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How to arrange for instant drama

Lucia van der Post aims her glue gun and takes lessons on becoming a 'floral decorator'


There is no snobbery like floral arrangement snobbery. The raised eyebrows that attend the presence of anthuriums, dyed flowers or - worse - those triangular no-back arrangements that Kenneth Turner dubs "the dart board brigade, Womens Institute stuff" would be enough to wither the most blossoming rose.

To those whose floral ambitions run no further than pretty bunches of tulips or some garden roses in a jug, the nuances of taste are a mystery.

The trouble is that flowers are so indiscreet. They talk. They send out signals about one's tastes, one's social status, one's sensitivity to all that is stylish. This makes the mere act of filling a container (vases, you see, are really much too banal) infinitely more stressful than most of us would like.

Anxious to catch up on current floral fashion, I decided to go to the master himself, Kenneth Turner. He is to flowers what Nicky Clarke is to hair, the "floral decorator", as he likes to be known, for the "been everywhere, seen everything" set.

He can always be relied on to come up with something different "surprise" he says, "is the key. These people have been to Hollywood, New York, Saudi Arabia. You must make them think - My God, who did that?"

And, my goodness, does he surprise them. There was the time he turned the Great Room in Grosvenor House into an Arabian palace with fountains, trees and stephanotis that seemed to be growing there. "It looked," says his perky assistant, Sharon, "just like Baghdad and as if it had been there for 50 years."

One Christmas, for Richard Burton's widow, Sally, he lined a whole room with chicken wire covered in box, while for a wedding in Greece he had olive trees growing out of the roof.

I had something rather more modest in mind. Without a chateau, schloss or even a Georgian manor house to embellish, I thought it would be nice learn how to do something a little bit more enterprising than just dumping the flowers in a jug.

My first class is with Sharon. "Planted and Growing" its called and I'm lined up with other eager learners who clearly have much grander establishments to decorate florally than I.

Hermes bags, Gucci shoes, expensive tailoring - not to mention leisured days in which to hone one's domestic skills - are much in evidence. Great aluminum cans of lillies, roses, foliage of every hue, as well as pots of herbs, bowls of tomatoes, green beans and artichokes, are everywhere.

I am surprised to discover that danger lurks. Apart from the aprons, pens and pads, we are issued with glue guns ("they are very, very hot and everybody always ends up burning themselves"), very sharp scissors ("take care, somebody always cuts themselves") and a rather splintery empty wooden box.

Vases as you've already gathered, are out. You start from scratch here - you make your own container. We are, it seems, going to fill it with herbs and vegetables to make a decoration for a bank holiday lunch. "Its going to be great talking point," she assures us. And I guess somebody else has to be cooking lunch.

Sharon shows us how to cover the box entirely in dark green gaultheria leaves using scissors to trim the leaf and the glue gun to stick it to the box (she's right - I do burn myself). The room soon looks like the set of Blue Peter. It may look easy but it sure isn't.

Meanwhile, Sharon  chatters on, imparting golden tips the while. "What you want to do," she tells us, "is to start looking at things completely differently - give everything a magic twist. Look at your garden, your utensils, simple wooden spoons or buckets - give it that KT touch. Add pebbles, strawberries, stones. We don't do just cut flower arrangements, we mix plants with cut stems so that they look as if they are growing. You don't want one itsy bitsy thing here and another there - group things in biggish groups. Cut things diagonally so they take in the water better. Anything woody should be split a little at the end.  If delphinums or roses seem to die on you re-cut the stems and put them in hot water"

After about an hour, the boxes are done and Sharon shows us how to line them with heavy polythene ("so you can water them without spoiling the Chippendale"). Then we fill them up with soil covering any "mechanics" with moss.

Finally we go our own idiosyncratic way using combinations of terracotta pots, tomatoes on the vine ("lay them down so that they're exploding from the pot"), baby artichokes, bundles of beans (tied with stubbed wire) and several different sorts of herbs.

I survey my handiwork. It is quite unlike anything I've ever done before and I feel the sort of mild triumph that I used to feel when I helped my children turn a loo roll into a pencil holder. I can't quite see it enhancing my particular bank holiday lunch table for if I'm really truthful I have to say I fancy flowers more. I decided to go back the following week and do a master class under the maestro himself, Kenneth Turner.

Turner is a class act. You would go just to listen to the patter. "When I trained at Lady Pulbrook's, Mrs. Gould trained us properly. We spent a month in each department and a year just learning to wire flowers." He has a clutch of very firm dictats. "You don't fiddle about sticking one rose here and one there - you take a bunch and you put them in and you get instant drama. We don't use oasis very often - our secret here is chicken wire - you don't crunch it, you sculpt it. Nothing should ever stand up stiff and straight - flowing lines are the thing." The other mantra of the florist is "uneven numbers" - you use three, five, seven or nine - never two, four six or eight.

But we get more than patter. He is  going to make a "table decoration with a twist"  Its 10.20am. He takes a great basket and, exceptionally, he uses 16ins diameter oasis.

In a trice, he puts in neo fern leaves in great clumps, then "using flowers as my paints" he puts in white sprays of Wendy rose ("to give it a country look") followed by clumps of white lilies ("to get another texture going"), then white peonies, and white roses (he touches the petals downwards gently to open them out). In the middle, goes a plastic bowl which he covers with moss and then fills completely with strawberries. But it could be cherries, green apples or even just white roses. By 10.37am, there is a humdinger, of a fresh country basket, filled with white flowers, green foliage and sweet red strawberries. This I want to learn how to do.

Taken from the "Financial Times" (Weekend May 30/31 1998)


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