Category Archives: Writers

Beth Chatto – a natural subject

A GARDENER'S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto (Photo: Alamy).
A GARDENER’S PLACE Award winning plantswoman Beth Chatto.

A Writer’s year with a great gardener.

WHEN I first arrived at the Beth Chatto Gardens in midsummer 1996, a bright, animated woman called Rosie greeted me and showed me into the house, where gardener and writer Beth Chatto hosted me for morning tea.

I was there to investigate the viability of producing a documentary on Beth and her work, and what struck me immediately was her gracious nervousness. Taking nothing whatsoever for granted, this multiple Chelsea award-winning gardener was as vulnerable as an auditioning actor.

She’d loved the program one of my colleagues had made about another respected local gardener – Suffolk’s Peggy Cole – because it had captured the truth about what it takes to nurture an English garden, and she hoped I could do the same for her.

Once outside, and more relaxed within the fluid environs of her garden, Beth related that she’d made a program about her garden before, but to date, she felt, no-one had captured what the Beth Chatto Gardens was really all about.

We walked, we talked, and Beth encouraged me to get right within the garden itself, to tread through beds to see the workings of the water garden or the structure of the gravel garden.

Passing a small group of visitors, she introduced herself, directly but politely, to a woman who was taking cuttings, not by reprimanding the culprit, but by saying, “Please, feel free …”, despite the well stocked nursery on the other side of the hedge.

That mixture of shock at her garden being picked-at, and her inner turmoil at wanting to share it without rancour, showed a complex woman with a very interesting story. All I wanted to know was when could we start?

I read as much as I could about Beth’s work and her place in post-war English gardening. She patiently gave me time to catch-up, but underlined that we’d need to spend time in the garden, perhaps an entire year, to film it in its fullness.

As a producer new to the company he worked for, that meant I needed to test budgetary terms, and face questions about when the product could be ready for the marketplace. Could the execs wait another Christmas? Had this territory already been covered enough by another company?

GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).
GULLY TRANSFORMED The water garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens (Photo: The Beth Chatto Gardens).

The best thing I could think to do was simply to start. A cameraman, Alan James (another Essex gardener in his own right), and me, just filmed as the seasons cycled, as they do so dramatically in England. Along the way, I felt sure I would find a way to make the project work for all the stakeholders.

Beth Chatto’s ornamental garden is just one part of her work. Situated at the end of a farm lane, not far from the Essex town of Colchester, it occupies a small gully between working farm fields which Beth and her husband Andrew transformed into their world famous garden.

A commercial nursery makes up almost half of the property, and much of that is taken up by large-scale compost production. I recall Beth’s delight when we proved ourselves willing to film tractors at work on steaming piles of leaf litter. Her approach to our company, with its track record for making programs about farm machinery, was paying off.

On one day’s filming in winter, a quiet, well-dressed man (who looked a bit like I’d imagine a Russian philosopher would) was seated on the other side of the fire in the garden office when I arrived. Rosie asked me to take a seat to warm myself, and Andrew Chatto gently introduced himself.

Beth credits her husband Andrew Chatto with the original inspiration behind their garden for one very simple reason. It was Andrew who came up with the idea of finding plants from across the temperate world, and to grow them in England under conditions that were suited to their needs. This was Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’ concept in a nutshell.

To explain why such a basic philosophy became so revolutionary, you’d need to tackle centuries of horticultural collecting conducted by the great botanists who accompanied Britain’s explorers on dangerous voyages to bring seeds and cuttings back home.

The famous glasshouses of Kew were built to house this booty, and to keep it alive against the cold climate. The movement eventually encouraged generations of ordinary gardeners to buy whatever plants we liked, stick them in our back yards, and hope for the best.

Beth and Andrew were every bit as exploratory, not just because of their plant-inspired travels, but also because the climate and soil in Essex are not what you’d call typically English. Certainly the annual rainfall is not what other counties enjoy. The Chattos were also not afraid to wait many years to see what happened.

And what happened speaks for itself … the scrubby gully is now a stunning series of gardens that descend almost imperceptibly along a natural water-course. Preceding Beth’s well-loved books on water and shade gardening, these immaculate green spaces were her laboratory in an ongoing love affair with plants.

DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto's Gravel Garden.
DROUGHT CONDITIONS Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden (Photo: Alamy)

Our filming coincided with the peak early years of Beth’s latest project at the time – her gravel garden. In an ongoing experiment, quite ahead of its time, she vowed to never irrigate this garden, to test the boundaries of gardening under drought conditions, well aware of the tussle to come between farmers and gardeners over access to water.

Here was something an Australian could really get his head around – the gravel garden at the Beth Chatto Gardens reminded me of home, with its sparse, elemental feel and the heat that emanated from the ground, literally inches thick with small stones and filled with plants familiar to me from roadsides in the Outback.

As the months passed we got to know Beth’s staff quite well. I would often catch a glimpse of her observing our filming processes from a distance, and once she saw her gardeners chatting with us and surrendering to the often annoying process of, “now, could you just do that again, and we’ll film it from this angle …”, she would disappear into the house to get on with other work.

As an interviewee on camera Beth Chatto proved a natural. I realised very quickly that I’d only need to capture her in conversation and get Alan to just turn the camera on. Years of communicating her story had given her an edge that needed no other commentary.

In the last few months of filming, Beth kept gently reminding me that she’d like some group shots of the staff, and on one day in the Summer of 1997 we got everyone to down tools and take part in a photo shoot that we committed to tape. As the centre-piece to those moments, I saw Beth about the happiest I’d ever seen her.

She also understood innately what I was doing when I asked one of our execs to be an extra in a whole day’s filming, our one ‘big budget’ spend, working with a crane to capture high-angle motion shots. Beth guided my boss through the highly repetitious process of take after take, until we had it just right.

I became a gardener as a result of my year with Beth Chatto. What I know about gardens I learned from her, particularly about how to live in a garden and not be too precious about the life that runs through it – pets, visiting wildlife, and people who like to take cuttings.


The Beth Chatto Gardens DVD is available from BecksDVDs.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Helene Hanff – lady of letters

MISTRESS OF MISSIVES Helene Hanff (1916-1997) made a career of letter writing.
MISTRESS OF MISSIVES Helene Hanff (1916-1997) made a career of letter writing.

COULD there be a better proponent of written communication, a smarter wordsmith, a more ‘writerly’ writer than New York denizen, Queen of the day job, rejection letter collector, and one of the world’s biggest fans of English Literature – Helene Hanff (1916-1997), author of 84, Charing Cross Road?

Of all the writers I admire, I cannot think of one who deserved more to have lived long enough to write in the age of blogging.

It could be argued that Helene Hanff invented the style of writing now employed almost blindly by bloggers the world over – the confessional epistolary genre, studded with emotion, was embedded in her genes, and her unbeatable use of it was borne of her own life experience.

“I’m a great lover of i-was-there books,” she wrote in her most famous work.

“That her nature often resulted in alienation gives her story all the more pathos.”

Overwhelmed by a sense of failure and loneliness in her fifties, after the collapse of some long-held dreams about becoming a Broadway playwright (not to mention the four decades she spent trying), Hanff received news that one of her oldest friends had died.

This was bookstore manager Frank Doel of Marks & Co. at the address made famous by the title of her book, in the city of London, England.

The two had known one another since 1949. Hanff was devastated.

Forget that she had never been to London. Forget that they had never met face to face. Through their two decade correspondence, Doel and Hanff had developed a unique long distance friendship.

There was no overt romance, but there was a great and tender mutual love of English Literature – Hanff the reader, and Doel her literary scout, seeking-out affordable copies of the classics for a writer of limited means eking out an existence in New York City.

Compelled to document what may have felt like one of the more meaningful relationships in her life, Hanff embarked on what she thought would be a very small work.

MEETING OF MINDS First edition cover of Hanff's most famous book.
MEETING OF MINDS First edition cover of Hanff’s most famous book.

It’s hard to put a finger on why 84, Charing Cross Road resonates with readers. Beyond the letters between the main characters, Hanff (and Doel, in his replies) recorded the early post-WWII years on both sides of the Atlantic, through to the revolutionary late 1960s. On the journey, they held steadfastly to literature as the world changed around them.

I first encountered this story in its 1987 film adaptation, starring Anne Bancroft as Hanff and Anthony Hopkins as Doel.

What spoke to me was the idea that Hanff fed her soul without really leaving her living room, which some might consider limited, but which struck me as profoundly imaginative.

She really was an armchair traveller who reassured people the world over that where we were, right at that moment, was neither limited or mundane, if only we could read and access our imaginations.

I felt I was starting to understand Hanff better when I read one of her most revealing paragraphs in the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, when she described how she stumbled into what is known as the Actors’ Church in London’s Covent Garden, and promptly burst into tears at the sight of the small plaque in memory of Vivien Leigh.

It also says a lot that Hanff doesn’t explain why. Her sentiment was very personal, but it was also very private. She seemed to take plenty of secrets to her death in 1997, leaving behind much speculation about her life.

Although readers and fans got a rare glimpse into Helene Hanff’s life in a 2014 tribute written by her cousin, writer Jean Hanff Korelitz, who recorded her first meeting with her famous relative.

“Helene turned out to be a small woman with the wiry build of a preadolescent boy, and she dressed in a style that had seen her through decades of a writer’s life: wool trousers, cardigans, flat sneakers, everything well worn and often less than scrupulously clean,” Korelitz wrote.

“She had a barking voice, a wry perpetual smile, and a pageboy haircut that veered in colour towards a not entirely natural rust.”

These observations make Hanff sound like a short Katharine Hepburn, but it was Hanff’s response to her young cousin’s first published book that is the more revealing memory. According to Korelitz, when Hanff questioned, brusquely, why Korelitz wrote something “like that?”

“Five minutes later she called back, in tears. ‘I’m sorry,’ she wailed. I was stunned, and tried to persuade her that it was nothing, but she didn’t believe me, and she was right; when she died the following year there was still that skein of discomfort between us.”

These moments are reminiscent of similar turning points in 84, Charing Cross Road that do not appear in the correspondence, but rather provide the links between Doel and Hanff’s letters.

For example, when Hanff writes of sending a food package to the staff at the London bookshop in the middle of Britain’s postwar rationing, only to realise that the six-pound ham in it may have meant any kosher Jewish staff would miss out, she cares enough to write and make other arrangements.

In these anecdotes, Hanff reveals herself as an ‘act first, think second’ character, but one who was never afraid to try better next time.

Confronted with her younger cousin’s publication success, the woman who’d waited until she was almost fifty to make her own literary splash, and only did so by writing primarily about herself, Hanff’s response to Korelitz is understandable.

But it’s this combination of a strong individual who showed actions of great empathy that provides the dynamic attractive force in Helene Hanff, and, by extension, her work. That her nature often resulted in alienation gives her story all the more pathos.

A loyal respondent to the thousands of fan letters she received (and, according to her obituarist, kept in relative poverty for a few years from the postage costs), Hanff’s true life’s work was probably in these letters, surely scattered across the globe by now.

“If she were alive today, Helene Hanff would preside over the world’s most followed literary blog.”

One day, Hanff’s replies to these fan letters may provide an even deeper account of this intensely private woman who preferred to put things in writing – after all, her breakthrough work (and certainly her most enduring), is ‘just’ an edited collection of letters.

If only the rest of her missives could be collected.

Her correspondence style was direct, humorous, polite, punctuated by outbursts in capitals and underlinings for emphasis (you can hear the clack of her typewriter in the execution), and you’ll never catch her abrevi8.

It’s tempting to imagine what Hanff would think of all the communication problems modern internet participants encounter in their use of written language. I’d like to think she’d write: “GET OVER IT and just READ, for God’s sake!” and: “TONE, you think I used a TONE with you? Of course I did …”

PLUCK COVER copyIf she were alive today, Helene Hanff would preside over the world’s most followed literary blog, from which she’d broadcast her wry empathy to the world from her kitchen table. Would Twitter’s 140 characters have given her the space to say what she wanted? I am sure she’d have found a way; but emoticons? NEVER!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded


Branwell Brontë – literature’s never-was

GHOST WRITER? Does this portrait of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë include an erased self portrait of their brother Branwell?

DESPITE being the product of the same tiny Yorkshire parsonage as his successful sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, Patrick ‘Branwell’ Brontë (1817-1848) will forever be remembered as one of England’s greatest dilettantes.

The story of how a well educated, ambitious young man was left in the shade of his sisters’ literary success remains a knot of mystery biographers and historians have tried to unravel ever since a string of untimely deaths cut the Brontës’ output short in 1855.

The truncation of four literary careers has always drawn the focus from the siblings’ few books to their abundant juvenilia, which reveals great imaginary empires with characters not unlike some of the sisters’ later heroes and heroines. Branwell was an inherent part of the tight-knit creative cluster that created these unique fantasy worlds.

Although harsh realities eventually came to dominate childhood musings. In a parson’s family with multiple mouths to feed, where a mother had died young, and daughters outnumbered sons three to one, expectations weighed heavily on Branwell’s shoulders from a very young age.

No doubt he welcomed the attention, and while his sisters were sent away for their schooling, he was educated by his father at home, with the aim of getting him accepted into Oxford or Cambridge.

“Small early successes may have seemed too much like baby steps for Branwell.”

But the hoped-for pathway to university never materialised, possibly because Branwell had other ideas. Many of his young adult years were spent in the pursuit of success as a visual artist, particularly as a portraitist servicing the pre-photography tradition of upwardly mobile families having their likenesses recorded as an expression of their gentility.

His early enthusiasm and promise seemed to be flooded by his other enthusiasm – alcohol-soaked carousing with friends. After several failures at an array of careers, by his very early twenties, just like his sisters, Branwell ended up tutoring the children of the rich in private homes.

For Charlotte, Emily and Anne, the drudgery of governess work proved great fodder for their adult fiction, and drove them to seek other forms of income; whereas Branwell escaped the high level of responsibility that tutoring required into a surprising occupation for a creative young man – the management of a new railway line, part of the network that was being rolled-out across the north of England in the 1840s.

The income was good, although giving up his prospects as a portraitist, poet, and scholar must have weighed very heavily on this entitled young man. Without critical rewards, Branwell soon neglected his post and took to drinking, got sacked due to missing funds, and backtracked into tutoring.

He lasted two years, a good effort compared with his sisters’ governess work, but the stability didn’t last. Something happened in the home where Branwell tutored, something later described in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte as ‘bad beyond expression’.

LITERARY HOTBED The Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire.
LITERARY HOTBED The Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire.

It’s long been assumed that Branwell had an affair with the wife of his employer. Letters to his friends and his poetry hints at an unrequited yearning for Lydia Robinson, but to the present day a full-blown affair remains only an assumption.

Whatever the truth, Branwell was sacked in 1845 and he really had only one place to go.

If he expected to return as some missing hero to the literary hotbed his childhood home had become, he certainly was an entitled fool. In his absence, the once invisible door to creative collaboration with his sisters had been firmly closed.

He may have been the one to shut it, when he took a bunch of childhood tales and tried to adapt them into new forms for publication. Whether this disconnect was a direct result of Branwell’s attitude, his addictions, his ambitions, his guilt, or all of the above, he swiftly declined under the same roof as his sisters’ ascent.

There is very little evidence that Branwell was ever capable of applying himself to creativity long term, although it’s routinely overlooked that he was the first of his siblings to have work published, albeit under a false name – ‘Northlangerland’ – in local newspapers.

Having unsuccessfully pestered the editors of Britain’s prestigious Blackwoods magazine for years, these small early successes may have seemed too much like baby steps for Branwell, and without the perspective of sobriety, he probably never saw his own worth.

At the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth there is still a wealth of atmosphere to be experienced, although the closeness of the quarters is striking.

Without a hint to the outside world (or the world within), it was here that Branwell’s sisters wrote their poetry and their first trio of novels, and where the path to publication under pseudonyms began in 1846.

The sisters’ writing sessions must have been executed in espionage-like conditions to keep the truth from Branwell, but there is no way anyone could have hidden a well-developed drinking habit in this intimate setting.

Although their output was immune to whatever fuss they feared from their brother, Charlotte, Anne and Emily could not escape a far more deadly interference.

Branwell’s addictions probably masked consumptive symptoms, and he’s a handy source of blame for giving his sisters one of the 19th century’s deadliest killers – tuberculosis (TB).

This chronic condition is highly contagious, and before the advent of antibiotics almost a century later, it could be a swift killer. Despite his death certificate listing bronchitis and emaciation, Branwell succumbed to TB in September 1848. Emily died of it by December the same year. Anne tried convalescing at Scarborough on Yorkshire’s coast, but died in May 1849.

Charlotte may have thought she’d escaped, but, after ‘coming out’ as a female novelist, tasting London society for a brief time, marrying, and writing more novels, she too died of the disease in 1855.

While it’s clear Branwell frittered-away his life on booze and opium, he may not have been the source of the Brontë family TB. In 1825, two elder sisters – Maria and Elizabeth – contracted it while away at school. All the Brontë siblings may have been infected when both girls were brought home to Haworth to die, and subsequently carried the disease into adulthood.

Despite the extreme sense of failure that surrounds Branwell, we have him to thank for the only known portraits of the elusive Emily Brontë, the woman who wrote Wuthering Heights, one of the most passionate and enduring stories about human relationships; and one of only a few likenesses of Anne Brontë, writer of the first English novel in which a woman slams a door in the face of her husband – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

WRITER'S FACE Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond.
WRITER’S FACE Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond.

The power of these womens’ imaginations can only be fully appreciated when we remember that neither is known to have had romantic relationships, and both had witnessed plenty of bad behaviour among the men in their patriarchal world.

Charlotte Brontë’s striking features were captured by a man whose career Branwell would have aspired to – artist George Richmond – in a portrait revealing the essence of an emergent participant in the English literary scene.

Richmond’s skill only highlights Branwell’s shortcomings. In her brother’s earlier work, painted when he was a teenager, Charlotte is merely estimated as a two-dimensional bystander to another’s glory.

Much has been made by writers and historians about the mysterious ‘ghost’ in Branwell’s group portrait of his sisters – was it a self-portrait, painted-over in a fit of pique at his sisters’ success?

It’s a tempting theory, since the figure was once the focus of the composition, surrounded by sisters gathered like acolytes. Unfortunately the painting had access to too many hands after Branwell’s death (many who might have blamed him for the family’s demise) for us to be sure it was him who erased the central figure.

BAD BOY Branwell Brontë's self portrait.
BAD BOY Branwell Brontë’s self portrait.

Branwell’s only surviving self portrait (apart from his self-effacing cartoons) is a quick sketch of his profile. It’s as immediate and sinuous as a Matisse sketch, undoubtedly his finest single piece of creative expression, and could only have been executed using two mirrors.

This once-removed quality may have allowed him to see himself, truly, for long enough to create a lively, almost modern likeness.

In the light of his three-decade attempt to express himself through poems, essays, portraits and fiction, Branwell Brontë’s self portrait reveals a flash of genius amidst a wealth of failure. He remains a champion of the fine line between the two.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

PLUCK COVER copyThis article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.