As his 70th book is published, Alan Titchmarsh talks to Hannah Stephenson about ‘dangerous’ social media, the joy of gardening and how making a difference starts at home.
Alan Titchmarsh is having a rant. The TV presenter, gardening guru, bestselling author of romantic fiction and friend of the Prince of Wales, believes social media is affecting society in a similar way to how bindweed invades beds and borders, choking its victims.
He is discussing his latest novel, The Scarlet Nightingale, a tale of wartime derring-do in which a British woman, who finds herself working in intelligence, is sent to occupied France to help destroy an armaments factory making parts for German tanks.
His novels frequently take you back to a time of old-fashioned values and tender romance – a far cry from today’s in-your-face notions of love depicted in popular shows like Love Island – and this latest tale is no different.
So it is unsurprising that Titchmarsh, 69, laments that the age in which he grew up has long gone, as gentle communications have been replaced with stark text messaging and the onslaught of social media.
“I go on magazine programmes with people whose names I won’t mention, and they are tweeting in the ad breaks,” he says incredulously. “And I’m sitting there on the sofa like a lemon. That irritates me.”
And despite pleas from his publicists, he won’t be promoting any of his books or TV projects on social media because he refuses to engage with it.
“Social media makes people too introspective. It’s inward-looking, it’s all about ‘me’, it’s all about other people’s perception of you. The self-awareness that it fosters is too dangerous and introspective. It leads to terrible things like depression and people who feel like they’re not fitting in.”
The ex-Gardeners’ World presenter goes on to explain how his fictional characters’ traditional attitudes of courtesy, sensibility and judgment reflect his own.
“A lot of those attitudes are mine,” he admits, before relaying a story of his dismay on a recent visit to King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, when he saw a group of American students wearing baseball caps inside the cathedral.
“That really upset me. Then, I was at an event where the national anthem was played and there were men with hats on during the national anthem.
“I was telling this to somebody of my age – and they laughed at me for worrying about something so inconsequential. But I see it as the thin end of lack of consideration for other people’s feelings.
“The attitude is, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Well it does to me. It leads to larger things not mattering.” Checking himself, he smiles and adds: “Now, I’m starting to sound like my grandfather!”
If there’s a touch of no-nonsense Yorkshireman about him it stems from his childhood growing up in Ilkley.
The son of a plumber, Alan, (who was also a part-time fireman in the town) and Bessie Titchmarsh, he left school at the age of 15 and became an apprentice gardener at the local nursery, before going on to train at horticultural college and then the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
He left Kew to concentrate on being a gardening journalist, though his subsequent television career, as so often is the case, came about by accident.
A TV producer heard him on a radio programme and invited him to appear on Nationwide, the BBC’s long-running news programme.
His appearances as a horticultural expert on the show led him to presenting coverage of the Chelsea Flower Show for the Beeb in 1983 – something he did for the next 30 years.
During this time he became one of the most recognisable faces, and voices, on TV – his easy charm earning leading him to be dubbed “the housewives’ favourite”.
He was also the main presenter of Gardeners’ World and the hugely popular Ground Force, and went on to host the BBC1’s daytime chat show Pebble Mill At One in the early 90s, before later hosting The Alan Titchmarsh Show on ITV which ran for eight years until 2014.
Titchmarsh’s old-school attitude of having respect for other people’s sensibilities, coupled with good manners, might not endear him to all generations, but there’s a sincerity there that is evident in his writing.
His novels are nostalgic, gentle, chivalrous. He doesn’t swear, always leaves the nitty-gritty of sex to the reader’s imagination, and wouldn’t contemplate gratuitously violent scenes. “I write for pleasure. I don’t want to spend my days writing about sordid relationships.”
He also worries about the effect on society of what he sees as an ever-increasing deluge of online sensational news.“Every night, that is fed to you – all doom and gloom and misery – and you forget to live, if you’re not careful.”
No wonder he loves the great outdoors so much. “I think, without being funny, that gardening has kept me grounded. It’s real. The garden is an escape to reality. Keeping a sense of perspective and proportion today, what with news and social media, is fiendishly difficult because you can so easily become overwhelmed by tragedy.
“You end up feeling that you’re useless if you can’t make a difference. I concentrate on the bit outside your back door, where you can make a difference.”
There are three more Love Your Home And Garden episodes due in winter, and next year he’ll be presenting another series of ITV’s Love Your Garden and more Secrets Of The National Trust on Channel 5. Another novel will follow in 2020.
He’s had the summer off, spending time at his home in Hampshire and his bolthole on the Isle of Wight – but with a wealth of projects on the go, retirement doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
“I’m telling myself all the time that I need to slow down. I don’t have a bucket list. I’ve been lucky and I’ve done so much. I just want to keep doing nice things, but I’m much less ambitious than I was,” he reflects.
Part of the latest novel features diary entries from the fictional female protagonist. How did Titchmarsh approach writing from a woman’s point of view? “Well, I’ve been married for 43 years (to Alison, a doctor) and I’ve two daughters who are grown up so I’ve lived with women a lot.
“I know we’re from different planets, which I’m frequently told, but I like to think that I’m sympathetic to people and in that respect, there are characteristics that overlap.
“I’m oversensitive about everything. I notice too much, I think too much but it cuts both ways. It makes you vulnerable to criticism.
“You feel things more rawly but it also gives you an ability to create an atmosphere,” Titchmarsh continues. “All my heroes, and now my heroine, have a hell of a lot of me in them.”
The Scarlet Nightingale, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now priced £20.
The Ilkley lad who made good
Alan Titchmarsh was born in Ilkley in 1949 and was brought up on the edge of Ilkley Moor.
He left school at 15 and became an apprentice gardener in the local nursery, before going on to work at Kew Gardens.
Alan became a household name presenting Pebble Mill At One and Gardeners’ World, in addition to his talk show.
He has written more than 50 gardening books, 10 novels and four volumes of memoirs.
In 1997 he was named “Yorkshire Man of the Year” and was made an MBE in the 2000. In 2004 he received the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest accolade in the British gardening world.
He is married to Alison and has two daughters, Polly and Camilla.