I received my copy of Dear Christo from Timberpress to review with mixed feelings. I discovered Christopher Lloyd just 18 months to 2 years before he died and have accumulated a number of his books which I found a breath of fresh air. I looked forward to the biography of Christopher Lloyd by Stephen Anderton but I was a little disappointed. The book certainly gave you a good record of Christopher’s upbringing at Dixter at least half the book, it waltzed through his teaching career at Wye College and breezed through his later life at Dixter seemingly focussing more on hinting at his sexual preferences than really giving an insight into the man. I put the book down feeling let down – I would have loved to have met Christopher Lloyd and I suppose I was hoping his biography would give me more of an idea of the man. I needn’t have worried since Dear Christo delivers this in buckets or should I say trugs!
The book is a compilation of thoughts, observations and anecdotes written by an alarmingly wide group of people not only from the gardeners but also from musicians, artists, writers and botanists. As well as coming from a wide range of backgrounds they come from all over the world: America, Australia, South Africa, Europe. All knew Christopher Lloyd and I think all of them had visited Great Dixter at some time. There are also contributions from people who work at the Great Dixter. The book is the brain child of the Dixter Development Committee and all royalties from the sale of the book are paid to the Great Dixter Charitable Trust.
Whilst there is a little repetition in the book especially where many describe the approach to the house porch through the meadow, the apparent lack of light switches and in fact light in the house each contribution brings something new to the whole. I knew that Christopher Lloyd was a well regarded gardener and wrote a weekly article for Country Life as well as regular contributions to other papers. Reading this book I learnt that Christopher was a collector of people, as well as plants. He liked people who were genuinely interested in the things he was and he liked to bring them together in often what seemed like random groups at his legendary Dixter weekends. Many talk about how when you first stayed at Dixter there was a definite pecking order indicated by the allocation of bedrooms and jobs. But what fascinated me was how Christopher Lloyd is seen by so many as having hugely influenced their life. There are some whose decision to pursue a career in horticulture was confirmed by a visit to Dixter, others who had a complete change of direction to follow a career in horticulture – some even go so far as to say that Christo and Great Dixter changed their life. What an achievement! To have such an impact on one person is pretty special but on many is something quite outstanding!
Christo is portrayed as an eccentric, hardly a surprise, with a keen sense of humour, who loved people but did not suffer fools gladly. Many write about how they went to Great Dixter clutching a notebook for fear of not being taken seriously by the great man and yet he himself always had a notebook when visiting gardens. As Tom Fischer the Editor in Chief at Timberpress comments, Christopher Lloyd was a man of contradictions. Lloyd was able “to treat gardening with high seriousness as well as a sense of fun; to have strong opinions and yet be willing to entertain dissenting views; to be a world authority on plants and yet insist on taking notes when visiting other (far lesser) gardens.
The book is split into 6 sections: Arrivals, Gardens and Gardening, The Plants, The House, Family, Visits and Christopher. I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more made of his cooking as so many contributors mention the meals and in the Preface Rosemary Alexander says “the book includes his favourite recipes”. There are no recipes but I will now be buying his cookbook Gardener Cook. There is a lovely hard drawn map of Great Dixter in the book which is the first I have seen and really helps to put all the areas of garden you read about in this and in Christopher’s own books into context. However, the thing I really liked, aside from the writing, was the inclusion of photos of Great Dixter including the inside of the house that I haven’t seen before. I have a number of Christopher’s recent books and I found that the same or very similar photos came up time and again.
If I was pushed to find something to criticise about the book they would be little things. There is meant to be a photo of a Magnolia ‘Galaxy’ instead it is a photo of a latticed window and it would be nice for all of the contributors to have some indication of their link to Great Dixter and Christopher Lloyd not just the ones who have written long pieces. But these are niggles. The book is a joy – I laughed out loud at places and was close to tears at others. I know feel that I know a little more of the character of the man who has inspired me to trust my instincts in the garden and rely less of the text books. I wished I had met him but Dear Christo will have to suffice and one day I may get to visit Great Dixter.
I think Fergus Garrett’s Preface to the book says it all: “His words in print remain his legacy and his influence burns bright in all of us be breathed life into. He changed out lives and long may his memory last.”