The Bronte heroine who hated bouquets

Lillies planted by my mother

Lillies planted by my mother (All photos copyright Samira Ahmed. No re-use permitted)

For this week’s Something Understood producer Lucy Dichmont was keen to explore the elaborate Victorian coded language of floral bouquets. Unexpectedly I found myself pulling out memories and stories that I’ve been carrying around for decades. I’ve also created a Spotify list of music from the programme plus some extras.

At 16 I read my first Charlotte Bronte novel; Villette. And I’d never forgotten how her repressed plain heroine Lucy Snowe, stuck teaching vain little French coquettes in a Brussels finishing school described her dislike of cut flowers, on the day the whole school was supposed to bring in posies. What self-loathing and secret desire burned in Miss Snowe’s lonely repressed heart.

My Passionflower

My Passionflower

My suburban garden was supposed to have been the starting point for the programme — specifically the giant passionflower that sprawls all over the front door — that I was given 25 years ago.But the plant’s astounding visual structure, symbolism  and origins meant we began the journey in South America with the Conquistadors and the Jesuits and the haunting Ennio Morricone music from the film The Mission.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Rhododendrons in my garden.

Asian and South American exotica soon took over as they have much of southern England’s suburbia. Rhododendron bushes and bamboo glades are presided over by flocks of cawing Himalyan parakeets, which are rumoured to have been breeding since some escaped from the Isleworth Studios set of The African Queen.

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A cursory search for poems to celebrate the suburban garden will always  find John Betjeman and rhododendron poems rather too obsessed with hearty school girls, which we did not go with. However Sylvia Plath’s The Rhododendron Stealers offered a more intriguing female take on school girls and passion, rather  like Villette.

A child's eye view of a the flowers in our garden

A child’s eye view of a the flowers in our garden

Dave Brubeck’s Alice In Wonderland music, inspired by the Disney animated film, enabled me to remember the childhood magic of being the same height as flowers, and peering into the wildly patterned blooms of foxgloves, tulips and hollyhocks  like giant sea shells, with a kind of animal power. Most of these photos were taken by my daughter a couple of years ago, giving the the anthropomorphic effect of a child’s height view.

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Growing up in with Indian parents, there are still flowers that I know only by their Indian names – like the Champa – or in their much more powerful Indian forms — the fragrance of Indian gulabs (roses) and jasmine. Rabindranath Tagore and the music from the film Monsoon Wedding capture some of that intoxicating fragrance and beauty. But we can also allow surrender to the French orientalist fantasy of the Flower Duet in  Delibe’s 19th century opera Lakme — about the doomed romance between an Indian Brahmin maiden and a British imperial officer. A famous brand of Indian cosmetics is still named Lakme after her.

Ice Cream and Savoy tea roses in my garden

Ice Cream (white) and Savoy Hotel (pink) tea roses in my garden

But if I have a favourite piece of music in the programme, it is the Ben E King version of the much covered Spanish Harlem. I originally planned for it to run immediately after I talk about planting roses that remind me of inner London. And it’s that song I think of when I reminisce about the cracked concrete of those long hot summers in the city and the welcome escape of the parks and the shared joy of the flowers within.

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Something Understood is on Radio 4 on Sunday March 8th and iplayer for a month after.

Further reading/listening

Music from the programme (Spotify)

My Secret Hollywood Garden  

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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