Sunday 30 March 2014

52 FLOWERS 43 lilies

As Spring advances through the woods, here is an unpublished piece about lilies from the Radical Flowers chapter in 52 Flowers That Shook My World.

Halesworth, Suffolk 2005 I am standing in the darkened theatre. It is five o’clock and I am alone. Outside the wind is howling and it is freezing cold. Snow has been falling all day and we had thought of cancelling the performance - but in the end we didn't.

I have been working for this theatre all winter. Bracing all kinds of cold weather to keep it open - the frigidity of neighbours, the chilliness of the local council - and now it looks as though things are turning around, that spring might be coming after all. I go to the lighting desk and switch on one of the spotlights and then stand in its beam on the stage. 

It is a warehouse theatre with rough brick walls and seats for 200 people. As I face the shadowy rows, my voice booms out loud, breaking the silence: When the Blue Hare Jumps! And I smile when I hear my own voice. I haven’t done any performance for years and it feels like the moment when you first enter the sea or put your feet on the ground on a warm day. You know it so well, you have been doing this for an aeon, and yet it feels like the first time. I read through some marked passages and then I put the books down on the piano, and sit looking at the tiers of empty seats.

How many strange performances have I watched from the back of this theatre? Tibetan monks blowing giant horns, arch-druids playing fairy harps, virgin choirs singing about loving Jesus, preachers playing cinema organs, Christians emasculating the words of Dario Fo, the immaculate words of Dylan Thomas twisted in the mouths of fools. A failed magician struggling through his last trick, children maniacally toe-tapping as their dancing teacher shouts: You can be special! you can be a star! Hundreds of nameless people filing in and out, watching these bizarre acts, sometimes a full house on a music night but mostly a handful of souls in anoraks, watching a smaller amount of people, doing their special thing, having their moment of stardom.

All these months I have been standing by the doors, turning the house lights on and off, watching in the aisles, turning the heaters on in the dressing rooms, pulling and pushing monitors, screens, wires, and now for one night, it’s going to be the other way round.

“Where do you want the mikes?” asks Trevor the lighting technician, as he bursts through the stage doors in a whirl of snowflakes. "Just here where I am standing," I say. And go downstairs to change into a red dress.

Everyone loved the show. It was an open mic evening. I hosted, Mark was the compere. The woman who worked in the café turned into a singer who sang about a drowned fisherman, the administrators of the poetry festival became poets who spoke about love, the man at the box office sang a Venezuelan song about the star Venus, the usher who was also an antique seller recited a classical poem about Eurydyce. For one evening we were all so much more than we were in the day in our shops and offices. And there was a feeling, perhaps because it was such a cold evening and everyone had made this special effort to come out, perhaps because we were all together in this business of going to and fro from the stage, one minute audience, the next a performer, that something was happening. There was excited talk in the interval about doing more evenings. As I thanked everyone for coming at the end of the show a huge bunch of lilies was thrust into my hands. Thank you, I said and bowed.

“Everyone liked the singing, Charlie,” said Mark as we waved goodbye and started to lock up the building. ”Yes,” I agreed. But no one had mentioned my poems. Those poems the theatre manager had read about silence and the desert, the kind of silence when you can hear the stars, the leap of the salmon, the wind in the apple tree, about the time when the ancestors of the snow-bound north wait for a cat to arrive and tell them who they really are.

 I put the lilies in a vase and left them in the office. And then I turned out the lights.


Stargazer lilies are the kind of flower you get as a performer.  Waxy blooms with pollen-covered stamens that command the stage like opera stars with giant candy-striped throats. They sit on pianos, in hotel lobbies, in funeral parlours, perfectly shaped for weeks on end, permeating these public arenas where sentimentality and artifice are at their height, with their strong and urgent perfume. These lilies arrive in great container lorries from the glasshouses of Holland each week, one of those cosseted hothouse flowers that poison and suck dry the watertables of Colombia and Africa, and enslave thousands of people everywhere. And all because we can’t quite look each other in the eye, at a time when we should be looking each other in the eye: the mother we wish to butter up; the lover who we want to get into bed; the friend we want to keep for our own reasons. The women we pretend we adore. The flowers that are a substitute for the feeling of the heart, that say Sorry and I love you and Goodbye and all the things we can’t say, because we don’t really mean them.

The reality is these lilies are expensive, where you are cheap. 


Flowering plants are divided into two principle categories by taxonomy, the monocotyledons and the dicotyledons. The vast majority are the dicotyledons. The monocotyledons are a small and distinctive group. They are not just different botanically, that is in their structure, they differ in their mood and vibration. This is because they are governed by the reflective nature of the moon, rather than the sun. You can sense this in the way they appear in the darkness of a wood and possess a liquid nature that feels mysterious and indefinable. Hidden. Still. Many store their energy in reserves underground, in corms and bulbs and rhizomes. Lilies are monocotyledons, as are orchids and irises, gladioli and saffron. All flowers that are all highly sought after, prized, collected, presented. Special plants that need special attention. Flowers for special occasions, for special people.

I had not felt special that night. Even though I had enjoyed performing, I felt no one was listening to what I was saying. We had been able in that hothouse moment to sing our song and pretend we were other than we were. But somewhere we were fooling ourselves. And some part of me would not let that go by.

When the stargazer lilies fell into my hands,  I was very far from being a star. I  was working a 60 hour week in the basement office for £2.50 an hour, without overtime. Each night as I stood in the dark, as the people flowed in and out, as the galleries changed pictures, as the wineglasses filled and emptied at the theatre bar, I sensed these movements as if the building were part of my own body. But one thing I did not realise: this open mic evening was to be my farewell performance, my one and only appearance on this stage. I had poured all my life-force into revitalising this theatre and all that will come back from these endeavours is a powerful reek of lily flowers.

Is this all we have at the end of our time? I will wonder in a few days time, gazing at their frigid beauty, and imagine if that is how departing spirits feel as they look back at their earthly lives and see a pile of stinking glasshouse flowers perched on top of their corpses.


“Those flowers are just too much,” said Jo. I laughed. The office was filled with the perfume of  lilies and amidst the grinding machinery of the computers and coffee cups, the ceaselessly ringing telephone, the delivery men arriving, their grandiose forms seemed somehow ridiculous. I gave them to the volunteer in charge of the front of house flowers and she used them to brighten the underworld of the ladies toilet.

I felt ungrateful for putting them in the toilet.

“What are you looking at?” snarled the lilies. “This is where we belong. Have a good look. You are looking at yourself.”

I didn’t want to look at myself. I didn’t want to face the fact that no one gave a damn about whether I wrote interesting poems or worked all hours in this office, so long as they could get their entertainments, have their one shiny moment on stage. I didn’t want to face the fact that no one seemed to give a damn about anybody or their creativity, that there was no place for our hearts, for anything splendid that might occur in that theatre if we did. Only that the star-making machine went on and everybody played their roles and remembered their lines and made the correct curtsey and bow when they were expected.

I had stood there and felt splendid in a red dress, but no one was listening to a word I was saying. I could stand and hold everyone’s attention, but the earth of which I spoke could not enter the room. The words evaporated even as they came out of my mouth.  I could have just stood there (perhaps we all could) and made gestures. It would have been enough, sufficient.

It was a small moment in a small theatre on a cold night, and it was also all theatres, every night, as the earth turns on her axis, as these hothouses let out their sounds of lamentation into the air: fiendish fiddlers, shrieking sopranos, the moaning of choirs, the groans of orchestras, actors, dressed in outlandish costumes, repeating the same lines endlessly through the centuries, ballet-stars hiding blood-stained feet, sad-eyed comedians making us laugh, or what passes for laughter. What was I doing there, in those arenas of heartlessness? 

Sometimes we caught each others eyes as we passed by on the stair, as I handed the performers a cheque or brought them a drink on the house. We exchanged our looks of exhaustion. Some part of us was ashamed.

I stood by the lilies in the toilet, by their impeccable stillness, and remembered a dance that had taken place upstairs one night last October. The building had been packed with people. You could not move on the stair. As the band struck the first chord in the theatre, pandemonium had broken out, as a hundred adolescent children released from years of good behaviours in their houses and schools, jacked up with alcohol and amphetamines, suddenly let rip. The building roared. Mark and the fathers rushed outside. "Get back in!" they yelled. But the youth of the town took no notice. They were pouring out into the streets, shrieking and laughing and vomiting and crying and dancing. The event was out of control and for a moment, as I leaned against the brickwork, I felt the foundations rock and laughed. 

It was mayhem, a consequence of repression, but at least it was alive. Soon enough they would become like the people in the audience, watching the flickering screens, listening to the singers and the piano players, the stiff, the anoraked, the dead moving through. Then I realised I was in charge of the house and they were bringing ruin down upon it. 

"What shall we do?" cried the mothers in distress, as I went upstairs. "You will have to stop the music," I said, "you will have to pull the plug," and went to talk with the neighbours who at that moment were hammering on the glass door.

I had to look at myself, in the red dress, in the ladies toilet, packed with the young and the reckless in the dark. Lilies are all fierce flowers, moon flowers, and the moon does not let you get away with anything much, especially when you stray too far from the path. Underworld stories recount how foolish starry-eyed females who fall down there by accident, find themselves on a hook and learn to get smart and get out. Lilies are the flowers given to the Madonna just before she is ravished by the angel, the flowers gathered by the daughters of earth just before they are raped by the lords of darkness. The flowers signal some kind of recompense for an action illegally taken, their scent covering up a crime no one can quite detect. Or really wants to. 

But we should find out about these things, look at ourselves in the underworld mirror and see what lies inside this bouquet a stranger has just delivered at our door. Because as we sit gazing up into the stars, into the spotlights, adoring the divas and the divas stand adoring all our special attention, a price is being demanded from all of us, and if we were wise, we would all take notice of what this price is.

And start refusing to pay it.


The cherished flowers of the English spring are all wild members of the lily family. As the winter wanes they set the woods and meadows and gardens alight with their underworld lamps - narcissus, crocus, bluebell, snake’s head fritillary, Solomon’s seal – and every window in the land shines with the golden hue of daffodils. 

The weekend after I handed in my resignation Mark and I went to see some acquaintances who had come by the theatre and invited us to see their snowdrop display. They had retired to an old house in a village about 25 miles away. We had a love of flowers in common and wild birds and poetry, and so I thought, shared a kind of egalitarian outlook on life. I had once sent them some wild belladonna and tutsan seeds I had gathered for their garden.

It was a perfect house with everything in its place. Small chairs with writing desks. Renovated fireplaces. Collections of china and paintings. Larders full of home-made preserves. Glasshouses full of interesting plants. A successful stargazing house. When we arrived I talked animatedly about what had made us resign as managers of the theatre but something made me stop. I was out of place and out of order. “I thought you cared about the workers!” I joked with my host across the dark oak table. “I don’t anymore,” he said without a smile.

So the mood shifted and everyone began talking instead about so-and-so’s said review of so-and- so’s book, what was happening on television and in the cinema, what their various children were doing working for various charities in the city, and how the British empire was actually a very good thing. I grew quiet and my hands grew cold. There was a fire but it seemed very chilly. Afterwards we sat in the drawing room like characters out of a Sheridan play and drank small cups of coffee and made even smaller conversation. A former theatrical agent spoke about the humanist funeral services he conducted in which the end was really The End, none of this Christian nonsense about the afterlife. No soul. No spirit. No karma. No underworld. No scales. There was a celebration of the human biographical life, a relevant poem recited or song sung, and then, curtains! As if our human appearance were just a show and we were actors without any kind of other life.

Afterwards we went into the garden. It was the end of February and there were all kinds of green-flowered hellebores in the beds and a daphne bush with its sharp pink blossom. But most of all there were snowdrops, the first wild lilies of the year, sprinkled about the meadow, under the trees, shining in that immaculate way they do, even on a grey Sunday afternoon. There was something about their purity, the way they hung their heads quietly, gazing inwardly at themselves, perfect, self-contained, the very opposite of the actress and her gaudy artifice. And I loved them in that moment and knelt down on the wet ground to inhale their sweet fragrance.

As I did something in me rebelled. I just couldn’t say what I knew I was supposed to say. I was there to admire the garden but I couldn’t admire the garden. Never underestimate the power of the small, the snowdrops once told me. For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost.

“Hello snowdrop,” I said as I knelt down, as my hosts stood beside me. There was an awkward silence.

I had forgotten my lines.

What happens when we forget our lines? What happens when we stop admiring the perfect house with its perfect collections of objects, when we stop worshipping the shiny divas and thrusting scented lilies in their hands, when we no longer wait to sing our one and only song in an empty theatre, with the snow whirling all about us?

Will we come out here on this winter’s day and kneel in a garden by a wild flower and remember somewhere quiet, deep inside us, about another kind of show?

Images:with snowdrops in Dunwich Wood; garden crocus; wild daffodils at the tumulus; star orchids, Mexico; with bluebells at Frostenden Woods. All photographs by Mark Watson

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