Monday, 1 July 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

What connects a London artist and a famous gallery with a group of florists in Belgium? The first two have just staged the first of two weeks’ worth of…what would you call it…performance art? Audience participation art? Fact-inspired fiction? And the second has inspired an international movement that kind of feels like the grown-up, midsummer version of a child’s visit from Father Christmas.

Speak to Strangers is a project where artist and writer Gemma Selzer sets up with a blanket, some strawberries, and a sign inviting strangers to talk to her and tell their stories. For the past week and for the next five days, Gemma was and will be on the south side of Tate Modern from 11am to 2.30pm, giving Londoners the chance to quash the stereotype that we are the most unfriendly and contemptuous bunch of people in Britain. And give visitors to London the chance to show that they’re definitely not unfriendly or contemptuous. In fact, given the chance to talk to someone we’ve never met before, who warmly invites us to share a little bit of our story with them, we’re interested and curious and friendly.

Gemma uses the stories she gathers each day (yes, even on the day I saw her, when it was pouring with rain, we strangers with stories still flocked to her) to write a 100-word short story. Her previous work has included an enchanting tour of London at the wondrous hour of 5am. As an insomniac, an early-bird and late-night writer, and a get-the-5.30am-train-to-the-market florist, I was fascinated to read the thoughts of someone who is not used to seeing London at such an odd time, and there is a mysterious text message behind the tour that will have you musing over it the next time you wake up earlier than usual. It's also intriguing to see photos of the capital at 5am at different times of the year.

Now to Belgium, where a group of flower farmers and florists have started a guerrilla movement that has swept over the world. Yesterday was International Lonely Bouquet Day – where flower and nature-lovers gathered flowers from their gardens, fields, allotments, and made posies and bouquets, which were then left with an ‘Adopt me’ note in public places for strangers to find. The strangers could keep the flowers for themselves or give them to someone as a gift. Some of the adopters reported back with stories of what happened to the bouquet and photos of the happy adopters.

I really enjoyed taking part in this. If you’ve been following my blog or my work, you’ll know that I am a romantic florist – I do it because it’s exciting, beautiful, inspiring, and because it brings joy to people – so the idea of making lonely bouquets was wonderful to me. I especially loved the green aspect of it; rather than using shed-loads of mass-produced wholesale flowers, we would have to forage with scissors and secateurs for our own. The bouquets would be seasonal, local, wild, beautiful and quite possibly scented. Fleuropean, the group behind the movement, encourages using recycled glass jars as containers, so I set about decorating some of mine, Blue Peter style, with beautiful pictures from The RHS’s The Garden magazine and the David Austin Garden and Home catalogue. I also used beautiful photos from the catalogue to fashion labels for each bouquet – so strangers would know they were up for adoption and not merely abandoned!

I used lots of red, pink and apricot roses, including gorgeous ‘Cariad’ David Austin Roses, which all smelt amazing. I used plenty of philadelphus (mock orange), a glamorous white flower that smells like a cross between jasmine and honeysuckle. I also used scabious, osteospermum, matricaria daisies, and escallonia ‘Apple Blossom’. For foliage, I used jasmine, chunky pittosporum and the thinner, ‘Oliver Twist’ variety, lemon mint, and orange thyme. Each bouquet was so scented – I really hope the adopters got a kick out of this.

I left the first in the little Desmond Tutu Peace Garden in the huge Chinbrook Meadows in Grove Park. This little haven was opened by Desmond Tutu himself four years ago; he used to live nearby once upon a time. It’s a lovely garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw, that represents peace and harmony. It was the perfect place for a lonely bouquet…and as I turned to look back, after I had left the meadows, I saw a man walk over to it, lift it up and sniff it, and take it away. I can’t begin to describe what a thrill that was! I hope he or the person he gave it to enjoyed it.

The second bouquet was the smallest, but also the most delicious, containing mint and thyme. I really like using thyme in arrangements now – it smells stronger than mint and it lasts well in water. I left it outside an entrance to Lewisham Hospital, which many of you will have heard of because of the planned changes to the emergency and maternity units. By a complete coincidence, Desmond Tutu also opened a unit at the hospital and has voiced his support for the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign! I waited a while from a distance, but not many people came past and no one seemed to notice it. I could have left a bigger bouquet, but I was worried about people not having enough room by the hospital bed or having to lug it home on the bus after visiting. Well, hopefully it got adopted later.

I took the last bouquet on a bus to Bromley and left it on an empty bench in the busy Queen’s Gardens behind the shopping centre. I’m not sure how quickly it got snapped up, but it wasn’t there when I walked by half an hour later.

There is a map where you can see if there are lonely bouquets in your part of the world. Flower fairies can upload pictures of their lonely bouquets and tell us if they are confirmed adopted or up for adoption. And adopters can upload photos of their finds. My friend showed this map to her young son yesterday. He was so inspired by the map (his town was sadly lacking lonely bouquets) and the photos that he did two things. First, he cut a rose from his garden and got his mother to send a photo of it to me, so I could have a rose in thanks for my flower donating. Second, he asked if he could make a lonely bouquet himself today and leave it for someone to adopt. How completely wonderful! I love his enthusiasm and also his refusal to fit into some kind of 'boys don't like flowers' mould.

Fleuropean say: ‘The ultimate goal of this initiative is to dedicate one day a year to making strangers happy.’ Flowers and the sharing of stories – what a great way to do this.

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