Well, obviously not lilies, but aquilegias, which are just coming through in the garden now. They don’t look like this, now. Aquilegias hybridise like anything, so you’re never sure what you’re going to get. So far, the flowers this year are smaller and a paler pink and white – I’ve never had white ones before – but there are loads to come yet, so we’ll see. These flowers are symbolic really, as it’s too early for lilies, even lily of the valley, reminders of that Chinese – or Arabic, I’ve heard both – proverb which says, ‘If you have two loaves, sell one, and buy lilies for your soul.’
It’s been on my mind since I visited the Moirlanich Long house last week. Two impressions remain. One is of serious poverty – no electricity, no running water, four box beds in two rooms (and you knew the beds were probably shared as often as not, so no privacy of any kind), clothes worn until they were ragged and faded – and not too many of them either, walls papered with old newspapers. You couldn’t get too romantic about the joys of the simple life.
But the other impression is of real beauty, peace and simplicity. Those newspaper walls were edged with printed borders of blue hydrangeas. There wasn’t much equipment in the kitchen, but there were ornaments on the mantelpiece. You might have had only one Sunday dress, and you’d have paid extravagantly for it, but it was made of good cloth, and superbly finished and fitted, with tucks and frills. You’d have loved wearing it for all its long life.
These days the moral we preach is usually about our greedy consumption of non-renewable resources, and our reckless wasteful throwaway attitude, fashion, bah! frivolity, bah! vanity, humbug! young people nowadays don’t know the value of anything, blah, blah, blah. Well, yes. Fashion is wasteful, we need to be more careful, we need to get our priorities right, yes, indeed.
But while we’re getting our priorities right, while we’re decluttering and simplifying and longing for the peace and harmony of the minimal look, while we’re cutting back on this and that because of the recession, I’d really like to point out a slightly different moral. In this small cold and damp cottage, where people were happily living without the basics of what we’d consider a normal life, they were spending time and money and skills on making things beautiful. And I’ve heard this backed up by a commentator on the radio who said that, in more primitive societies, after the immediate needs for survival are satisfied, people will even cut down on the food calories they need so as to participate in some cultural activity. That Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is basically flawed. It isn’t survival, safety, belonging, status, belonging, and self expression at the top. Lilies for your soul may come after survival, but only just.
Which explains why prisoners of war set up dramatic societies in their camps, why people buy pictures for their houses before new washing machines,why music is more important to young men than good suits for interviews. And perhaps it explains why, when I moved into this new work-room, the first thing I did was to make these cushions. You need something beautiful, personal, inspiring, before you can settle to the business of living.
If we really want to change the way we live, and live more lightly on the earth, we really are going to have to reduce our consumption and cut back on our extravagant lifestyle, but austerity? don’t think so. That’s a recipe for resntment, boredom and disaffection. What we need is a proper respect for lilies for our souls.