I'm a bit depressed really. Yesterday, travelling down to London for the first RHS flower show of the year at the Horticultural Halls in Vincent Square I was hoping for a bit of inspiration - the show is highlighting winter planting and small-garden and balcony design after all, and that seemed just right for a damp February Tuesday in the capital.
My co-designers (three in number) and I were, however, struggling to get enthused by anything we saw. There were some very alluring plants, to be sure, but their allure faced stiff competition from the customary tat that I have come to expect at RHS shows. That the subtle loveliness of such plants as Galanthus 'Fieldgate Prelude' and Salix acutifolia shone through is a testament to their capacity to enchant, for the setting was otherwise cluttered with ceramic pixies, piles of driftwood 'sculpture', trowels and assorted garden-themed knick-knacks. It felt no more uplifting than a visit to my local garden centre - although the cafe there is immeasurably better.
Why is this? The RHS has some terrific pluses - it is highly active, enjoys the loyalty of its huge membership and brand recognition way beyond. The Society stands for excellence in all things horticultural, and its research, plant trials and gardens are great resources for those looking to use plant life to enliven their exterior spaces. There is, however, an element of dowdy stuffiness about the whole thing - what feels like a mid-20th century patrician approach to the public that seems to sit very uneasily with anyone who doesn't feel about 70 years old, to judge by the reactions my friends and I had to the event. The age of those attending clearly reflects the membership, and between us we four (mid-forties and up) felt that we reduced the average age in the room by a good 20 years. The only people who were significantly younger were the designers of the show gardens, students from Capel Manor College, in attendance on their creations. I spotted one black person - at an event for thousands staged in the heart of the capital.
Now, as I say, this must be a reflection of the membership, but surely these shows should be the way for the RHS to engage with a wider slice of the populace? They are the interface between one of the great establishments of the British cultural scene and the public - we're in the middle of the half-term holiday, so why not a children's show, or a show focussing on edible plants from the great variety of food traditions practised in Britain that could be planted in spring for use in the kitchen this summer? Where is the excitement, the relevance? And why, why, given the resources devoted to setting the whole thing up, does it last only two days? The RHS would argue that if the shows and show gardens inspire their members to be more ecologically friendly and carbon-aware in their activities, the carbon footprint of these jamborees is more than offset by improved practice on a national scale. That's a big 'if', in my view, and not one that justifies the two days for me, I'm afraid.
The argument that the RHS deals in 'flower shows' is also misleading, I fear, for the Society has for decades muddied the clarity of its horticultural mission with its championing of garden design, to the point where the annual gore-fest at the Chelsea corrida (who died a death? who will live to fight another show? who triumphed unequivocally?) has become a national spectator sport. It's great to have exterior design so high on the cultural agenda for one week a year, but is the RHS really the best body to promote it? This subject deserves a whole blog posting or three to itself, so I'll leave it hanging here for the moment...to be returned to on another day.
So, why? Is it the 'Royal' that's the problem? We're back to the adjective 'patrician', yet the Royal Academy, as my friend pointed out, survives this handicap and manages to be vibrant and inclusive, to a point. Is the Society simply too embedded in the cultural DNA to change? Like the Church of England, it's a broad church, but with the added impetus of big business behind it. With gew-gaws to flog, sponsors to appease and an entrenched conservatism in the way it does things, this ocean-going liner won't be turning any sharp corners soon, which is a great shame: I like the odd day out in London, but really don't think I can face many repeats of this anodyne stuff.
No-one would suggest that the current membership should be denied its pleasures, and for every person who dislikes pixies there are plenty of others who do, but I can't help thinking that the RHS is being dilatory, despite its attempts at widening the net, in encouraging diversity and wider interest in its work.
So lots of questions, with very few answers, I'm afraid. Suggestions, anyone?