Trusty sward

The Grass is Greener: our love affair with the lawn

Tom Fort <em>HarperCollins, 278pp, £12.99</em>

Like the author of this book, I love mowing the lawn. I have been trying to persuade my mother to turf the front garden of her new house so that, when I next visit, I'll have a larger area of grass to destroy with her new rotary mower - which, although an unfashionable model, is at least powerful and capable of starting on the first pull of the cord. My mother, more tired than modernist, wants to "put the whole thing down to concrete".

Like Tom Fort, I enjoy mowing for the "dirt behind the fingernails, the odour of bonfire lingering about the hair, an ache in the lower back, a sudden and virtuous need for tea, and that particular expulsion of breath that accompanies a satisfied survey of a job well done". And while there certainly is something sensually pleasing about the activity, I hadn't realised that it was a sexual pleasure, that the phallic mower is a "source and symbol of potency, held out throbbing and thrusting in front of the male at approximately groin level, demanding and securing entry to the world outside, and changing that world".

Fort is keen to dismiss such observations as "grist for the psychobabbling mill", but it isn't that easy, especially when you recall the keenness of the late Tory grandee Alan Clark to be photographed astride his throbbing mower. Happily, The Grass is Greener offers plenty of non-sexual reasons for our love of lawns: that they are pleasing to look at; that our unpredictable climate suits them perfectly; that there is an inescapable nexus between green lawns and our favourite sports - bowling, tennis, cricket, croquet, golf and football. They are also, as Fort's own struggles with his lawn illustrate, difficult to keep and virtually impossible to perfect. As a result, they become symbols of our status or endeavour, which serves only to intensify our obsession with them.

While the social changes brought about by the industrial revolution and the invention of the mower may have altered the profile of lawn-owners from an aristocratic elite to just about everyone with a handful of seed and a watering can, the central debate has not changed. In lawns, as in so much, we must decide between nature and nurture. Do we impose a totalitarian regime of chemical weed-killers, the ethnic cleansing of moles and worms, and favour one or two strains of grass to the exclusion of all others? Or do we let nature take its course, imposing our wills only from time to time, and embracing the happy accident?

Fort, in his taste in gardens and in his own efforts as a lawnsman, favours a compromise, a third way. He is, however, quite happy to present both sides of the argument, not just from gardeners, but from men of letters such as Pepys and Bacon. A confident writer, he meanders into social commentary, definitions of Englishness and observations on masculinity, without ever going too far from his subject. I bet he can mow in straight lines.

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