Tag Archives: prole drift

From vintage menu cards to prole drift

I was recently gifted a set of four menu cards from the S.S. Monterey in 1938. That faux Gauguin look may not appeal to some. Indeed, the whole mention of Gauguin is a minefield with what we know now. I like the colour and vibrancy of these, even while understanding it is a sentimental take on South Pacific maidens. I think the insight into days gone by is fascinating, even more so when you consider that these items were retrieved from the Luggate dump.

Luggate is a very small settlement in Central Otago which has recently undergone a period of rapid growth to reach a population of 648. There wasn’t a whole lot of information about Luggate on line but I did find this delightful, though irrelevant quote, from the Otago Daily Times:

”I think one of the biggest changes was when the cricket club took over the domain [in the mid-1970s] because it used to get cut once a year and was used to make hay,” Mrs Anderson laughed.

Anyway, that is where these menu cards were found, presumably in the days when it had an old-fashioned dump. I had to take one of the cards out of its frame because it had slipped and the inside revealed the date and the cruise liner. There was a lot more information about the S.S. Monterey on line than there was about Luggate. It was a luxury ocean liner first launched in 1931 and built to promote travel from USA to the South Pacific, including New Zealand. It was repurposed as a speedy troop carrier during World War 2 before returning to its cruise ship role, although it took over a decade for the refit from troop ship back to ocean liner.

I have never been on a cruise and frankly, the prospect of choosing to holiday on a modern behemoth makes me shudder. Plague ships, a friend of mine calls them and that was before Covid and the Ruby Princess and Diamond Princess. Besides, Mark suffers from seasickness to the extent that even short ferry rides can be problematic. But I am guessing a modern cruise does not resemble the privileged luxury of this earlier ocean liner.

The abbreviated wine list (‘Complete Wine List Available on Request’) is sourced from France – only French champagne, darls – Germany, Australia and just Chianti from Italy.

The food menu is likely to have been table service but not cooked to order, looking at its contents. It certainly looks extensive and impressive, ranging from Hawaiian Frog Legs to Apple Cream Pie, but I think our ideas of gourmet food have evolved in the last 80 years. The appetizers contain such delights as Canape of Bloater Paste, Sardines in Oil, Smoked Liver Sausage and Emrelettes. I had to Google Emrelettes – a trademarked brand of tinned grapes that have been peeled and de-seeded, tinted green and flavoured with Crème de menthe. So now you know, too, in case it ever comes up in a quiz.

I am cooped up at the moment, having just had cataract surgery. So I am not allowed to garden or to bend or lift anything heavy for a full week, leaving me with time on my hands. The insight into a luxury cruise of privilege had me looking online for photos of early commercial passenger airflights. We may laugh at the rattan chairs (chosen because they are lightweight?) but oh to have flown in the days of s p a c e and table service. I couldn’t find the photo that I have seen previously of the hot carvery being wheeled down the aisle that fresh meat may be sliced individually as required. It is all such a far cry from the utility economy class – cattle class – that most of us fly these days – or did, until the beginning of last year. Flying has certainly lost its glamour down the years.

Why have flying and, cruising lost their glamour? It is simple: because they have become accessible to the hoi polloi, the plebs, the common people. It is the process of democratisation – ‘the action of making something accessible to everyone’. It is clear in many aspects of the modern world we live in: leisure, flying, fashion… even gardening.

I have written often enough about the desire by many New Zealand gardeners to emulate the garden styles of the rich and powerful, usually historical English gardens but with forays into other European styles from the past. I still like this piece I wrote on prole drift and I am not at all sure that a whole lot has changed in the ten years since I published it. But who am I to complain, being a direct beneficiary of the process of the democratisation of gardening?

Tarting up the veggie patch

Setting the standard, really. The ultimate potager in the parterres of Villandry (Wiki Commons photo)

Setting the standard, really. The ultimate potager in the parterres of Villandry (Wiki Commons photo)

The arrival of a book on ornamental edible gardening set us thinking and talking about tarting up the veggie patch (in the vernacular), or the role of the potager (for those who aspire to a touch more class).

Keen vegetable gardeners may throw their hands up in horror. For some, there is beauty in a well presented vegetable garden with good straight rows, obedient plants in healthy condition and a succession of crops. There are sound reasons for planting vegetables in rows, including ongoing maintenance with a push hoe which is not only effective for weed control but also keeps the surface well tilled. I doubt that any other method of vegetable gardening can rival the traditional techniques for productivity. It takes ongoing work to keep it all in tiptop condition but that is to be expected. Why, some veggie gardeners may wonder, would you want to turn it into an even higher maintenance, yet lower productivity style of gardening by imposing ornamental values on what is essentially an unpretentious, utilitarian activity?

The ornamental edible garden, or potager, is almost de rigeuer today. Here is the marriage of food production with traditional garden design and practice, right? Well, yes and no. If you look at the history, it is another gardening style that has its origins with the rich and powerful of Europe, now democratised. Another example of prole drift, one could say a little unkindly. The stylised and designated herb garden, often laid out on formal principles dates back to times when herbs were more about medicine than cooking. As such, the range of plants grown was considerably more extensive and these gardens belonged in monasteries or designated apothecary gardens attached to institutions.

A word about parterres and potagers. The parterre is a highly stylised form of gardening, laid out on lines of rigid symmetry, much favoured in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One of the grandest was created at Versailles for Louis XIV. The famous parterres of Villandry, also in France, are modern, dating back to the early 1900s. I liken the parterre to tapestry gardening. It is about building pleasing designs with plant blocks, originally planned for viewing by the lord from upper story windows. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the harvest, even when vegetables are included.

Potager is another French word, now widely applied to ornamental edible gardens. It is on a more domestic scale but its origins were also socially elevated. The peasants of yore would not have been growing in such a managed and decorative manner and the middle classes had yet to appear. So it was the upper echelons of society who could afford to indulge in creating formal gardens to grow edible crops in an ornamental style.

Rosemary Verey popularised the potager on a domestic scale (Photo:  Brian Robert Marshall)

Rosemary Verey popularised the potager on a domestic scale (Photo: Brian Robert Marshall)

The late English gardener, Rosemary Verey, is credited with popularising the potager in the last twenty years and in her hands it became a marriage of formal garden design, herbaceous traditions and food production. However, she seemed to refer to it, in the main, as simply a vegetable garden. The English show mastery of understatement. There is a pleasing symmetry in a well cared for ornamental edible garden and the formality means such gardens photograph well. It is a particularly feminine style.

It is just not a style to which we aspire personally. It is not quite one thing or the other. The principal criterion for plant inclusion is that it be edible or possibly medicinal, not that one will actually harvest it. Frankly, how many bay leaves will you ever use? One bay tree has its place, a row of topiary laurus nobilis is technically fitting the edible criterion but is primarily ornamental. And if one is going to grow ornamentals, I’d rather have topiary michelias, camellias or something more interesting than boring bay trees.

If you are gardening for looks, then the whole block of highly decorative red cabbages is going to mature at the same time so, unless you are into pickled cabbage big time, most will end up on the compost heap. Besides, you spoil the effect if you harvest one at a time, as required.

And then there are those tidy buxus hedges defining garden beds. Leaving aside the ravages of buxus blight and the fact that these tidy hedges harbour snails, buxus has an invasive root system. It sucks the goodness out of the soil and as the roots reach further afield, it becomes problematic to get crops of lush, healthy vegetables in the middle.

Often lavender is used as an edging plant but any of those big, floppy types of edgers are a problem if you have narrow paths (brick is the favoured option) and a high rainfall climate. I prefer to pop out to the garden to pick a lemon or a lettuce without getting wet lower legs.

More meadow garden than potager here

More meadow garden than potager here

We are pragmatic here. We would rather have good crops of vegetables, easily planted, tended and able to be harvested as required, with more permanent plantings of ornamentals elsewhere. That said, our vegetable gardens are by no means limited to vegetables. By this time in late summer, they are more akin to meadow gardens. Mark is fond of growing annuals for butterfly food but zinnias, marigolds and the like do not sit comfortably in our more restrained ornamental gardens so they get bedded in and allowed to seed amongst the vegetables. For us, the meadow has more romance than the potager. Besides, in this day and age when two raised beds out of tantalised timber and a citrus tree in a pot are claimed to be a potager, we would rather tread a different path.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Prole drift in New Zealand gardening

The rococo styled fountain has drifted down the road from us

The rococo styled fountain has drifted down the road from us

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.

Repro classical statuary to your heart's desire from the Marble Mountains near Hoi An in Vietnam

Repro classical statuary to your heart's desire from the Marble Mountains near Hoi An in Vietnam

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.