ARCHITECT: Do I……?
LILY: What? What? (SHE GOES TO HIM) Go on. Try again. “Do I…”?
ARCHITECT: … have enough faith to design in yew?
LILY: Design what in who?
GARDENER: Well sir. What I think: Up to you.
ARCHITECT (IGNORING HER): You have to wait so long for yew.
GARDENER: Worth it.
ARCHITECT: In the end. But you’re never there to see it.
GARDENER: Takes a deal of philosophy.
SHOWMAN: Just a dash of imagination! Look.
– Judith Adams, Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden
I read with interest the obituaries of Randall Coate, who died in France, on 2nd December. A very good innings at 96, he seems to have lead one of those polymath lives that the obituary writers love so well. A spell at Oxford, a medalled war, a lengthy service in the foreign office, followed by a prolific career as a maze designer. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a friend of Jorge Luis Borges (whose collection of stories, Labyrinths, I have been extorting Biodun to read).
By far the best of the obituaries on Coate, is the one published in The Independent. This is undoubtedly because it is by Coate’s colleague and fellow Labyrinthologist, Adrian Fisher. The link inconveniently moves in to the premium section after three days, so here are the choice quotes:
He furthered the maze as a valid form of landscape art more than anyone had previously done. His maze designs abound with symbolism, from their outline shape and the internal patterns of paths and barriers, to numbers and proportions, hidden meanings, verbal allusions and puns.
His seventh rule [of Maze Design] stated: “Do not allow the cost of the maze to cloud your enjoyment of a creation which will bring pleasure to young and old for generations to come. You will have given our world of harsh reality and mindless speed a timeless oasis, a leisurely paradise, the substance of a dream.”
Moulded by the war, and allowed the luxury of travel through a world still under the influence of a waning empire. He seems the archetype of the sincere and unselfconscious intellectual, of the kind that does not seem to emerge any more. Even his name, Randoll Coate, seems to be from an age that has come to an end, replaced (as he predicts) by a world of commodified celebrities, and mindless speed.