Paradise Regained

Some of my best friends are gardeners and I suspect they have a inkling of a paradise that I haven’t yet perceived. They are (the four that I’m thinking of) utter paragons of patience, in balance with nature, creative, knowledgeable, and humble in their understanding of and acceptance of human limitations. Or, at least, they’ve started towards that path. Gardening, I suppose, is partial dominance, partial submission, the perfect spiritual exercise.

My own fingers are pink, not green. I have a sense of when my houseplants are thirsty, but I can’t do any of the outdoor stuff. Perhaps it’s because I was never taught. My father loved both gardening and fishing (another exercise in tranquil, and usually unproductive, inactivity) but he loved order and control more than untameable natural growth. In his frustration at the wilfulness of nature he would usually pave the whole thing over with concrete slabs.

Nevertheless, I envy my friends’ ability to converse in horticultural Latin (one of them will shortly write a book on the subject), their assiduous visits to Great Dixter and Sissinghurst (where they might surreptitiously snip), their attendance at the Chelsea Flower Show, their membership of the Royal Horticultural Society, their trays of seedlings, their trowels and muddy boots. I do not belong, but I dream that one day, perhaps, even I might retreat from the city and the noise, to follow the advice of Roman poets and French satirists and cultivate my garden.

This tantalising other way of life is on display at the Royal Academy in London at an exhibition called Painting the Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse. It’s mostly Monet (1840-1926), or, rather, at its best it’s Monet, the last room given over to a triptych of Water Lilies painted by the artist in his last years, and never before seen together in Europe at a public exhibition. Refusing to leave the garden he had created and painted at Giverny, even as the Germans advanced into France, he stayed and continued to plant and paint. His was a creative double act (first the garden and then the painting of its beauty) and at the end of a long life, despite the horrors of war, he chose to paint only his garden, with ever greater concentration and abstraction, in consoling celebration of what he valued most – the human sense of beauty.


On a January day in London there’s no better solace I can think of than this exhibition. Whether they are Pissaro’s vegetable plots, Van Gogh’s squirming shrubs, or Klee’s geometric distillations, these paintings are all glimpses of another, usually better, life.

I visited the exhibition with Caroline, one of my four keen horticultural friends. Her knowledge is encyclopaedic and she soon pointed out an error on one of the captions to a Monet.

‘That’s not a something iris,’ she said. ‘It’s a something else iris.’ (I can’t reproduce the Latin terms.)

Gardening is her passion, so it was with some difficulty that I prevented her from making a correction to the caption, or the painting. So much for the spiritual plane.

When a man sits down in front of a garden, or strolls around in it, he steeps himself in delight. Because the garden is a paradise where a garden owner and a landscape gardener share the same dream in their common culture. Man first made a garden to try to produce a paradise in this world. The garden seems to be a paradise of the other world, somewhere out of sight.

Masaaki Noda, Dialogue with a Garden

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

I’m reluctant to admit that a cliché might contain a grain of wisdom, or, shall we say, a grain of useful wisdom. After all, a cliché repeats the obvious, the common or garden truth that we’ve heard too many times, or the banal. It is rarely useful or true in any practically instructive sense.

But I was reminded over the weekend that the oft-heard cliché, that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’, is still a useful tip to remember, and one to beat others over the head with.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good is, strictly speaking, an aphorism and it’s generally attributed to Voltaire, who quotes an Italian proverb:

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

(In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good)

Cliché, aphorism, proverb, perhaps it’s all three of these.


I was in Bulgaria over the weekend, visiting the village of Shiroka Laka with my friend Elena Panayotova. This is the village where, a few weeks ago, I attended and took part in the annual Children’s Theatre School which LLP Group sponsors. The theatre school is designed to boost the confidence and self-knowledge of underprivileged children from orphanages, foster homes and ghettos in the region. It has changed many lives, conspicuously for the better.

This work is directed by Elena Panayotova, who, besides being a dear and close friend, is a well-established Bugarian theatre director who has worked in Amsterdam, Sofia, Plovdiv, Ruse and Kisumu. She spends half her time in the adult theatre world, and half her time, alongside a team of other artists, with vulnerable children. We met by chance in a restaurant 14 years ago and that’s how the whole story of Artists for Children began. Over the last 13 years she and her team have developed techniques that help children in difficult circumstances to become youths and adults with better chances in life, rather than hopeless cases.

So successful has all of this been, and so much fun for her, her team, and sponsors such as me, that collectively we want to develop the idea further, to run more frequent courses and to raise money for the cause. We have also been offered a substantial building in the village which could become our centre of operations.

Elena and I understand each other very well after 13 years of collaboration of a kind, the kind where we, LLP Group, and others, give money and other kinds of support, and Elena and her team decide what to do with it, and spend it. I watch and enjoy, and she does. We haven’t ever had to manage anything together.

But now, with the prospect of our collaboration deepening, with talk of fund raising, financial analysis, marketing, employment of staff, reconstruction and administration of a building, there are things we need to do together.

And what’s interesting for both of us is to see how our different backgrounds, mine business, hers the arts, can be mutually reinforcing but also incompatible. I’m quite sure our friendship will survive, even deepen, but we have some very different approaches.

To my mind, we need to get things done quickly, especially in the area of marketing our ideas and begging for help. So, website, logo, descriptive text, need to be pulled together rapidly. My approach is to do it quickly, and get it out there, even if it isn’t perfect, because I see that we have limited time and energy and we must use those rare commodities to get as much done as possible. The Pareto Principle (in some sense a restatement of the ‘enemy of the good’ principle), that it takes 20% of the time to complete 80% of the work applies to what we’re doing, and no doubt to art too. 40% of the time probably gets you 90%, and that’s enough for me. Better to get something working in three weeks that is good enough, than to wait three months for something that’s nearly (but not quite) perfect.

So, to my mind, the perfect really is the enemy of the good. Elena and I spent some hours over the weekend discussing a proposed website for Artists for Children in detail. Too much detail. If we strive for a perfect website, using professional photographs, agonising over text, using a specialist designer, we’ll be late for everything else we’ve got to get done. We won’t have time for these other, perhaps even more important, things. As I keep saying, ‘We can always improve the website later.’

From an artists point of view the idea of known imperfection is something too ghastly to contemplate, but from the business point of view it is pragmatic. I see the same principle at work in software development, and I’m always saying no when programmers ask if they can make something ‘even better’ (though, perhaps, you must say ‘yes’ if you are Apple or are working in the consumer world).

Artists and business people often work together, and it’s usually an explosive mix. But somehow I know that we will manage our differences, and perhaps be even the better for them. Fingers crossed.

Je suis Charlie

There aren’t many things that matter more than freedom of speech. Language is the most remarkable of all the wonders of evolution and our free use of it is sacred.

Constraints on freedom of speech should always be few: laws to prevent the damage that libel and slander can do, laws to protect privacy when there’s no public interest in the revelation of private facts, laws to protect some very few official secrets, perhaps laws against incitement to, or the teaching of, racism (if there remains in a particular society a serious danger that racism might take hold) but I can’t think of many more.

We should all be free to offend each other. If someone is inclined to say that the English are puny, that the Pope is mad, that the President is stupid, that the Queen is a tart, that the Prime Minister is a hypocrite, that Catholicism is barmy, or that Islam is inflexible, then I am happy to let them do it. Some of these targets may have reason to initiate legal action, but none may reach for a Kalashnikov.

It is fashionable to quote Voltaire (in fact, incorrectly, since the quotation is a summary by someone else of what she supposed Voltaire’s attitude to be), and supposing for the moment that he said it or wrote it, he was right (and brave) to say that  ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

Sadly a number of brave journalists and cartoonists in Paris have done exactly that this week, and have lost their lives, along with others attempting to protect them. We must admire them and have no truck with censorship.