Penny at the trendy flower shop Scentevent thought spring flowers would be the thing – cut hyacinths at £10 a bunch, Soleil d'Or or the last of the Paperwhite narcissus from the Scilly Islands at £5 a bunch. The florist Paul Hawkins thought his mum would like freesias. "Not the white ones though. Something a bit mauvy, a bit pinky." We're talking Mother's Day here, the day (it's tomorrow) when florists shift even more flowers than they do on Valentine's Day. For my mother, the day still meant violets, because that was the traditional thing to give when Mother's Day was still called Mothering Sunday, a rare day off when girls in service walked home with flowers they had picked on the way.
I meet Paul Hawkins at nine in the morning when he has already been at work for five hours, sniffing about in Covent Garden, picking up the stuff he needs for that day's event, a party for South African clients. So he'd been thinking banksias, warm rich colours, orange and red. Named by Harper's Bazaar as London's most fashionable florist, he has a long list of smart clients: Vivienne Westwood, Ralph Lauren, Hermès, Bruce Oldfield, Michael Caine, Nicky Clarke; he did a leathers and feathers party for Tamara Beckwith, and does not blench at the thought of masterminding a front cover for House & Garden.
"So what's the now look?" I ask. Things in rows are apparently out, which is a relief, and Hawkins thinks the Constance Spry style is back in. "A nightmare for florists who can't wire," he says. But he can, having trained at the grandaddy of all florists, Moyses Stevens. "Anything en masse," he adds. "Hun1dreds of parrot tulips. Anything that looks like a Princess Margaret swimming hat. Tons of forsythia. Big baskets of cherry blossom swathed in ivy. Elegance. A more natural feeling. Seasonal flowers. It's the only way forward."
The thing I envy about florists is that they think in armfuls, not bunches. They talk of wraps, not half-dozens. Only once did I buy flowers in that quantity. It was in Amsterdam, where I'd been doing research for my tulip book. My husband was with me. We had our car with us. And on our last day in Holland we bought bucketfuls of parrot tulips from the flower barges alongside the Singel. You can keep your spas and your massages. To buy flowers is still for me the purest form of self-indulgence.
And Hawkins, though it means cruelly early starts, still loves going to the flower market each morning. "The smell of flowers is so moving, the great armfuls of loveliness." He likes it especially on Mondays, when he picks up flowers for his weekly contract round of regular clients. With them, he has the freedom to choose whatever he falls in love with on the day. With private parties, he is often more restricted. Russian and Arab clients only want white flowers – arums and calla lilies. "They never do the herbaceousy, herby, countryish thing. No catkins or pussy willows."
Florists who do events (and Paul Hawkins does lots – at the National Theatre, The Savoy, Claridges) also need a strong sense of theatre. The flowers are a vital part of the stage that is being set, the scale of them, the way they are lit. It's still his favourite kind of event, "something first-nighty, red-carpety, well-lit". When Hawkins has a big party to do, he rents a railway arch in Camberwell as his HQ. The flowers are prepared there and arranged there as well. The tricky bit is transporting the finished pieces to the venue without dislodging or breaking any of them. I can scarcely gather a handful of Algerian iris without breaking off the heads. The thought of transporting 20 fully furnished urns to the V&A museum without a mishap brings me out in a cold sweat.
Hawkins is good at theatre though, because it's where he started, as a child actor, starring as Oliver in Cameron Macintosh's first stage musical in 1979. He appeared in The King and I with Yul Brynner and played Wharton in Another Country with Rupert Everett and Daniel Day-Lewis. But he never made the difficult switch from child actor to the grown-up stage, preferring instead to train, first as a decorator with the famous firm of Colefax and Fowler, and then as a florist.
Generally, he thinks Englishmen are not good about buying flowers and that sons are less likely to remember Mother's Day than daughters. "An Englishman may come into a flower shop and say, 'What have you got for a tenner?' An Italian will come in and say, 'I want five of those and three of those and seven of those.' Quite a different attitude."
So, how does one get into his line of business, I wonder. "A certain amount can be taught," says Hawkins, giving full credit to his mentor, John McCormack, at Moyses Stevens. There are tricks that professionals need to know: how to give extra height in arrangements (cunning long-stemmed flower holders), how to wire flowers but still give the impression they've been plucked from some hedgerow. But in the end, he says, it comes down to love and instinct. You've got to love flowers to fully understand their potential.
And does he garden, I ask? "Oh yes!" he replies, with emphasis. "I've always gardened. Even when I was a small child I had my own garden. Gladioli. And a rather scary rockery." He's now got a cottage in an Oxfordshire village where he retreats at the weekend. Recently he did the church flowers there (the occasion was the arrival of a new organ). That was brave, for no eyes will have been beadier than those of the regular rota of flower ladies at the church. But he must have thought the event went OK, because he had pictures of it on his mobile. The flowers looked ravishing.
Paul Hawkins does not have a shop, but you can reach him on 0870 8502721, 07957 424596, email@example.comReuse content