soldiers who fought in that war sit in the garden enjoying a pint in the shifting light and shade. And then the uneasy melancholy begins to swell. What does today’s soldier dream of Blighty? Will the judges, unsentimental professionals, think this is horticultural nostalgia? I gaze at the vegetable patch, its pre-war cultivars grown entirely by the Chelsea Pensioners, working from a 1939 Suttons seed catalogue, and hope for the best.
At 7am on Tuesday the award cards are delivered to the gardens. The Chelsea Pensioners’ Garden gets Gold and Best in Show. My relief hits a snag: if only this little patch of Chelsea could remain, a safe and shady corner for these lovely men in their red coats, a souvenir of an unclouded vision of Britain as the peace is celebrated.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on June 2, 2005.