Gnomes spark row over fairies at Chelsea

For many listeners of the Today programme, the off-the-cuff comment yesterday from an Oxford academic and gardening expert was a flippant if slightly uncomfortable reminder of bygone attitudes.

Millions heard Robin Lane-Fox, a fellow of New College, label garden designers as "fairies" during a debate about the Chelsea Flower Show on Radio 4, prompting a stifled snigger from others in the studio.

The Today programme said several listeners complained about Dr Lane-Fox's comments, while some gardening experts branded them as outrageous.

Dr Lane-Fox was talking about the practice of banning garden gnomes and other "kitsch" items - including fairies - from the annual event which opened to the public yesterday.

When questioned about the fairies ban, he quipped: "If you ban fairies, you have to ban half the garden designers."

Afterwards, Dr Lane-Fox told The Independent that stood by his comment, rejecting the idea that it was in any way homophobic and added that "there are several very distinguished, great garden designers who are solely male-orientated", who in common parlance, would be called "fairies".

"They [designers] can be anything they like, but legislating against them would be a great pity. Some are rampant homosexuals, some are rampant heterosexuals and some are celibate," he added.

Tim Rumball, editor of Amateur Gardening magazine, who was arguing against the academic on the radio show, said he was not offended by the comment but that some in the industry had been outraged. "I just laughed at the comment but... there were people who thought it was not a good thing to say," he said. The gardening experts were discussing the wider issue of the ban on garden gnomes at the horticultural show.

The Royal Horticultural Society, which runs the Chelsea Flower Show, clearly states in its rules that gnomes or any "brightly coloured creatures" are out of bounds at the exhibition, as well as balloons, bunting and flags. The official explanation is that these items may "distract" from the garden designs, but critics suggest the real reason for the exclusion of gnomes is that they have been deemed too tacky for the illustrious flower show.

Dr Lane Fox supported the ban, calling the garden gnome a "hideous" creation that did not belong in the garden show. Ignoring an interjection by the Today presenter, saying: "That's snobbery", he added: "They [garden gnomes] are kitsch... There's no way we want mass produced gnomes or toadstools."

But Mr Rumball objected to the ban, claiming it was sheer snobbery that kept gnomes out.

He pointed out that garden gnomes were the pride of 19th-century aristocratic gardens before they fell from grace, and that high-quality antique gnomes were sold for substantial sums to collectors around the world. He said he feared the Chelsea Flower Show was limiting creativity through banning what it deemed to be in bad taste. "Chelsea is all about class. That's why it has banned them. The show is terrific and great fun but one of the reasons why people aspire to Chelsea's pinnacle of gardening is because everyone talks with plums in their mouths, ladies wear lovely clothes and the Queen goes along. All of these things make Chelsea something to aspire to.

"I'm a great believer in letting people do what they want with their gardens. I would not want gnomes in my garden, but everyone to their own. I don't think what they are putting on at the moment is significantly different from gnomes. There is a garden designed for Cancer Research UK which has a sausage shaped gazebo ... which is great for those who love modern design but it would leave me cold.

"Lots of things that appear in Chelsea are as offensive to me as garden gnomes but I wouldn't want them to go away. If you start banning things, you limit people's creativity."

Not welcome at the flower show

* Gnomes or brightly coloured creatures

* Balloons

* Bunting

* Flags

* Materials exuding a foul odour including spray paint

* Any other items deemed by the Royal Horticultural Society to have "no direct or demonstrable relevance to horticulture or gardening"

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