Tom Hodgkinson: Gardening beats Valium every time


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The Independent Online

Last week I found myself at a literary festival in Cologne, talking about gardening to 250 Germans. Sharing the stage with me was a writer called Jakob Augstein. He has created a garden which is also a political statement against utilitarianism. You'll be familiar with that dry, arid philosophy, promoted by Jeremy Bentham and enthusiastically taken up this century by Labour politicians. It says that human action must be judged by how useful it is. It's an approach to things that seems to make some sense at first. Build roads, not churches! But human life is more complicated than that. We need beauty, meaning, joy and pain as well as mere efficiency.

Anyway, Mr Augstein's garden is strictly controlled and completely useless. He bans anything edible from it. No rocket or nasturtiums. He is tough on weeds and tough on the causes of weeds. No daisies on the lawn will be tolerated; if they dare to poke their heads above the grass, they will be immediately cut down with the lawn mower. Or, better, rooted out completely. The garden must be beautiful and any brutal method that will serve that end is acceptable.

My own garden is almost the philosophical opposite, as it is supposed to provide my family with food, and is frequently overrun with weeds. However, I do have sympathy with Mr Augstein's anti-utilitarian position. What's wrong with being useless? There was a great song by the artist Leigh Bowery called "Useless Man", which celebrated the life of the pleasure-loving aesthete dandy over the capable male. And GK Chesterton wrote an essay called "Wanted: An Unpractical Man", which was a sort of attack on utilitarianism. An excess of efficiency and practicality, he argued, achieves only a mean compromise. What we need are wild-haired lunatics: "If our statesmen were visionaries, something practical might get done." We all need lots of thinking time, and a beautiful garden is the place to get this thinking done.

Whatever kind of garden you wish to create, I am certain that the actual process of gardening is good for your soul. I have been fairly down in the dumps over the past three months, and I attribute my gloom partly to the fact that I have done very little gardening lately. It is therapy. And before you scoff at this idea as cranky and fanciful, let me cite an authority to back it up. No less than the president of the Royal College of Physicians, Sir Richard Thompson, went on record last week to recommend that GPs put melancholy patients in the garden. "I would much rather a doctor had time to listen to patients and, instead of prescribing a course of anti-depressants, prescribe a course of gardening," said wise Sir Richard, who is chairman of Thrive, a charity that promotes gardening as therapy.

Certainly gardening was more effective than the Valium my GP prescribed for my sleeplessness and anxiety. I had two of the worst demon-filled nights of my life on the pills. I slept far better when I returned to my own prescription of Cotleigh Barn Owl, a delicious dark ale from Somerset.

Over the past few days, I have found myself digging and planting with abandon, and there is no doubt that my spirits have lifted as a result. The great thing about gardening is that you have something to show for your efforts. It is creative and brings beauty into the world. It feels less indulgent than visits to the counsellor or shrink. The gardener is an artist and a philosopher, and the philosophers, according to Aristotle, are the happiest sort of people.

I can't speak for Prozac or lithium, having never tried them. I do know, however, that most of my middle-aged friends seem to be on some sort of anti-depressant. Has our competitive consumer society made us miserable, or have people always been sad?

One of my idling heroes, Dr Johnson, was afflicted by depression, and all poets are given to brooding, which can produce great results: I am always grateful that Keats wrote "An Ode to Melancholy" before the invention of anti-d's, as "An Ode to Comfort" would not, I predict, have been such a great poem. And one of the best-selling books of the 17th century, Robert Burton's wonderful The Anatomy of Melancholy, gives myriad ideas for curing this age-old affliction. Borage and hellebore, it seems, were the Prozac of their day, but he also recommends mirth and merry jests, and, yes, gardening, as recommended by the ancients: "how they have been pleased with it, to prune, inoculate and graft".

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'