Prole drift. I had never heard of it until last week but I was greatly amused by it. The usual example of prole drift is the devaluing of status suffered by the Burberry plaid when it was embraced with gusto by the chavs of the UK (referred to, apparently, as a downmarket demographic). The SUV is undergoing a similar slide in status. The classic Range Rover slipped a little when Japanese manufacturers started making more reasonably priced models. But those new generation sports utility vehicles still came with a reasonably hefty price tag and appealed to the wealthy middle classes who wanted to look as if they were forever whipping up to the ski fields, whether or not it was true. “The four wheel drive is so handy – eliminates the need for chains, don’t you know.” In those early days, such vehicles were often referred to as urban tractors or Remuera shopping baskets. These days they are just as likely to be Manukau or Pakuranga Tractors. There is a certain inevitability that the status symbols of the privileged will be coveted just as much by those a little lower, or indeed much lower, on the socio economic ladder.
But as I pondered prole drift, it occurred to me that it is a remarkably good description of much of New Zealand gardening. In an earlier column, I asked whether there was such a thing as the New Zealand garden. I came to the conclusion that there are certainly some defining characteristics. At that time, I wrote:
It must be something in our egalitarian heritage which has many New Zealanders taking the ideas of the large, historic gardens – especially in Britain though sometimes from wider Europe – and attempting to re-create something similar here. We seem to be oblivious to the fact that the vast majority of the great gardens of Europe and Britain were established and maintained by the wealthy and the powerful who could afford to pay gardeners to actually do the work. So we go for high maintenance gardening styles (clipped hedges, a touch of topiary, sweeping lawns, mixed borders, buxus enclosures around statuary) – all the trappings of the gentry and the nobility which our forbears were so keen to leave behind.
Prole drift! That is what it is: prole drift. We are still at the stage of wanting the status and class (prounounced something akin to claarss) and thinking that if we embrace the status symbols of those further up the social scale, somehow the mystique of privilege will envelop us as well. It is not our egalitarian heritage after all. It is covetous envy and has resulted in scores of mini-Sissinghursts and even mini-Villandrys with barely a smidgeon of originality. Buxus hedges in abundance, tightly clipped, filled with either neat and decorative vegetables (which makes it a potager), citrus trees (which makes it Italianate), colour toned perennials or annuals in formal style (French parterres) or a froth of artfully casual blooms lifted by the mandatory white cosmos or foxgloves (which passes for English cottage style but tightly corseted by encircling low hedges) , with accents of clipped topiary balls or pyramids, even the occasional knot garden, all ornamented with obelisks, Lutyens styled garden seats, pergolas, formal avenues, laburnum arches, and… marble garden features. Diana, perhaps, something armless or a small fountain.
The funny thing is that so far so good – this heavily derivative style of prole drift gardening has indeed been accorded status and recognition in this country and, scarily, is often equated with style, superior taste and class. It remains to be seen what happens as it continues its drift sideways and downwards.
The evolution of a New Zealand style of gardening better suited to our conditions (geographic, climatic, botanic, cultural and financial) will continue. Genuinely original gardens shine and in time, we may see a decline in popularity of the current prole drift styles.
Random piece of information: just beyond Hoi An in Vietnam, on the road to Danang are the Marble Mountains. These are mined and the local craftsman can create whatever you desire and to whatever scale you wish. What is more, they will then pack it and ship it to your home. On the day we visited, the striking memory was of the carved American eagle, but the factory was full of repro classical statuary. You too can order your greatest desire – and at third world prices. They were doing a roaring trade in the classical figures. I am afraid I still subscribe to the view that if you can’t have an original (and the British museums got first dibs on a large quantity of them), then you are better off to have nothing.
A final few words about the rococo fountain: it belongs to Pat. I do not for one minute think that Pat believed that this recent installation in her front garden would elevate her social status. It is equally unlikely that she has looked into the rococo forbears of her fountain. No, she bought it because
a) she really liked it
b) it was cheap
and c) she has a very obliging husband who was willing to install it for her. I just think that the fountain may have drifted as far as it can – it may have reached its ultimate destination.