It is a serene midweek morning and two muscular young men are disciplining the nettles in my lower garden with the sorts of machine that I do not keep in stock. I am supervising the day from the drawing room window while furtively reading EL James’s red-hot bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey.
First, I must sympathise with the reader who has written to the FT as if the book is about financial advisers. I bought it thinking it is about grey-haired people.
At the end of this month parents will be pouring into our College garden in Oxford to celebrate their children’s graduation. To add depth to the occasion, I thought I should read what the mothers have been reading this summer on the beach. Over lunch it would make the parental subplot even more interesting. I even had a half-formed plan to replant a dry slope in the College garden with 50 shades of grey-leaved plants in wry honour of the graduation moment. Grey-green ballota, silvery Artemisia splendens, pale grey teucrium ... colours that come to every graduand’s hair in time. I had nearly reached 30 varieties and the book, I hoped, would inspire 20 more.
How misguided can you be? What on earth do this book’s millions of women readers want? Certainly not flowers, not one bunch, vase or bud of which appears in the controlled seduction of young Anastasia, a student of whom I might have made something if she had ever had the grit to learn Greek grammar. Grey simply denotes her controller, the sadistic young Christian Grey. Christian, we learn, is “not a hearts and flowers sort of man”. He is emphatically not my type. He is a chief executive whose idea of a fine wine is a Pinot Grigio. His repeated efforts at wit in an email ought to make him blush even more deeply than the colour which his “sculptured, pouty lips” cause to run in Anastasia’s cheeks.
When my young garden helpers returned to their van to find ever more savage instruments for punishing weeds, I gave up. Like almost all authors when writing a book of their own, I gave up on reaching the details of the contract between the two parties. It bored me with its small print. Skipping forwards, I found a clichéd letter from Grey announcing that “I want to share my lifestyle with you. I have never wanted anything so much.”
It would serve him right if I shared my lifestyle with him. He could work off his complexes by strimming the cow-parsley, tying up the sorrel and scything the Ladies’ Smock. He says that “England is what he’d really like to visit”, the home of “Shakespeare, Austen, Brontë” where he could “see the places that inspired people to write such wonderful books”. To share my lifestyle would be to sit and read them and have hundreds of them transforming his soulless, techie apology for a flat.
He would have to convince me that he understands them better than at present he understands Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He would definitely not be allowed to offer me pancakes for breakfast as a post-coital favour.
In a single morning, the plan for planting 50 shades of grey has gone into the shredder. EL James’s book may have brought respite to a few bookshops but my copy has joined the plan in the shredder, too. Why, though, stop at grey? I am not considering a garden of “dark” as a tribute to Grey’s published sequel. What interests me is the scope for Fifty Shades of Green.
Gardeners forget that green is as much of a colour as the shocking pink of the first Michaelmas daisies. It comes in so many shades that 50 can be amassed without any help from a novel. It is the setting, frame and context of the gardens whose flowers we are told to “colour plan”. Books on borders print the old outmoded “colour wheel” but it says nothing about placing and matching the ever-present colour, green. Yet the green of a wisteria after flowering is not at all the green of a plane tree or a hedge of clipped laurel. Restful gardens have got their shades of green right.
They have not hit the spot by planting variegated varieties as if they are somehow “special”. The variegation is usually strident and points to a deficiency in the leaf. Plain greens carry much more weight. Admittedly they seem everyday, like the excellent activity which Christian first engages in with young Anastasia and describes as “vanilla sex”. Give me vanilla green any day instead of a variegated field maple. Best of all, give me a vanilla-green leaf with a glossy shine to it, like the “flawless sheen” which coursing “hormones” are said to have given to young Anastasia’s skin.
In plants, this glossy green relates to a water-retaining coating that leaves develop so as not to dry out. It is charming after midsummer in the leaves of evergreen Chanticleer pear trees, the ones that make up my garden’s main avenues. Against walls or in warmer gardens it is the distinction of the excellent pittosporum, the plain vanilla variety, not the bilious ones, which are variegated with white and sometimes even with a touch of pink. It is good in the leaves of some of the hebes, helping them to survive by the seaside, and it is neglected in the best Crataegus thorn-trees, which gardeners should use more often despite their protruding thorns. Even in this glossy shortlist, the pale green of the pittosporum is not the same as the deeper green of the pear. Fifty shades of green combine in a garden but we seldom think whether we have placed them to the best effect.
Should I pinch the title and trap fans by writing a book on the subject? I have learnt to discriminate between the dusty leaves of most of the flowering malus trees, Golden Hornet and so forth, and the glossy look of a few of them, Evereste being the winner, or the freshness of lovely Malus transitoria. Such knowledge surely needs to be passed on. I might even persuade that humanoid, Christian Grey, to succumb to it. The poet Andrew Marvell would surely catch him, one of those “incredible writers” whose “inspiration” can be seen in England all around us. “Nor ever white nor red was seen,” Marvell famously wrote, “So amorous as this lovely green ... ” Converted by Marvell, Christian might even want to make love to the next Anastasia in an amorously green meadow, not on his uncomfy piano. It might take time, but we would get him there. “Laters, baby” as he keeps telling his conquest. If he tries to say that to me I will attack him with the powered shears. But then, for certain, I am not a lady.