Something Lurking In The Hollyhocks…

Great Britain


The hollyhocks are a giveaway – it could only be an English country garden. The one at Charleston, Sussex, summer home of members of the Bloomsbury Group. It seems an unlikely place for a battle, but that’s what’s going on here. Because in order to get here we had to pass through many pretty villages and past the kind of roses-around-the-door country cottages that send visitors into paroxysms of delight. And almost every one of them has a ‘Leave’ poster.

But this isn’t a countryside filled with retired colonels and maiden aunts anymore. Miss Marple has long gone. She’s been replaced by millionaires, rock musicians and oligarchs. And it seems they all want out.

Quite why this should be so is a mystery. Here near the downs that overlook the South Coast, peaceful lives are untouched by ‘the immigrant crisis’ (for this is what the argument has now boiled down to). Could this be the ‘return to making Britain Great again’ we keep hearing about? If so, why isn’t there a campaign to keep rich Russians out of the country?

This is the home of ‘Angry of Tunbridge Wells’, letters of protest sent to the Times from the archetypical sclerotic Southern Englishman, and perhaps that archetype is still here, just in a different form.

Charleston is quintessentially English. The wettest June ever has created a richness of greenery in England that is quite astonishing this year (so now is a good time to visit). Over half a century the little farmhouse in front of this garden became the country meeting place for the Bloomsbury Group of artists, writers and intellectuals. Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and EM Forster were frequent visitors to a place of (if one was being a tad cynical) rather dilettante-ish Bloomsbury types who didn’t need to work, painted lots of lovely pastels and got up to an awful lot of shagging. They were conscientious objectors and existed in a bubble of calm, buffeted by wealth, but they created works of great and lasting beauty. I’ve been here before and had dinner at the house, after winning a debate at the charming arts festival conducted here each May.

But there’s a statue (one of many, including the faintly creepy ‘levitating lady’) in the undergrowth that feels sinister to me. The figure across the lake reminds me of the moment in Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ when Miss Gittens sees the spirit of Miss Jessel in the reeds. Perhaps this is now the spirit of dissent lurking in the lush greenery of England.


Here’s the scene recreated in the superb film by Jack Clayton, retitled ‘The Innocents’. (If you haven’t done so before, I urge you to see it.) It was Edmund Wilson who first proposed the idea that the governess was suffering from hysteria, and that the menace holding Miles and Flora in its power was all in her fevered imagination.

The question of what is imagined and what is real is one that will grip the minds of most British people this week as they make a monumental and irreversible decision about their lives.


9 comments on “Something Lurking In The Hollyhocks…”

  1. DebbyS says:

    You’re going to hate me, but some smart-arse has to tell you that those tall flowers are almost certainly foxgloves not hollyhocks.

    Forget Henry James, the whole referendum thing is beginning to scare me.

  2. Vivienne says:

    The Innocents is the most tremendous film and really makes you look at Turn of the Screw from another angle – must re-read as I feel it is probably all there in James.

    Went for a walk yesterday, near Ashford, Middlesex (although British Rail calls it Surrey) and my sample of huge Leave posters were on houses where dogs barked ferociously as I walked by. One forced its head around the gate and I heartily wished it would strangle itself. Don’t feel like being ruled by such Brexiteers.

  3. Ness says:

    I always thought it was ‘disgusted’ from Tunbridge Wells? My train lost electricity at Tonbridge so I was destined to not find out about the good people of TW. Mildly peeved?

  4. DebbyS says:

    Sorry. Thinking about it, maybe your hollyhocks were purely metaphorical?

  5. admin says:

    No Debby my hollyhocks were wrongly named. I’m from King’s Cross, the only flowers we see are tied to lampposts after a murder.
    I did originally need them to be hollyhocks though as the original title of the piece was ‘Never mind the hollyhocks…’

  6. Jan says:

    You do talk some hollyhocks

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    I think it was Angry of Manchester.


  8. Jamie says:

    Ironically, ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ turned out to be a beacon of sanity – TW was the only town in Kent to vote Remain. Perhaps we should start referring to ‘decent of Tunbridge Wells’?
    Charleston is lovely. And they hold an annual short story festival there which one day I hope to attend.

  9. Lauren says:

    On a tangent, Donald Thomas wrote an excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiche based on The Turn of the Screw: Sherlock Holmes and the Ghosts of Bly.

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