The Garden of Eden 

Over the past 25 years I often wondered what had become of my adorable sunny, forever smiling friend, Ralf Schuette Glasz every time I looked at a Cordelyn Australis in a park or a garden. 

Why you might ask and with good reason? 

In the 80s I bought an Edwardian house at 164 Kensington Park Road,  Notting Hill, London W11 2ER from the famous creator of the Biba Empire - Barbara Hulaniki and her husband Fritz. ‘Shall we call it Biba House?’ I foolishly asked my magical husband Martin Breese. ‘Don’t be so pretentious’ was his abrupt reply.

 Barbara set sail for Miami, influencing hotel interiors and becoming the catalyst for the gentrification of South Beach, while I set about creating a ‘step back in time’ atmosphere in my eclectic world,  befitting my lifestyle as a full time antique collectables dealer between Paris, London and New York. The photo archive-cum-library, Retrograph, was created later through Happenstance but in the early 80s, I just wanted to concentrate on the decor of the house with its overgrown garden untended by Barbara who had no time as she was running her fashion empire.  She had returned from being in exile in Brazil, to set up Hulaniki Cosmetics in Holland Park with her beloved husband and business partner Fritz and therefore lived close by at number 164 for 7 or 9 years before fleeing to Miami while the taxman and a debt collector rang the doorbell!  

First I brought the outside tiled balcony, inside the house, building an extension using a free wall thanks to our architect neighbour Richard Bird to which I added 2 antique French glass bistro doors, double glazed with moths and flowers pressed between the heavy glass that I had had brought over from Paris. Next I designed a mirrored dark green painted conservatory overlooking the bare garden with a plain grey brick high wall which was the back of the Dolphin Antique Arcade in the Portobello Road, famous for its Saturday flea market. Outside on the tiled verandah, Ralf later built a wooden arbour which over the years groaned with juicy black grapes giving an authentic Mediterranean feel. We would sit outside in the summer on the verandah sipping herbal teas accompanied by Lokum overlooking the garden and my cats Rhumba and Tango nestling playfully amongst the foliage.  

I had grand ideas for this boring garden with raised borders but no gardener.  I was not green fingered although I had imagination but no practical knowledge of plants for shady areas or type of soil and all that jazz.  However, I had always loved tropical swaying palm trees and architectural plants, an influence from my exotic time spent in Brazil from 1970/71 especially in Salvador da Bahia, the Afro-Brazilian city on the coast of North East Brazil, home of Capoeira, the Brazilian Martial Arts, with its constant  batucada and Candomble, the secret African religion. 

I would wander down to the flower stall at the corner, Tom’s flowers, the owner being Tom Vach, a tall, larger-than-life German character.  I had struck up a friendship with his ex-partner, fellow Liverpudlian Bill and would hang out with my mate Bill on the windy, uncomfortable corner with nowhere to sit. 

I also befriended the manager of the famed Garden Book Shop, creative Rob Cassy, who was a garden writer and book reviewer but not a gardener himself. He was, apart from being an amateur magician and a friend of Martin’s, also into the art of origami. Rob would wrap customers’ purchases, cleverly folding the gift wrap paper to their astonishment and delight.  

Later dear Bill would tragically die from smoke inhalation after he had set fire to his flat having fallen asleep after smoking a joint. A sad loss to our neighbourhood and later after Ralf’s sudden departure, Rob would become my gardening ‘consultant’ before his untimely tragic death decades later when he was found dead in bed from sclerosis of the liver. 

Yes, gardens and exotic plants were on my mind when I encountered the young good looking flower seller on Tom’s gusty corner stall called Ralf Schuette Glasz, a name and a handsome face to remember for decades to come! 

Young Ralf seemed to have such an extraordinary knowledge about life, plants, herbs, flowers, alternative medicine, not to mention, the human body for his age. We became instant friends and garden colleagues. Ralf often came around to advise me about the potential for my garden which he had adopted as an ongoing flourishing project and after we would savour herbal teas in my ‘Biba’ inspired Art Deco pale pink, silver and black painted kitchen-cum-diner where he was always welcome after a long hard gruelling day with aching swollen wet hands from cutting flowers and making displays for Tom’s blooming business. Harper’s and Tom was supplying Buckingham Palace and so had a royal warrant proudly displayed in his tiny shop.  Not bad from being a representative for Rosenthal’s in Germany, to being a milkman for the co-op, to being Mr Harper’s partner and finally taking over the old man’s little radio repair shop but putting Harper’s name first, thus becoming Harper’s and Tom. The flower stall on the corner was to give his then partner Bill something to do, but I digress.

Today I would have ‘interviewed’ Ralf about his background and how come he arrived in London speaking no English but in a couple of months was speaking like a native, adding his command of excellent spoken English to French, Italian, German, Russian and Serbian. All I gleaned was that he was born in St Petersburg to a beautiful Russian model and an aristocratic French father. However, his mother abandoned him marrying a German politician and the infant was shunted off to Zardar, Serbia, to live with his aunt. 

Poor Ralf! There was an inheritance dispute as he was illegitimate at a time when it was a social stigma. Thus poor Ralf was forever broke and lost the court case against his evil German politician stepfather who absconded to Australia with his sister after his mother’s death with what would have been part of Ralf’s inheritance.

I soon discovered my multi-talented gardener was a Belcanto opera singer so he was not just a pretty face! He revealed he had studied in the Robert Schumann Institute in Düsseldorf and had won first prize in a singing competition he had seen advertised by chance in the Evening Standard while visiting London from Düsseldorf. Young Ralf through this unique Happenstance, left the Düsseldorf Opera House that had offered him a career and studied in London privately with David Harper, a known British opera coach, receiving a small grant in trendy Notting Hill. Hence to make ends meet, out of desperation, he worked close by, day in day out, for Tom’s flowers on the black market, bien sur! 

Despite not being interested in opera, nevertheless Martin and I were invited one evening to Craxton House, today Craxton Studios, in Kidderpore Avenue, Hampstead for a musical salon to hear and support our young friend sing. The Craxton Memorial Trust helped young musical talent and Ralf of course was deeply involved. Through synchronicity, John Craxton, the son of the owner Harold Craxton, who divided his time between the family home in London and Chania in Crete, became the catalyst for my wintering in Chania decades later. 

One day Ralf noticed an abandoned house that was going to be demolished which had architectural plants in the garden. Why not take the plants for Madame Jilliana’s budding garden? A large cordyline Australis (New Zealand cabbage tree) was thus ‘stolen’ and transported by Ralf by moonlight with his best friend Yeti, costing me a mere £40 cash. The boys planted it in a pivotal position where it grew and grew and grew. After some research, it was later discovered that the old Portobello river went through my garden and thus it’s roots obviously found the water. The magnificent tree thrived growing higher and higher blocking out any sunlight we got in the microclimate of London W11. 

Ralf was the catalyst for my architectural garden. After that he found and planted red star and pink passion cordylines, ivy and passion flower on the back wall that bore orange succulent fruit. The ugly wall was transformed into an evergreen jungle with a large hand painted mirror ‘stolen’ from a another building tip, adding reflection, light and depth to my flourishing perennial tropical garden. Ralf advised and added a large Fatsia Japonica bush which thrived and, in the flower bed alongside my neighbour’s garden, he planted a date palm alongside a Trachycarpus fortunei while in the opposite bed, a Phormium Tenaz (New Zealand flax). I was in Tropicalia heaven playing Bossa Nova by my favourite artistes like Jobin, Vinicius, Gal Costa, Elis Regina, Maria Betania, Caetano and Chico. 

I was extremely proud of my garden although I can’t say I tended it. I was Madame of the manor. By this time I had joined the RHS and was visiting National Trust Stately Homes and Gardens with my qualified horticulturist new friend Di Reynolds from Australia who was working at the renowned Clifton Nurseries in Maida Vale.  Of course my surly architect neighbour, Richard Bird, wanted a copycat garden so Ralf got extra work and engaged an American ex-singer Buddhist called Craig Runyon to help him. I was in Paris and came back to find a new family member - Craig engaged by my husband! 

It was time for Ralf to move on, leave Tom’s flowers where he was being exploited and move to Sweden where he sung and proudly presented me with his Gothic CD.

I only saw him once after he moved to Sweden.  He was very speedy and must have been on medication. He had a wild look in his eyes and raced up to me at my Lipka Arcade basement stand in Portobello Road one Saturday morning knowing I would be there, talking very fast with wild non-focussed eyes. He was in a panic and had rung the house doorbell desperate to see me and say farewell, but hopefully not Adieu! Not the Ralf I knew and was fond of. Apparently his best friend and business partner Yeti had absconded with all their hard earned cash from a landscape gardening joint venture. Then he sped off, leaving the UK for ever, and all I got was one postcard from Madrid with no phone number, only the address of a theatre he was performing in for a limited time. 

Silence. Nada. The years sped on, the decades flew past. I looked under his full name and came across the Swedish belcanto music he had recorded in Sweden but no other reference. One media directory had him listed as an actor.  I gave up. He could have been no longer in Spain, no longer alive. How do you search the universe for someone who is not a Mormon? Social platforms, like Facebook, had not been born nor mobile phones. Years later I still searched as I still had a good photo of him with Martin the afternoon we all went to Caxton House for his performance. I had not thought of Facebook, only Google and as always, surfing the net with his middle name. Nada. 

Until yesterday when I received a friend request on Facebook, out of the blue, from a Ralf Glasz without the Schuette, 25 years later and the day before his 60th birthday! 

‘And what now my love?’ as the song goes? 

Written in Brighton on 7.10.18 and updated with Ralf filling in the gaps on 15.10.18.

References
https://www.ralfglasz.com/

Google 

Gothic Impressions - The Par Lindh Project - Synophonic Rock 

Craxton Studios
John Craxton 
Barbara Hulaniki 
Biba 
Harper and Tom’s