Friday, September 26, 2008

So, why do we garden? Part 2

In the recent series broadcast by C5 entitled I Own Britain's Best Home and Garden, Anne Wareham, one of the judges, remarked that people often described their garden as a retreat. "Wouldn't it be more fun," she murmured mischievously, "if it was an attack?" I wouldn't say my garden was an attack, but it is a kind of riposte.
I wonder how many of our gardens, like so much else in our lives, are affected by our early years? Not just planting seeds with Grandad, or playing in the back garden, but all our other childhood experiences as well? When I wrote a post a few days ago about how our memories affect us as gardeners (or even turn us into gardeners), VP said something in a comment that I thought was fascinating. She said: "I haven't a clue where my gardening bug came from - it just re-emphasises the feeling I've had since a child that I'm a changeling."
I'm dying to find out what she means by that, because I used to think the same when I was a child. Well, not that I was a changeling exactly: I thought that I was adopted. My twin sister looks dramatically different from me, and my brother, three years younger, looks very much like her. It wasn't until my younger sister came along that I realised someone else in the family looked like a bit like I did. Today, of course, I can see a family resemblance between me and my parents. A physical resemblance, that is: in terms of personality, we're quite different.
I grew up in a rather bohemian household. My father's jazz band often rehearsed at home and I have a vivid memory of coming home from school with my twin sister on our fifth birthday, and the band playing a Dixieland version of Happy Birthday To You. (I burst into tears, I'm not quite sure why. Embarrassment, I think.)
Another early memory is of our chimney catching fire one night. It was always catching fire, because no one ever seemed to arrange for it to be swept. I remember hanging out of the window of the nursery watching the firemen rush about outside the house and caught sight of a figure in a duffel coat carrying a trombone. It was my father, coming home from a gig. He took one look at the unfolding drama (flames! frantic activity! flashing blue lights!), turned around and went away again. When I tell people this story now, they're shocked but I thought it was very funny.
My mother was and still is an indefatigable party person. She once invited the entire cast of Black Nativity, the Gospel nativity show that had come to London after its triumphant debut on Broadway, back to the house. She'd been to see the show several times and taken lots of jazz musician friends, and she had become quite friendly with the cast. They'd told her how much they missed real Southern food and she suggested they come round to our place and cook up a storm.
For what seemed like a week, but was probably only a day, the house seemed full of women singing and laughing and cooking ladies' fingers (okra) and cornbread and other soul food delights. I'd never seen okra before, and I still measure cornbread by that freshly baked version.
In the meantime, the musical director, Professor Alex Bradford, sat down at the piano with us kids and amused us with fabulous Gospel renditions of nursery favourites such as Baa Baa Black Sheep. Members of the choir would wander in and join in. For years, I wanted to be either a Gospel pianist or sing in a Gospel choir. (Secretly, I still do.)
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I longed for normality. Like Saffy, the daughter in the comedy series Absolutely Fabulous, I yearned for the sort of life that followed a predictable pattern, where people did "normal" things like cut the grass every Sunday afternoon. Unlike Saffy, I didn't resent the fact that my mother worked or had a whirlwind lifestyle - I regarded her as one of the most glamorous people I knew - but you could never tell whether she was going to be at home or tearing around London on her Lambretta.
We never seemed to have a conventional car. At one stage, we had a secondhand ambulance, which admittedly came in very useful for camping holidays, but wasn't what you'd call an average family runabout. We never had any money, so our huge, shambolic Victorian house was always full of lodgers who ranged from charming to mad as a box of frogs. Add six or seven lodgers to four children, and as you can imagine, we spent a lot of time making beds.
Looking back, I think my childhood was quite exciting and that I was an ungrateful little minx for wanting something different. But I also now recognise that this rather unpredictable lifestyle, which ended with my parents' divorce, left me not with a desire to be "normal" so much as an urge to impose order on chaos.
I think that's why I enjoy the humdrum garden chores so much: mowing the lawn, tying stems to canes, sweeping up leaves, deadheading things. They don't involve a lot of stress or intellectual debate, but you notice a very satisfying difference when they're done. It's certainly why I'm a sucker for reality shows such as House Doctor or Ground Force: anything, indeed, in which someone comes in and takes charge and sorts everything out.
I realise this makes me sound like an unbearable control freak or neatnik. OK, it's true. I admit to being a control freak, and my colleagues would certainly say I'm a neatnik (mine is the only desk where you can see the original surface), but I'm not obsessed with neatness to the point that I regard gardening as an alfresco form of housework. I just like to know that there's a plan or, perhaps more importantly, some kind of logic underpinning the project. I like rhythm - plants or shapes repeated again and again - and structure, and some thought given to shape.
If everything is ultra-neat - or if everything is running wild - you lose any sense of drama, in my opinion. You need a bit of both to make things exciting. I think there is something wonderful about the contrast between neatly clipped lawn edges, or box hedges, and riotous borders that spill voluptuously over their boundaries.
I think that's why gravel gardens can work well: the gravel acts as a kind of recurring theme, or bass line, while billowing plants make solo appearances along the way. Foliage plants, especially tall ones such as phormiums or exclamation-mark cypresses, might act as punctuation, so that instead of taking in the garden in one sentence, as it were, you are made to focus on the individual words.
Fabulous gardens are a bit like the best parties, when you come to think about it. All the plants are dressed in their finest, determined to have a good time. Some of the guests are in gorgeous frocks, others in the horticultural equivalent of Little Black Dresses, or suits. There should be at least one person who's funny or outrageous, and someone who knows all the gossip.
When you go to a party, however wild or informal it may appear, someone has usually thought to organise music and drinks and food, even if it's only a couple of sticks of French bread, a slab of Brie and some red plonk from the supermarket. You're not aware of the organisation, though, you're just intent on enjoying yourself. That's my kind of garden. Perhaps deep inside the neatnik there's a bohemian party animal struggling to get down and boogie.