‘Cherry’ Ingram is a portrait of this little-known Englishman, a story of Britain and Japan in the twentieth century and an exploration of the delicate blossoms whose beauty is admired around the world.
It is an extraordinary story, but unhappily for Abe, the chapters that recount it are not enough to justify a 400-page book. Dear old “Cherry” Ingram, who went on to write the definitive monograph on his obsession and helped the Japanese to reintroduce lost cherry species, is simply not interesting enough and his story makes heavy demands on readers who are not horticulturally minded. Abe is a Japanese journalist resident in London and her English is faultless, but it lacks the stylishness and ambition that would have been needed to bring alive the more mundane tracts of Ingram’s story.
‘Cherry’ Ingram is a meticulously researched book: Abe undertook dozens of interviews with relatives of the sakuramori (or “cherry guardians”, specialist botanists) who were Ingram’s contemporaries, and with former prisoners of war held captive by the Japanese. Her travels took her as far as military posts on Kyushu, Japan’s remote volcanic island...Despite all Abe’s hard work, the resulting biography is curiously unsatisfying. The sheer number of cherry varieties is dizzying, and they can be difficult to distinguish between with only limited illustrations. Extracts from the “piles of diaries, sketches, handwritten memos… and journals” that Ingram kept during his century-long life suggest that Abe needn’t have paraphrased them – Ingram’s first-person accounts of his plant hunting are far more evocative. One is left wishing for a little more time, a little more depth, to better understand Ingram’s obsession.
This deeply moving book — beautifully written, and a huge achievement in terms of research — records the developments of Abe’s own understanding of the histories of two countries, both significant to her. After the war, Ingram published Ornamental Cherries, widely considered the definitive book on flowering cherry trees, with an inscription: ‘For all who have planted cherry trees, whatever their creed, caste or colour may be.’ Both it and Abe’s book carry a torch for peace and diversity of both ecosystems and people.
Devastated by the Second World War, Japan’s landscape took years to recover, and the government planted thousands of cherry trees to boost morale. Understandably, they chose a cheap, quick-growing variety, but this has meant that 70% of the cherry trees in Japan are homogeneous — Britain, mainly thanks to Ingram, has a much greater diversity. Abe’s book is an engaging biography of a man who “helped to change the face of spring”.
Japan-watchers will recognise the broader message for and about contemporary Japan that Abe seeks to convey. She lauds ordinary citizens as the true stewards of the country’s heritage, and, no doubt with Japanese ambivalence about multiculturalism in mind, she hints heavily at “diversity” as a virtue spanning the botanical and sociopolitical realms. Many will applaud such sentiments. Others will note that Ingram himself was little interested in politics, beyond its ramifications for nature. They will prefer to read this book in that spirit: as a portrait of great charm and sophistication, rich in its natural and historical range, guaranteeing that you won’t look at cherry blossoms the same way again.
Despite Naoko Abe’s intensive research, Ingram does not really come alive as a biographical subject. It is fun to read of his strong opinions on particular varieties such as the ubiquitous Kanzan, which he considered vulgar and garish and actually ‘obscene’, successfully petitioning the headmistress of the nearby Benenden girls’ school to remove a specimen there because such trees were ‘blowsy and always showing off’. But on the whole he comes across as a crusty rich old gentleman of opaque personality. More interesting are Abe’s comments on the sometimes troubled relationship between cherries and Japanese politics, which is a subject perhaps only a native of Japan could pursue so doggedly.