What are Flowers?

Peter Batten thinks about flowers . . .

In January 2017, with my wife Nikki, I made a resolution. We decided that we would always have flowers somewhere in the house. So far, we have maintained that resolution.

As I write, the latest bunch is in a vase on the kitchen table. They are open and thrusting their heads forward like a group of excited children. Their colour is very subtle. I would describe it as orange with a hint of brown, plus some darker flecks. Their effect in the house is to introduce something unique, challenging, mysterious. What are flowers? Where do they come from? How did they come to exist – so many, so different?

My mother’s two brothers loved flowers. They loved their gardens and the different flowers which they grew. As a child I enjoyed visiting them and playing in their gardens but I did not fully appreciate their love of flowers. As I grew older I became very interested in Art. Two of our great painters, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, created pictures which helped me to understand my own life.

Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon

For example, Bacon’s ‘Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion’ seems, in a strange way, to capture my childhood experience of World War II. Then, about 10 years ago, I had very disturbing experience, rather like that of Antoine in Jean Paul Sartre’s novel ‘Nausea’. He finds that everyday objects lose their familiarity and are perceived as disturbing presences. I was looking at a flower when I suddenly began to escape from my everyday perception and see it as a unique and very disturbing and very beautiful object. At last I understood what my uncles had seen in their gardens – an experience which I had almost dismissed as trivial. How much I had missed.

I have often explained to friends that I cannot accept any belief or ideology because nothing could come close to explaining the complexity of life in this world. My ‘Nausea’ experience with a flower brought that complexity into very close focus. Look at any flower. I repeat my earlier questions. What is it? Why is it? How is it?

But is my experience unique? My career as a teacher of literature taught me that changes in ideas and feelings happen at a level which is profoundly unconscious. The great poet WB Yeats believed that when one historical period reaches its ascendancy the seeds of a quite different sensibility begin to grow. Is it ridiculous to suggest that a love of flowers, which has its source in the Romantic era which began 200 years ago, is still increasing? Am I, and others like me, part of a human preoccupation with flowers which has grown, and continues to grow, at a level which our conscious minds barely acknowledge?

When I reached this point in my outline for this article I stopped to think: am I crazy? Anyone who bothers to read the article will find it ridiculous. That evening I saw a television programme about the flower industry. It described how Dutch entrepreneurs have expanded the business of growing and selling flowers. As you read this, hundreds of aircraft are in the air transporting flowers. A few streets away from where I am writing a Dutch lorry is probably unloading flowers, having crossed the Channel this morning with flowers picked in Kenya yesterday. Every day millions of freshly-picked flowers are on the move.

Why is this vast enterprise succeeding and expanding? Perhaps my crazy perception of a growing but unconscious fascination with flowers which affects us all is not as crazy as I thought.


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