I picked up ‘Eden’ hoping to be taken on an imagination-fuelled trip to a place I’ve always wanted to visit. I envisioned paragraphs dripping with greenery and the ambient hum of insects in the background. What I’d unfortunately failed to divine was that this is a book with a business focus – Tim Smit himself describes Eden as an idea born in a pub, and he lovingly recounts in great detail the nurturing of this hatchling into a tourist-trap with a turnover of £20m. And don’t get me wrong, the Eden Project is marvellous – I think it’s fantastic on so many levels: as a conservation space; as an educational resource; as a tourist attraction; as a use for what was essentially brownfield space in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK, and yes, as a symbol of the fact that you as an individual can dream big and with work and luck (and some friends handily perched in high places) you could see your dream realised. But let me tell you – there’s a reason they don’t show you all of the bumph that comes before a Dragon’s Den pitch…
In all honesty, I think I came away from this with a much more bitter opinion than I would have done taking the book at face value if I hadn’t found myself with such a dislike of the author himself. There’s a real smugness that comes through his writing; investors might have turned his proposition down but they would always take him aside afterwards and whisper that they loved the project, it was the folks higher up who weren’t keen. Contractors who pointed out flaws in his plans were only harsh because they so badly wanted him to succeed. And he contradicts himself all the time; he’s desperate to have the reader believe that he is an eco-warrior, repulsed by fat cats and capitalism, unhappily in thrall to a system in which money is power. He explicitly says at one point, after a small diatribe against the ‘Big Six’ accountancy practices: “Quite how we have managed to create a culture that links the imprimatur of men in suits to quality is probably the subject of another book.” But then he has a three page orgasm about one of his rich and influential friends (of which he luckily has many!) taking him to a private and top-secret boys’ club for the ‘movers and shakers’ of the country. Liberal good-guy Tim seems to forget himself for a moment when he doesn’t bat an eyelid at the fact that this “glorious” club for “exceptionally talented and able chaps… is a wonderful home-from-home unless you happen to be a woman, in which case you are consigned to the basement restaurant during normal hours”. Har har! He comes out with lots of similar quips which I honestly think were supposed to be harmless, but were cringey and often downright insulting to the professionals and experts to whom he should have been nothing but gracious and grateful. Case in point:
Constructors are a breed apart. Early on in the construction of the project I made the mistake of remarking to one of the managers that I was hugely impressed, having watched work going on for more than an hour, that no one seemed to be wasting time or sloping off for a fag break.
On the plus side, there were some lovely glossy photo pages in the book – and Eden is certainly visually very impressive. There was also a ‘hall of fame’ double-spread of photos of some of the key players in Smit’s story of Eden, which I was actually really glad of because whenever Smit came out with one of his bullshit descriptions of somebody, I could take a look at that page and confirm that the [insert ridiculous hyperbole here] individual actually just looked pretty damn normal. Again, case in point:
With her mane of fine honey-blonde hair, great bone structure and lips that you pay good money for in California, she was every inch a Pre-Raphaelite model.
Eurgh. The lady he’s talking about is not only a professional, skilled woman and his colleague, but she’s the partner of another man on the Eden team! Put your dick away, Tim! And a quick skim back to the photo-gallery shows that, without meaning to sound rude in the slightest, she simply looks like a woman.
Smit did eventually get to the good stuff – the horticultural honeypot, if you will. When it came I was perhaps all the more engaged and happy to be reading about it for the couple of hundred pages of bureaucracy I’d just waded through. I learnt lots of new things – like the fact that there is a variety of potato called the ‘Salad Blue‘ which is, and remains after cooking, a beautiful indigo colour. I learnt the phrase ‘microrhyzal association’, which is the term for the carpet of benign funghi linked to the roots of the plants, acting as a sort of digestive system and breaking down nutrients for the plant to use. I learnt about the existence of ‘Biosphere 2‘ in Arizona, which looks the bomb (dare I say I like the look of it more than I do Eden, on a purely superficial level?). The book was definitely a worthwhile read, but I lament that the proportions were so off. Why mention only in one sentence the architectural influence of Roberto Burle Marx – whose style is all over the schematic map of Eden also printed in the book – when you give whole chapters to a single business deal. In short, I just wish I’d known as I picked it up off the bookshop shelf that for the most part I wasn’t going to get the Herbology lesson I craved, but instead was timetabled in for back-to-back Muggle Studies.
Artwork Credit: Bruce Munro’s ‘Field of Light’ installation, Winter 2008