My Garden World: Monty Don book review

Monty Don's new book covers the burgeoning literary patch of nature writing.

In recent years, hundreds of books have tried to redefine what nature writing can be. Without fail, their premise is finding yourself through an emotional connection with the countryside.

The new tradition perhaps took off with Robert MacFarlane's mix of nature, history and language in The Wild Places (2007), which looks for what it means for a place to be wild using poetic observations, scientific background and anecdote.

Another landmark of the style was H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald (2014), which is now followed by Vesper Flights, translating place into prose on an emotional journey - TH White's The Goshawk for the anxious generation.

Now Gardeners' World presenter Monty Don has joined the genre, usually easily identified by a book cover of a woodcuts of trees or native wild animal. However, Monty is a big enough star for his book to feature Monty, in his braces, cord jacket and French peasant trousers, with his dog, amongst the umbellifer.

Another Don book, on American Gardens, is also published this month. His dog book Nigel was a bestseller last year. This is essentially a follow up to the dog book, based on decades of observations written in diaries.

The title My Garden World is a bit of a misnomer. There are not many gardens where you will see hares, mountain ponies or hops. Hardly anyone has anything like his garden Longmeadow's couple of acres of plot. Maybe the next Gardeners' World presenter will present from their windowbox.

He follows the move towards rewilding and letting animals live in the garden. As ever with Monty, he's been doing it for decades. The diary-style format allows him to be formulaic. He sees a vole or whatever in the garden, gets beautifully poetic (descriptions such as "sinuous hovercraft" are Don's strength, though this is not about the vole by the way), does a Wikipedia-style bit on it, then tells a story about voles when he was a boy. Next, it's onto otters, then badgers. They snack and breakfast, falling into the usual trap of anthropomorphism.

Don is keen to be the countryman, and he has lived for 25 years at Longmeadow in Herefordshire, where he presents Gardeners' World from. He likes the uncommon hedeghogs and kingfishers but doesn't like pesky moles or foxes much. He understands the cruelty of nature. What strikes me about Don is he is often posing - he seems to be trying to say the right thing, and ends up sounding, shall we say, Richard Madeley-like. His unintended transparency is quite endearing.

I suppose his Gardeners' World predecessor Alan Titchmarsh, who remains more popular than Monty, is always playing up his folksy working class roots schtick - "nobbut a lad, butter wouldn't melt" - in the same way Don does the rustic thing. But while Titch has a light touch eg. "trowel and error", Mont is pretty earnest, which has a popularism of its own and is perhaps more in tune with the times.

There's not much tradition of gardeners breaking out of the category, other than Titchmarsh's raunchy novels. There's also no tradition of critical gardening book reviews. Garden magazines usually just describe and recommend books, often by the reviewers' friends. Most of the publicity around this book is about Don's mental state. He isn't allowed to talk to gardening magazines because he has a contract with BBC Gardeners' World. He's also contracted to The Daily Mail, but in The Times, he talks boarding school (horrible), illnesses, bankruptcy and depression.

Gardening is therapy from all this, and so is wildlife. Though there's not much horticulture in this book, though gardening isn't gardening anymore, it's holistic, and almost genre-busting. 


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