A Bradford town garden, late 19th century. (Photo: Garden Museum, London)
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Hardy blooms: the British urge to garden, against all odds

Green fingerdom throughout the ages in the face of wars, poverty and social upheaval.

The Gardens of the British Working Class
Margaret Willes
Yale University Press, 413pp, £25

A Green and Pleasant Land: How England's Gardeners Fought the Second World War
Ursula Buchan
Windmill Books, 368pp, £9.99

Many books and articles written to feed the insatiable maw of gardening literature are worth not a single leaf of the rainforest. These two books, however, have something refreshingly new to say. “Refreshing” is perhaps a moot word, as both are essentially about deprivation, and the human compulsion to create gardens – however pitiful, insignificant or bizarre – that blaze defiantly in the face of poverty, war and all the odds. The other common currency is continuity: roses and root vegetables were planted as assiduously five centuries ago as they are today; the medieval “weeder woman” segues into the 1940s Land Girl; Thomas Tusser (1524-80), the author of A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, prefigures the first celebrity gardeners of the 20th century, C H Middleton and Percy Thrower.

Margaret Willes used to be the publisher for the National Trust and, having burrowed into its archives in Cirencester and Swindon, I am tempted to guess that the weight of material contained both there and in its country-house libraries helped equip her to tackle, in The Gardens of the British Working Class, a vast and relatively unexplored subject. She has succeeded in letting the individual voices of the underdogs of the gardening fraternity shout or whisper tellingly through its pages.

She begins by describing the precepts and practices of the 16th to 18th centuries. Although this first quarter of the book is richly packed, the information and quotations here may well be familiar to readers with a taste for garden history, and a case might be made for taking as the starting point instead the birth pangs of the Industrial Revolution, with all the repercussions that rural despoliation and urban overcrowding, vastly increased pollution and a newfangled poverty were to have on working-class life.

In her epilogue, Willes refers to the “consistency of the threads” running through the book. The threads may be consistent but they also occasionally get tangled. Allotments quite rightly feature strongly, but they crop up (pun regrettably intended) in several chapters, which can be confusing. And does the work of gardening professionals – head gardeners, market gardeners and nurserymen – really belong in a book about working-class gardens?

Such carping aside, the material assembled is remarkable in its depth and range, and is packed with economic, social, horticultural and literary insights. (Hands up, whoever knows the difference between burgage plots and guinea gardens.) Above all, the gamut of green spaces – window boxes, rural back and urban front plots, allotments, public parks and model villages – is explored in meticulous detail.

The 19th century, the meat of this book, threw up remarkable differences in gardening fortunes around the country. In 1844 the social historian William Howitt discovered “upwards of 5,000 gardens in Nottingham, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class . . . These lie on various sides of the town, in expanses of many acres in a place . . . In the winter they have rather a desolate aspect, with their naked trees and hedges, and all their little summer-houses exposed, damp-looking and forlorn; but, in spring and summer, they look exceedingly well.”

Contrast this with a childhood memory of gardens near the Regent’s Canal in London:

The back yards were all alike . . . and contained a back-to-back water closet . . . Every year Father planted a few geraniums and blue lobelia plants, but with the soot, lack of sun and cinder ash in the soil they lingered to a premature death . . . If a tuft of grass appeared in the crevices of stone and clinker [Mother] would tend it as if it was a lily . . . It reminded her, she said, “of the country”.

I hadn’t realised that by the 19th century the florist societies – gatherings of horticultural “twitchers” avid to grow the stripiest tulip, the most fragrant hyacinth, the showiest dahlia – were by no means confined to the upper classes. Tradesmen and “mechanics” loved them, too. Willes relates the story of John Hufton, a Derbyshire stocking-maker in the 1850s whose carnations, mulched with decaying leaves and “willowdust”, were famed far and wide. When the time came to show them, he would walk to Nottingham, “carrying a dozen pots in wooden boxes hanging from a yoke, like a milkmaid with her pails”.

The Oxfordshire stonemason Charles Snow springs from the page as the prototype of the hard-grafting working-class gardener of the 1880s:

. . . he would get up at four on a summer morning, work in his garden for an hour, and then set off [to work] . . . Every day he noted the weather, usually followed by short notes, written in pencil, of his gardening activities . . . When in work, almost all his wages were given over to Mrs Snow, and the rest spent on things for the garden and occasionally on beer.

Hyacinths and tulip bulbs mark him out as a florist enthusiast, and he filled his plot with vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, together with a few ducks.

What emerges most strongly is the no-nonsense resilience of the period. One story concerns a lady living near Nottingham who spent much of her time visiting “the poorer classes”. On a visit to one home, she found that the coverlet was missing from the bed.

Her immediate reaction was that it had been pawned, but the wife revealed it had gone to keep the frost out of the greenhouse. “And please ma’am, we don’t want it and we’re quite hot in bed.”

Photographs of prize-winning window boxes and luxuriance coaxed out of compacted urban rubble say it all, the working-class way. The Garden journal (first published in 1871) declared its intention to promote “pure horticulture of the natural, or English, school, free from rigid formalities, meretricious ornaments, gypsum, powdered bricks, cockle-shells and bottle-ends”. Twenty years on, the proud owners of a small London garden are photographed standing beside a rigidly formal wavy flowerbed, fringed by sempervivums that look remarkably like the despised cockleshells.

Gnomes and statues abounded, and as soon as seeds became cheaper and more widely available the gaudiest bedding plants testified to a yearning for colour. This was at a time when the cottage garden, launched when perennials and hardy annuals were the only plants available to working-class gardeners, was making a mannerly and nostalgic comeback higher up the pecking order.

As the story moves on through the First World War to the eve of the Second, Willes begins to overlap with Ursula Buchan. A Green and Pleasant Land, part chronological and part thematic, spans the two decades between the alarms and uncertainties of the phoney war and the dreary deprivations of the postwar period. Equally well-researched, it is a work to be read for pleasure as well as enlightenment – Buchan has 15 books and three literary prizes under her belt, and it shows. This one, now out in paperback, would make a fine offering for anyone who remembers the years of rationing and the at times wanton destruction of gardens and parks in the name of the war effort.

Topics range from the role of the Women’s Institute and research stations, government and media education and morale-boosting (the nanny state in full cry) to prisoners’ gardens, livestock and cooking recipes. How curious to reflect that between September 1940 and April 1945, during which weather forecasts were banned from the airwaves, about 12 million pounds of fruit was being preserved by busy rural women.

Heroes and heroines emerge – Lady Denman of the Women’s Land Army and the WI, Lord Woolton of the ministry of food. Despite the overlap between these books, there are interesting anomalies: Willes doesn’t mention either Denman or Woolton, while Buchan eschews one of Willes’s most arresting wartime photographs, of an Anderson shelter whose roof has been planted with vegetables. It just goes to show what a vast pool there was for the two authors to fish in.

Katherine Lambert is a gardening writer. Her latest book is “Gardens of Cornwall” (Frances Lincoln, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era