Qualified praise for the formidable ‘Miss Willmott of Warley Place’ – a horticultural legend

Ellen Ann Willmott

One notable hit with readers among our past offerings has just received a very fine online appreciation: I speak of Miss Willmott of Warley Place by Audrey Le Lievre, a study of the pioneering turn-of-the-century gardener Ellen Ann Willmott (1858-1934). The York Cycling Gardener (a gardening service that presents and seems to blog as a collective entity) praises this ‘quirky little book’ and accounts for some of its charms:

“I do love these tell-tale biographies of some of these legendary names in English horticulture. Ellen was a formidable woman in so many ways… She’s said to have cultivated over 100,000 different species of plant and it’s hard to open a plant catalogue without running into her name alongside that of her friend Gertrude Jekyll…
Her massive staff of gardeners (far more than was customary even for a large estate at the time) were subject to her sudden whims and changes of mind. She would fire people on the spot if she as much as found a single weed… Her staff lived in fear of her sudden appearance and her head gardeners frequently discovered her standing at the end of their path haranguing them on horticulture matters in the middle of the night…
My favourite Ellen Willmott story though is that regarding her guerilla seed sowing when she went on garden visits. Her plant of choice to leave in her wake was Eryngium giganteum whose spectral structure earned the nickname ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’, a name that still pops up in plant/seed catalogues and survives in the horticultural vernacular to this day. A suitably spiky plant for a spiky but brilliant horticulturist…”

A pleasure, then, to have made a happy customer. Really it seems to me we could do with a few more gardening titles on the list.

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The perenially ‘sharp’ if ‘under-read’ Sylvia (Townsend Warner); and ‘fantastic’ Faber Finds (!)

We are most grateful for any and all interest in our offerings from the well-read daily papers, and so take special pride in this commendation from the Guardian‘s September fiction paperback round-up of last week. Justine Jordan writes that:

“the fantastic Faber Finds – “The Place for Lost Books” – has rescued Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1966 sharp story collection ‘A Stranger With a Bag and Other Stories’. The author of ‘Lolly Willowes’ is now, as Sarah Waters says, “shamefully under-read”; this edition might help to correct that.”

Amen to that. Townsend Warner does seem to enjoy one of those Orwellian ‘large, vague renowns’ – to be, in the phrase that can curse just as it blesses – ‘a writer’s writer.’ But when as here the first writer in that sequence is Sarah Waters then one can only hope that her good offices will act as bone fides enough for new readers to give Sylvia a whirl.

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Listening post: ‘Faustine’ the Opera by Arlene Sierra & Lucy Thurber (after Emma Tennant)


I’ve mentioned in passing the exciting prospect of the adaptation for opera of Emma Tennant’s Faustine by the composer Arlene Sierra and the playwright Lucy Thurber. As the notes on this project adeptly summarise, this is “a story of an older woman, Muriel, who sells her soul to the devil for eternal youth because she is in love with her daughter’s lover. The story works by exploring the evil magical power of a selfish, consumer-oriented desire for eternal youth and beauty; eternal sexual, financial and social power.”
Following the work-in-progress presentation of the piece under the aegis of New York City Opera back in May some audio extracts from Faustine The Opera have been made available over at the NYCO website. I strongly recommend you drop by and click on the three Audio buttons that are offered for a listen to what is shaping up to be a highly alluring piece of work.

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‘One Man and his Plot’: Michael Leapman and the sweet-tasting fruits of self-sufficiency

Michael Leapman (Photo: Martin Pope)

The British summer, such as it was, came and went; and readers feeling the chill and surveying the gathering leaves of autumn could be excused for taking these as perfectly good excuses to ignore their gardens for another 8-9 months… Quite often one needs an impetus in order to get busy with the fork and trowel. But I can’t think of any better than the horticultural writings of Michael Leapman, multi-faceted journalist, author and gardener. In June Finds restored to print Michael’s perfectly formed short classic One Man and His Plot, in which he describes the circumstances by which, in an age of economic depression and austerity (and I speak here of the mid-1970s, though one could be forgiven, etc) he turned his hand to allotment-keeping, driven in part by personal interest but also in the name of journalistic research. For at that moment (post-OPEC crisis and Three-Day-Week) a certain kind of apocalyptic fret had darkened the national mood, and the cause of rugged self-sufficiency was picking up new votaries on a weekly basis… But you can read for yourself about how Michael suddenly came to be the ‘belle-lettriste of the vegetable garden’ by way of this splendid piece he has contributed to the Finds website.
Michael’s up-to-the-minute ruminations on what to do with one’s green fingers can be found at the Telegraph: for starters I recommend this terrific piece about the allure of the garden shed. And then this recent paean to plums and blackberries will surely get your mouth fetching, as the saying goes, and also gestures elegantly to that Brixton allotment which inspired One Man and His Plot.
Michael’s The World for a Shilling is newly available from Finds too, and we will highlight that title in its own regard shortly…

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