Category: exhibition

Blackout: living without electricity

IMG_1540This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection.

22:45, Saturday 5 December, 2015. Power cut. Blackout.

Storm Desmond was wreaking havoc across southern Scotland, northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland that weekend, and the national news was dominated by stories of terrible floods. But in Lancaster it was loss of power that was proving most challenging for local people.

Elizabeth Shove, a professor at the University of Lancaster, was out of town at the time. Observing from a distance, she decided to pack her car full of camping equipment and head into the city on Monday. Generators were being brought in, and power was promised to have been restored, but she took the gear, just in case.

As she drove into Lancaster that Monday evening she noticed the traffic lights weren’t working. Almost 48 hours after the city first plunged into darkness, the power was off again.

Elizabeth directs the Demand Centre, and her research is all about energy in everyday life. There’s nothing quite like a blackout for illustrating just how reliant on electricity we have become. “We just don’t know, and would never know, really, how far that dependence has gone,” says Elizabeth, “until the blackout, which is illuminating.”

And actually a power cut is much more than a blackout. Sure, the lights go out, but a lot of other things stop working too, as Elizabeth explains:

Phones didn’t work. Electronic door-locking systems defaulted to open, letting anyone in. Fire alarms that had only limited battery backup failed after a while. Lots of building energy management systems didn’t work. Cash machines didn’t function, nor did credit card payment systems, or traffic lights, or petrol pumps.

In a way it didn’t matter that people could no longer charge their computers or phones, because the power cut also meant, for many, there was no Internet or mobile phone signal. Keeping in touch was tough, and listening to the news impossible if you didn’t own a battery-powered analogue radio. Many people simply didn’t know what was going on. Lancaster is near Heysham Nuclear Power Station, and vague rumours about a problem with the power plant led some to fear the worst.

It was in fact a flood at an electricity substation that saw the city’s power cut that Saturday night in December. Generators were brought in on the Monday, but they were quickly overloaded. Things didn’t get back to normal until Friday, when the city was fully reconnected to the mains. As the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport says in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Living without Electricity’ report, “life for more than 100,000 people in Lancaster reverted to a pre-electronics era”.

The power cut affected households, businesses, banks, hospitals, schools, and transport, even other utilities like gas, water and sewage. Did you know your gas central heating needs electricity to work, or that some modern taps and toilets require a power supply to run or flush?

“A blackout reveals to us how dependent we are on the electrical system,” says historian David Nye. “The history of blackouts is also the history of the consumption of electricity, and the history of our dependence and how it grows.”

Nobody knew how long the Lancaster power cut was going to last. For Elizabeth it revealed the temporality of energy use. If the power supply isn’t always on, you find out which power dependent things are flexible, and which ones are not. On a domestic level, it might be working out what you can delay doing – the laundry, say – and what you can’t – mealtimes, for example. “Suddenly things that haven’t been visible before come into view,” says Elizabeth. “There were lots of surprises.”

One surprise happened at the Lancaster Royal Infirmary. Like most district general hospitals it had standby diesel generators, which meant it was one of the only places in the city with light, functioning plug sockets and hot food. As such it was a beacon in the dark, and quickly overwhelmed by power-hungry people.

According to the ‘Living without Electricity’ report:

The hospital was seen by many as a community centre. People with nowhere else to go wandered in off the street. The canteen served a record number of meals. A group of students arrived with a six-way extension lead and their mobile phone/tablet battery chargers which they connected to the first free 13A socket they could find. As a community centre, it was serving a valuable function – increasingly important as other facilities were closed – but well removed from its core business.

It’s perhaps tempting to gloss over what happened in Lancaster with talk of a community rallying round, of a ‘Blitz spirit’. Elizabeth cautions against this, warning it’s a way of disguising more serious problems. “Valuing community spirit is not the same as being better prepared for disruption,” she says. “The power cut showed that our depth of resilience is really very shallow. People didn’t have cash, students didn’t have food. The hospital was exploited for its power, they weren’t expecting it, or prepared for it.”

So what else did Elizabeth learn during that week without power?

The difference between mains power, and generated power; that the light being on isn’t as important as the Internet being on; that people with wood burning stoves and landlines were in an infinitely better position than those without. We learned that we’re completely in the grip of the grid, but also that power cuts aren’t uniform, that the geography and extent of the situation shifts all the time. And that a mobile phone can work as a radio, even without a signal!

What did it teach us about future energy use, not least in the context of climate change and the global movement towards renewable power? “If the future really involves a lot more renewable power, then the power supply will be more intermittent,” according to Elizabeth. She continues:

It doesn’t necessarily mean full blackouts, but it probably will – and actually hopefully will – involve a much more calibrated ebb and flow of demand. So, not everything is available to be on absolutely all the time. Closer connection with the seasons is really very likely to happen. The practices that depend on electricity will have to be rethought in terms of their timing.

Perhaps it’s also worth casting our eyes back to blackouts of the past. David Nye explains that, “The very beginning of the use of this term was in the 1930s, when people were intentionally blacking out cities or airports or military bases as a military tactic – the intentional control of light and the reduction in the use of electricity.”

There are self-imposed blackouts, of a sort, today too. This year saw the 10th Earth Hour where people across the world chose to turn the lights out for an hour, to “shine a light on the need for climate action”. David calls this a “greenout” rather than a blackout. “The choices we face now with electricity are fundamental,” he says. “Will we continue on the high energy binge of the 20th century? Are we going to treat the electrical grid’s technological power and momentum as something that’s inevitable? Or will we consume, maybe, a little less?”

This article was inspired by, and quotes from, ‘Electricity – where now?’, an audio installation produced by Simon Hollis for Electricity: The spark of life.

The image featured at the top of this article is taken from a public information poster now stored in The National Archives. It was designed by Tom Gentleman some time between 1939 and 1946.

Review | Spitting Image From Start to Finish

The Kinnochios_RL_2_0011

This review was written for Animations Online

Your chance to go beyond the grave and meet Princess Di, Osama Bin Laden, Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mum in the flesh! Sort of. 30 years after its first broadcast, the stars of Spitting Image have made a welcome, temporary return. A flurry of anniversary events – including starry screenings at the BFI and an Arena documentary for BBC 4 – are joined by a humbler but just as entertaining and insightful exhibition at London’s tiny Cartoon Museum.

Spitting Image – From Start to Finish charts Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s progress from caricaturists in the 1960s, through their heady, hectic telly days when their irreverent puppet show pulled in millions of viewers, to the show’s slow demise after the fall of the Iron Curtain. There are a select few of the original puppets on show but the majority of the exhibition is made up of hilarious pencil sketches and glossy colour photographs, which feature an all-star motley crew including Ronald Reagan, Kate Moss, Trevor McDonald, Bjork and Saddam Hussein. The usual hush of any exhibition is punctuated here by the hiss and snigger of private laughter as people delight in the wild, occasionally cruel portraits.

Puppetry enthusiasts may be a little disappointed that so few of the actual puppets are on display – most were sold at auction in 2001 and have disappeared into private collections. Safely stowed in glass cases, you won’t be able to get intimate with the puppets that are on show either. But you will get the chance to witness a rubbery Maggie, Diana and Queen puppet up close. A larger case offers an unlikely grouping of Osama Bin Laden, Alan Bennett and his cat, the Queen Mother and another Princess Di, this time as a Punch and Judy style glove puppet. There’s also a life size spitting Roy Hattersley, complete with blinking eye mechanism and saliva producing tubes.

Thatcher Cutting up Britain (c) Spitting Image

The behind the scenes reflections dotted through the exhibition are a treat. We learn how the puppets were made, from writers’ room and preliminary sketches, through modelling and moulding, to injecting foam latex, baking and constructing fibre glass skulls. “The challenge was that the caricatures had to work in three dimensions as puppets, the mouth open and close properly, and the heads to be done, from drawing to finished clay, in two and a half days” Pablo Bach, one of the makers, is quoted as saying.

As the operation grew, production moved to the Docklands, where puppets were produced on a grand scale in an old rum and banana factory. “This is the first caricature sweatshop in the world” Law said in an interview in 1985, which is included in the Arena documentary, while Fluck reflected they were never short of puppeteers – “find one puppeteer and ten will come knocking on your door.”

It wasn’t the easiest show to work for. Most of the puppets were heavy and needed three to four operators; the pace was fast and the hours stretched long into the night. The large team produced an impressive body of work – 18 series, broadcast over 12 years. If you have the time, you can watch the shows playing back-to-back in the exhibition.

The long list of now famous comic talents associated with Spitting Image includes Ian Hislop, Harry Enfield, Steve Coogan, Rory Bremner, Hugh Dennis and Alistair McGowan. But neither UK comedy or puppetry have continued to be so satirical. The show’s original creators felt that times changed and their work lost its impact. “Politicians have become more bland and the Royals out satired us – they made us redundant” said Roger Law in 1996.

Is UK puppetry political any more? It certainly can be, although it will perhaps never again reach such huge audiences. But elsewhere the Spitting Image legacy lives a little larger, with programmes like the XYZ Show in Kenya and ZANEWS in South Africa, and Top Goon, a finger puppet series about the Syrian president.

Seeking the exceptional | Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2013

Bristol_Fantasist

This preview was written for Animations Online

A wealth of international puppetry acts will flood into Bristol at the end of August, as the city’s biennial Festival of Puppetry begins. It promises to transport audiences to different worlds via a mixture of live work (inside and out), films and exhibitions. Festival producers Rachel McNally and Chris Pirie front the very small team that will make it happen.

“We’re the engine of it,” explains McNally. “This is our third festival and our approach is still very hands on, both artistically and practically.” Perhaps the most enviable part of their jobs is the amount of acts they get to see, visiting festivals around the world. How do McNally and Pirie go about selecting the few shows they programme from the hundreds they see? Do they have strict criteria or is it more organic than that?

“There’s not a checklist,” McNally says. “We have a loose programming policy but we seek out work that is exceptional, experimental, that’s pushing boundaries and will blow your mind. It’s like juggling a jigsaw. We have to make sure the programme is cohesive as a whole.”

“We have a passion for high production values,” adds Pirie. “Rachel and I complement each other as a team and we’re really proud of what we’ve achieved this year. This is our third festival in six years and we have a strong sense of what our market is.”

Bristol_DudaPaiva_credit_jaka_ivanc

The festival does struggle with the age-old ‘puppetry is just for kids’ misconception but is challenging it through strong adult programming, alongside more family friendly shows. “We attract people by selecting work that’s the best of its kind, that’s clearly for adults and is interesting for anyone,” says McNally. “We try and create a buzz around the festival, and make our programming sophisticated and intelligent.”

“We also try to embrace the widest description of puppetry,” adds Pirie. “We’re lucky enough to have Aardman as our next door neighbours and they bend over backwards to help us.” This year’s festival features a free Aardman exhibition, with models, artwork and stills from some of their most famous animations.

McNally and Pirie also don’t restrict themselves to indoor work, including free street theatre in the programme and, this year, a ticketed performance in the Tobacco Factory car park. “We’re challenging ourselves to present an outdoor spectacular for Dutch company The Lunatics – we’re pushing ourselves technically,” says Pirie. “I’m very excited – it’s the kind of show that’s not been seen in Bristol before.”

How do McNally and Pirie see the festival evolving, and what is it contributing more widely? “I definitely feel our contribution is national, not just local,” says McNally. “Chris and I would like to see the festival grow but we’re still working out what that means. We spend a lot of time making it feel welcoming, and more than just a series of events.”

“We’re committed to it being biannual and we’d like to do more work, possibly outside the festival period. We’ve been learning the role and what it takes. The festival this year has been another learning step. It feels in a comfortable place now to be able to put on something really special.”

Pirie feels like they are nearing a watershed. “We’ve had overtures from other venues, encouraging us to spread out,” he says. “Because we’re such a small team it’s not really possible but maybe in the future we can accept the invitation to spread our geographical reach.”

Bristol_Lunatics

As their roles include watching as much puppetry as possible, both are in a good position to trend spot. They’ve noticed lots of shadow and projection being used this year and an increasing interest in object manipulation. A major trend is that puppetry is permeating the performing arts more widely, no doubt encouraged by successes in the West End and on Broadway.

Both are also well placed to highlight what is challenging too. “There’s a lack of understanding from the wider theatre community about what it takes to perform well,” says McNally. “While puppetry is on the up, there’s a need to educate people about the skills it involves. The puppetry community needs to become more articulate and competent at presenting ourselves.”

“There’s a notion that puppetry is a cheap option,” explains Pirie. “But this means a professional puppeteer is expected to work for peanuts. It’s something we all need to face as a real issue.”

Returning to the festival programme, what are they looking forward to most? “Beyond the Lunatics, we’re pleased to welcome back Ulrika Quade – she was very popular at the last festival and her output is prolific,” says Pirie. “Also Duda Paiva – he’s very dynamic. And we have a strong workshop programme, including a masterclass with Tom Morris and Toby Orlie from ‘War Horse’.”

While McNally is “excited about Boris and Sergey, who I saw at Edinburgh last year, and about Theatre Temoin’s ‘The Fantasist’. And Paper Cinema are always a favourite.”

Guardian | plants are the new paint

Foraging spiral with base camp_Fritz Haeg

This feature was written for the Guardian

“My projects are never done, they send out ripples that continue, which can’t be anticipated or controlled. That’s how I like it,” says Fritz Haeg, who has made community gardening an art form that galleries find hard to resist. His Edible Estates series has taken him around America and Europe, including a commission to make an Edible Estate for Tate Modern back in 2007.

This year he created a ‘Foraging Spiral and Base Camp’ in a bowl shaped hollow of Everton Park for the Liverpool Biennial. The spiral is a wild and winding bed of tall native plants, many of which are edible or medicinal. The lawn of the hollow has been allowed to grow long. Throughout the art festival, a temporary encampment hosted conversations about the park’s future and its complicated past – it grows over an area where terraced homes and then tower blocks were levelled in the 1960s and 80s respectively.

Despite his love of working with plants, Haeg insists he is an artist not a landscape designer. “I have gradually become bored with things that are not alive – like paintings, buildings and sculptures. I like working with things that are always changing, that I am not always in complete control of,” he says.

“A landscape designer might be focused on solving problems. As an artist I might actually be looking for the problems, focusing on them, presenting them and not avoiding them… The work can be performance, political and activist, and many other things too, all at the same time.”

mathilde_roussel_livesofgrass_01

A hint of performance can also be found in the work of French artist Mathilde Roussel. Her ‘Lives of Grass’ sculptures are dynamic human forms – stuffed with soil and wheat seeds – that constantly change. When they are installed, the host gallery must become a plant nursery of sorts, complete with botanical lights. The living sculptures need watering daily. Their presence invites drama and ritual.

Choosing living plants over more reliable materials means opting for results that are not just unpredictable but that will ultimately die. The artwork – or its longevity – becomes less important than the process of creating it. Both Haeg and Roussel’s work has a special quality made possible by the use of plants, an ephemeral one that has something in common with performance art.

“Wheat grows very fast so you can really see the forms metamorphose through the exhibition,” explains Roussel. “After a few weeks, the wheat grass starts getting yellow and then slowly dries and dies. In this way the sculptures encapsulate the entire human and plant life cycle.” She describes time as “sculpting the forms.”

Roussel grew up on a farm in Normandy, where her family grow cereals, mainly wheat. Using wheat plants as a medium is a way of reflecting her heritage and also showing that “food has an impact on us beyond its taste.” But working with living things has huge implications for the final results.

“Because I work with organic materials, I can’t have a complete control… And this is precisely what I am interested in. Plants are a fascinating material to work with. There is something magical about the way they transform through time just like we do,” says Roussel.

Both continue to work with plants. Haeg will be planting the 13th and final of his Edible Estates for the Walker Art Center in 2013, in the suburbs of Minneapolis; while Roussel is currently working on an installation using mud and plants.

Review | InMidtown’s Habitats Exhibition

Apparently half a million bees buzz around the area that was fairly recently rebranded as ‘midtown’ – that is Bloomsbury, Holborn and Saint Giles.  With such facts in mind, a competition encouraging architects and designers to provide wildlife with suitable accommodation was launched by InMidtown and the Architecture Foundation.

The wild work of three finalists is now on display at Central Saint Giles (that eye-watering and half empty new development near Saint Giles’ Church), and you can vote for the winner.  The chosen design will become part of the area’s street furniture.

First up is the Bee Lift, designed by Archmongers and the Buchanan Partnership.  It’s a huge construction, which holds a bee hive aloft but allows it to be swung gently down to ground level via a pivoted steel arm and several pulleys.

Bees like to be elevated and many hives are hidden away on central London’s rooftops.  The designers wanted to provide bees with the height they love but, at the same time, provide humans with a spectacle and reveal the honey making process to passersby.  It’s a bold, intriguing and ultimately very bulky concept.

Next is a collection by 51% Studios that includes a flat pack bee hive, bat and bird box, planter and bug hotel all made from a fascinating material called Barsmark PT-200.  It’s waste insulation destined for landfill that’s been compressed into a timber-like material. It’s lightweight, waterproof and even weathers well, turning a golden brown colour in the elements.

Simple and easy to install, we particularly liked the fact this collection had a system for collecting rain water for birds and bees to drink, and also included a rubble tray that the water dripped onto to create tiny pools.  Gravelly, brownfield habitat is really important to a host of creatures in London, including rare insects.

Last there is a bee hive, bat box and planter/seat by Jon Ackers Coyle with Growth Industry Ltd.  The box looks like a hanging bat and is made from steel with a roughened timber inner chamber.  The designers wanted to draw attention to London’s bat life with the playful design – often bat boxes aren’t distinguishable from bird boxes and so go unnoticed.  They also designed it to cleverly deflect bat poo from buildings.

The ‘metropollen’ planter and seat is inspired by the old Metropolitan drinking troughs found in Holborn, and acts as a feeding station for pollinators as well as a pretty place to rest weary feet.  The bee hive is modelled on a traditional design but made contemporary with bright colours and modern materials, including a hinged coated steel roof.

If you’re passing by it’s worth taking a look at these manmade habitats.  Hopefully they’ll help highlight that London is home to a wealth of creatures of the non-human kind, and that wildlife deserves to be considered in the design of city spaces.

InMidtown’s Habitats Exhibition is at Unit 5, Central Saint Giles until 17th April.  This article was orginally written for the Londonist.

The Colour of Nonsense

This review was originally written for the Londonist

Set on the ninth floor of an office block in the far, far north – in a studio with tightly shut venetian blinds and a lift that’s locked inside a suitcase – this is the story of an invisible artwork and some sacred aphids.  Three mad professor types create a design sensation and defeat an evil collector, helped by a parrot with a vicious peck and an adventurous fly called Cedric.

The Colour of Nonsense is silly and strange, and lots of good fun.  Forkbeard Fantasy have been creating multi-media ‘Comic Cine Theatre’ since 1974 and this is their last hurrah (all their Art Council funding was cut earlier this year).  The story is tinged with regret at the end of an era, and the characters’ plight mimics the performers’ real one.  Despite this, the show is playful and inventive to the end, blending animation, projection and live performance.  It’s not slick but it is charming.

We think it makes a great alternative to panto – it’s odd, eccentric, full of stuff and nonsense, but also clever and requiring of no audience participation whatsoever.  It’s accompanied by a free Theatre of Animation exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall, where you can get up close and personal with some of Forkbeard’s huge puppets, and put your head in a box and turn yourself into a monster.

The Colour of Nonsense plays at the Queen Elizabeth Hall until the 30th December 2011.  Tickets are £15 – £20.  The Theatre of Animation exhibition is free and at the Royal Festival Hall until the 8th January 2012.

Upcoming events

Books & bird feeders – 3rd Dec

I’ll have a sweet little stall at the Old Fire Station Winter Craft Fair in Holloway, where I’ll be selling signed copies of my book and showing people how to make bird feeders from old bruisey apples and sunflower seeds.  There’s going to a range of arts & crafts stalls and workshops, as well as food, music and general festive good cheer.  Saturday 3rd December from 11am til 5pm – just £1 to get in.

Urban nature tales & folk music – 4th Dec

Together with the lovely Robin Grey, I’ll be reading extracts from my book while he serenades us with folk songs, at the Centre for Wildlife Gardening’s annual Tree Day celebrations on Sunday 4th December.  Robin and I will be on at 2pm, the event runs from 11am til 4pm.  Free entry and signed books for sale.

The art of planting

This feature was written for City Planter

The natural world has inspired artists and designers for centuries but now real, living plants, not just representations, are being used to create works of art.  At this year’s London Design Festival, French duo Scenocosme and design studio Physical Pixels have both created installations using living plants, which are given an extra dimension with sound, light and movement. They aspire to an Alice in Wonderland-like quality, and both invite visitors to interact with plants and expect a response.

Scenocosme’s exhibition at the Waterman’s Arts Centre is in two parts.  Hanging baskets of ordinary looking ivy swing from the roof of the gallery lobby.  Walk past and a murmur of sounds will emerge; touch the plants and that murmur becomes a cacophony.  Waterman’s lobby is transformed into a jungle, as the visitor gently tugs and twists on the trailing leaves.

The second part is a dark room, filled with branches that have been painted white and decorated with garish artificial flowers.  The wood glows in UV light and visitors are given torches to shine onto the strange blooms, which respond to the light with music.  Where the hanging baskets surprise and delight, this seems clumsier and squarely aimed at kids, although the artists insist not.

“We like to offer extraordinary experiences to the public with our installations.  In all our interactive artworks we are most interested by the human inter-relation.  Adult reactions are very interesting too” say Grégory Lasserre and Anaïs met den Ancxt from Scenocosme.

“We like mixing nature and technology, because we live in a world where technology is only made with cold materials – plastic and metal.  Our artwork Alsos was the first combining plants and technology.  After this, we worked for a year to invent and realise Akousmaflore.”

Physical Pixels’ exhibition, ‘Inside Playful Minds’ at The Arts Gallery in Central London features an installation which invites the visitor to run their fingers through long lemongrass.  This activates a mechanical facade, built from fan-like objects that snap open, letting in shafts of light and glimpses of High Holborn.  Sensors that respond to touch are hidden within the casing holding the grass and are invisible to the visitor.

“We’re interested in interweaving technology with the world around us, and showing co-existence with, rather than separation from, the natural world” explains Tom Siddall from Physical Pixels.

“The installation used to be called ‘Subtle Touch’ and it’s fascinating how people instinctively know to be gentle with it.  A lot of our work is aimed at kids with autism and this has a tactile quality that’s therapeutic. The technology is quite simple, for us it’s the interaction that’s important.”

Physical Pixels created a similar piece using sedums and sounds for the RHS Experience at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, where the Queen was among the many that enjoyed communing with the plants.  Siddall feels there’s a trend emerging, linked to that popular buzzword – sustainability.  “We all graduated from the Royal College of Art last year and there was definitely a strong trend in favour of using natural materials” he says.

What is odd about both exhibitions is that they make the natural feel unnatural.  Tom Siddall says he’s keen to work outside, and to see how the sensors could transform woodland spaces.   He dreams of a sensory trail weaving through an urban nature reserve.  Other artists are already experimenting with plants in the great outdoors.  Over the summer, the pop-up Urban Physic Garden in Southwark saw architects and artists join forces with urban growers to create something that functioned as both a community garden and a gallery.

One of the artists featured in the physic garden was Anna Garforth, who teases moss into wonderful graphic shapes and words.  Her planted artworks are like playful graffiti, blooming in surprising spaces.  For the medically themed garden, she created an eye-catching moss cross.

Art’s relationship with plant-life is a long running one, and it seems more and more artists are keen not just to represent the natural world but to use it as a medium.  This year’s Design Festival has highlighted a strong desire to combine and contrast the organic with the manmade, and to make work that is interactive.

Harvest festival

RHS Autumn Harvest Show | 4th & 5th October | Horticultural Halls, Westminster

I’ll be reading from my book at this year’s autumn show, in the Harvest Hangout area of the stunning Lindley Hall. I’ve been asked by the RHS to invite some other people to read and perform in the Harvest Hangout as well.  I love organising spoken word and music events, so this is a joy.  I’ve invited poets, writers and musicians who have an affinity with the autumn/harvest theme.  We’ll be filling the area with words and song throughout the event.  Performers include Robin Grey, Monooka, Buffy, Allan Shepherd, Matt Martin, Luke Heeley, Kirsten Irving, Jon Stone, Holly Hopkins and Michael Weller.  Show tickets are £5 Tue; £3 Weds.  Buy online.

Flower Power – Cheslea 2011

Wow.  My first RHS Chelsea Flower Show.  What a mad event it is.  I saw Ringo Star (no picture evidence, you’ll have to trust me) and contracted my first ever case of hay fever, so sound-tracking the entire experience with whooping sneezes.  The trends this year seem to be wild and loose styles, dusty and burnt shades, foxgloves and cabbage.

Alongside some seriously beautiful gardens with elements ordinary growers could definitely recreate, there are, of course, some more fantastical offerings.  A garden floating in the sky – well, an eye-shaped pink garden pod thing attached to a crane courtesy of Diarmuid Gavin – is probably the cream of the over-the-top crop.  Next door, B&Q has gone as far as installing a kind of tower block, highlighting how window boxes can be tiny gardens too.

It’s fairly odd to see so many mature gardens all lined up, labelled and roped-off in the grounds of the usually out of bounds Royal Hospital (where the Chelsea pensioners live).  The air is thick with pollen and every garden’s alive with furry bumbles, which are happily flying past those ropes and getting giddy on sweet nectar.

This annual event must be utter heaven for west London’s bee community. It’s also heaven for human eyes and each garden is the stuff of daydreams, if you can only get close enough to lose yourself in the flora and fauna.  It’s all especially wondrous and unbelievable to urban eyes that have only a snatch of outside space to call their own.

The human wildlife on display is pretty fascinating too – solidly middle class, but punctuated with some fabulous outfits that no doubt have been confusing the bees.  We most loved a tutu made entirely of red flowers.  A publicity stunt, but one that brought smiles to many an old boy’s face.

My favourite gardens include the Laurent Perrier’s dusty purple and bronze wilderness of long grasses and flowers, and the SKYshades garden, which looks like it has existed for years and features a tangle of nettles and daisies.  The Royal Bank of Canada’s New Wild Garden has the prettiest walls I’ve ever seen and I spent a long while staring at the hot pinks, blues and yellows of the Times and Kew Gardens’ Eureka creation. An elegant edible garden designed by Bunny Guinness makes cabbage and kale look anything but humble.

Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, the flower show is a well established part of London’s cultural calendar and is worth a look one year if you have a green finger among your eight.  Its roots are as the Great Spring Show, which first took place in Kensington in 1862.  It was axed in 1912 and replaced with the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition and has been taking place at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea since 1913.

The show has now sold out but there’s masses of coverage online and on TV, where you can indulge in the eye-candy without having to negotiate the crowds.