Saturday, April 19, 2014

A. A. Milne Punch 1914 A Hanging Garden in Babylon


Before Alan Alexander Milne (1882 –1956) found enduring fame with his Winnie-the-Pooh books, he was a very talented writer of light verse and comic stories for Punch magazine from 1904 to 1914 and then sporadically afterward.  He was Ashley Sterne's immediate predecessor at Punch and, judging from the similarity in their approach to humor, was likely a great influence on Ashley Sterne's style.  The story below, from Punch v146 May 27th 1914, was one of Milne's last Punch stories before joining the British Army to serve in The Great War.  The story was later republished in Milne's 1921 collection The Sunny Side.


A Hanging Garden in Babylon

"Are you taking me to the Flower Show this afternoon?" asked Celia at breakfast.

"No," I said thoughtfully; "no."

"Well, that's that. What other breakfast conversation have I? Have you been to any theatres lately?"

"Do you really want to go to the Flower Show?" I asked. "Because I don't believe I could bear it."

"I've saved up two shillings."

"It isn't that—not only that. But there'll be thousands of people there, all with gardens of their own, all pointing to things and saying, 'We've got one of those in the east bed,' or 'Wouldn't that look nice in the south orchid house?' and you and I will be quite, quite out of it." I sighed, and helped myself from the west toast-rack.

It is very delightful to have a flat in London, but there are times in the summer when I long for a garden of my own. I show people round our little place, and I point out hopefully the Hot Tap Doultonii in the scullery, and the Dorothy Perkins loofah, but it isn't the same thing as taking your guest round your garden and telling him that what you really want is rain. Until I can do that, the Chelsea Flower Show is no place for us.

"Then I haven't told you the good news," said Celia. "We are gardeners." She paused a moment for effect. "I have ordered a window-box."

I dropped the marmalade and jumped up eagerly.

"But this is glorious news! I haven't been so excited since I recognized a calceolaria last year, and told my host it was a calceolaria just before he told me. A window-box! What's in it?"

"Pink geraniums and—and pink geraniums, and—er—"

"Pink geraniums?" I suggested.

"Yes. They're very pretty, you know."

"I know. But I could have wished for something more difficult. If we had something like—well, I don't want to seem to harp on it, but say calceolarias, then quite a lot of people mightn't recognize them, and I should be able to tell them what they were. I should be able to show them the calceolarias; you can't show people the geraniums."

"You can say, 'What do you think of that for a geranium?'" said Celia. "Anyhow," she added, "you've got to take me to the Flower Show now."

"Of course I will. It is not only a pleasure, but a duty. As gardeners we must keep up with floricultural progress. Even though we start with pink geraniums now, we may have—er—calceolarias next year. Rotation of crops and—what not."

Accordingly we made our way in the afternoon to the Show.

"I think we're a little over-dressed," I said as we paid our shillings. "We ought to look as if we'd just run up from our little window-box in the country and were going back by the last train. I should be in gaiters, really."

"Our little window-box is not in the country," objected Celia. "It's what you might call a pied de terre in town. French joke," she added kindly. "Much more difficult than the ordinary sort."

"Don't forget it; we can always use it again on visitors. Now what shall we look at first?"

"The flowers first; then the tea."

I had bought a catalogue and was scanning it rapidly.

"We don't want flowers," I said. "Our window-box—our garden is already full. It may be that James, the head boxer, has overdone the pink geraniums this year, but there it is. We can sack him and promote Thomas, but the mischief is done. Luckily there are other things we want. What about a dove-cot? I should like to see doves cooing round our geraniums."

"Aren't dove-cots very big for a window-box?"

"We could get a small one—for small doves. Do you have to buy the doves too, or do they just come? I never know. Or there," I broke off suddenly; "my dear, that's just the thing." And I pointed with my stick.

"We have seven clocks already," said Celia.

"But a sun-dial! How romantic. Particularly as only two of the clocks go. Celia, if you'd let me have a sun-dial in my window-box, I would meet you by it alone sometimes."

"It sounds lovely," she said doubtfully.

"You do want to make this window-box a success, don't you?" I asked as we wandered on. "Well, then, help me to buy something for it. I don't suggest one of those," and I pointed to a summer-house, "or even a weather-cock; but we must do something now we're here. For instance, what about one of these patent extension ladders, in case the geraniums grow very tall and you want to climb up and smell them? Or would you rather have some mushroom spawn? I would get up early and pick the mushrooms for breakfast. What do you think?"

"I think it's too hot for anything, and I must sit down. Is this seat an exhibit or is it meant for sitting on?"

"It's an exhibit, but we might easily want to buy one some day, when our window-box gets bigger. Let's try it."

It was so hot that I think, if the man in charge of the Rustic Bench Section had tried to move us on, we should have bought the seat at once. But nobody bothered us. Indeed it was quite obvious that the news that we owned a large window-box had not yet got about.

"I shall leave you here," I said, after I had smoked a cigarette and dipped into the catalogue again, "and make my purchase. It will be quite inexpensive; indeed, it is marked in the catalogue at one-and-six-pence, which means that they will probably offer me the nine-shilling size first. But I shall be firm. Good-bye."

I went and bought one and returned to her with it.

"No, not now," I said, as she held out her hand eagerly. "Wait till we get home."

It was cooler now, and we wandered through the tents, chatting patronizingly to the stall-keeper whenever we came to pink geraniums. At the orchids we were contemptuously sniffy. "Of course," I said, "for those who like orchids—" and led the way back to the geraniums again. It was an interesting afternoon.

And to our great joy the window-box was in position when we got home again.

"Now!" I said dramatically, and I unwrapped my purchase and placed it in the middle of our new-made garden.

"Whatever—"

"A slug-trap," I explained proudly.

"But how could slugs get up here?" asked Celia in surprise.

"How do slugs get anywhere? They climb up the walls, or they come up in the lift, or they get blown about by the wind—I don't know. They can fly up if they like; but, however it be, when they do come, I mean to be ready for them."

Still, though our slug-trap will no doubt come in usefully, it is not what we really want. What we gardeners really want is rain.


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