To everything there is a season, advises the Book of Ecclesiastes. Over the years, Monty Don, the younger son of an Anglican lay preacher and a church warden, has discovered the truth in that verse, as his life has wound through seasons of bloom and decline and back again. He has chronicled his own experiences with near-bankruptcy, the stifling paralysis of depression, and a stroke, but to meet him now, ten months into his seventh decade, is to encounter a man with his face turned purposefully towards the sun.
“One minute you’re 32, and then you’re 60,” he muses, on one of those gorgeous days of basking May warmth which is the occasional signature of the early English summer. “I like being 60, though. My generation is the first that can grow old with a sense that we’re not sliding down the plughole in a big hurry. I don’t want to be 20 again. I live in the present, looking neither forward nor back. I’m fairly fit – dodgy knees, but that’s ok. I’m told I need a new knee but I’m ignoring it. I don’t have time to get new knees, and you should only go under the knife when it’s the last option. Yoga has made a huge difference. The older you get, the more exercise you should do, not less. I have pain a lot of the time, but it’s entirely bearable. Listen – when you get to 60 you ache. Just take it.”
We meet at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival, 30 miles east of the Tudor-framed house in Herefordshire which has been his home since 1992, where the seasons unfold amid its two-acre plot each week to viewers of Gardeners’ World. Today Don’s familiar rumpled uniform – roomy jumper, loose navy trousers and jacket, with a scarf slung around his neck – barely nods to the afternoon warmth, but his air is unmistakably one of contentment.
“I still feel like a black sheep-ish 25-year-old. At the Chelsea Flower Show it’s all so terribly grown-up that I find myself thinking: ‘Gosh. I’m with the grown-ups.’ And then I realise I’m older than a lot of them. But you just have to stop thinking about age.”
Chelsea, which he’s hosting BBC coverage of this week, is one of the most demanding professional weeks of his year. He smiles at the idea he is paid to have a pleasant time, and spells out the reality.
“It. Is. Work. Yes, exhausting. But it’s work I like – the process of filming, the repetition, the craft. Of course Chelsea’s entire schtick is that it is the best, and everything that is there will be the best regardless of weather or season or anything else. Malvern is timely, of the season, and certainly more relevant to the ordinary gardener.”
Don chews over Greening Grey Britain, a chosen RHS theme of Chelsea 2016, about transforming built-up areas into living, planted places that enrich lives.
“Our urban areas are obviously less green than 20 years ago, because more people and cars are taking up the space. When I lived in London in the 1980s, perhaps two houses on my street had made their front garden into a driveway. Most households had one car, and twentysomethings weren’t living back with their parents, unable to afford anything else.
Front gardens are a shared public space, part of the street. If a car is parked there, it’s simply a place we arrive at and depart from, not where we stay. That’s a real shame. It’s a price we pay for the society we want. The only way around it is to reduce the number of cars, therefore better public transport infrastructure would improve front gardens. We must use more brownfield sites, and it’s not beyond the wit of design to construct newbuilds to accommodate gardens and cars.”
Is there a European dimension to this? Does he have any feeling whether greening Britain is more likely in or out of Europe?
“I very strongly feel that we should remain within Europe. Everything will be better. Leaving is complete nonsense and a ridiculous fantasy. We are European for better or worse, and we should work at making it a good association rather than turning the clock back. There is good stuff being done in Europe, using urban spaces to environmental and aesthetic advantage. We can learn from that.
“We’re an insular nation. We’re very good at invention and creation but we’re not as good as we might be at learning from others. I’m optimistic the referendum will go the way I hope, but to listen to the media, you would imagine people talk of nothing else, whereas around my way I have never heard anyone mention it. Still, I will exercise my vote, although I’m not party partisan at all – I have no party feeling whatsoever.”
He has appeared twice on Question Time, however, and during his recent seven-year tenure as president of the Soil Association he met Cabinet ministers and spoke before Parliamentary committees.
“I enjoy doing something with politicians where you can be the voice of the ordinary person and try to speak common sense. All politicians are selling something. It’s a privilege to have a voice on big issues but it’s not something I’d like to do every week.”
Finding the time would be the first hurdle. Some may imagine Don potters in his garden for 30 minutes a week, idly chatting with a camera which happens to be around, and is otherwise at a loose end. In fact the 40 days’ filming each year at Longmeadow – the name is a construct purely for television – are the least of it, as every Gardeners’ World filmed there contains six segments which each require detailed planning. He also gives dozens of talks, attends shows, writes books (he completed his 18th over the last winter), produces 11 articles every month, and owns a small sheep farm on the Welsh borders.
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