The novelist Suzanne Joinson continues her diary.
A couple of weeks before Covid19 hit the UK I found a box full of journals at a car-boot sale in Arundel. Editions 1-70 of Hortus: A Gardening Magazine. Creamy paper and exquisite illustrations, inside was Beth Chatto discussing Cedric Morris and Ronald Blythe on John Nash. There was a chapter on gardens in the fictional world of E.F. Benson (with the quipping title ‘Rye Humour’) and snapshots of Sissinghurst. I felt infused with a shot of cultivated taste just holding the copies. Reading about gardens took me back to The Secret Garden and Wind in the Willows, albeit a grown-up version and I immediately bought the lot.
Now the lockdown is in full force I read Hortus in bed every night. Daily exercise is a scoot around the block dodging humans and whilst I’m glad for the (relative) safety, I mourn my South Downs walking patch as if it were a child sent off to the country to sit out the war.
Coming to terms with weeks at home as the days get lighter, my daughter and I stand at our back door and survey our patch. There isn’t the least link between the dreamy gardens of Hortus and the neglected zone of despair that constitutes my back yard. I tell myself I’m grateful to have outdoor space, no matter how small, but if I’m honest it feels like a cage. Looking at it, asthma comes up and I recall that the claustro bit of claustrophobia means lock and bolt. Gasp. Breathe.
Since living in this house I’ve associated freedom (whatever that is) with outside of the home, particularly the wild and untamed parts of the south of England that are hard to find, but there if you know where to look. My garden is akin to domestic overspill. It is connected to motherhood and laundry. It is full of seedlings needing watering and children needing feeding and represents a private, shameful sense of entrapment where there should be nurturing.
Our house is a narrow seaside town terrace backing on to scrub of wild land leading to railway tracks. A few years back I wrote to the Sussex Wildlife Trust to see if they might help me identify the landowner to get access. I had misty dreams of communal allotment-style pottering, or maybe buying to extend our miniscule, walled courtyard.
We discovered that the land belongs to Network Rail and there is an option to buy, but not individually parcelled. It must be the whole embankment strip. Terraces backing on to railway lines are not generally populated with the well-heeled. Many neighbouring properties are rental flats managed by housing associations and no landlords would be bothered to invest in a scrap of wilderness. Only gentrified homeowners creeping in from London and Brighton (such as I) would potentially have the means or inclination to do that.
Following that disappointment, I developed a love-hate relationship with the garden that strongly favoured hate. My annual gardening habits have traditionally been a flush of potting seeds in February, attempts at alfresco meals in June, followed by months of English rain flooding out the potted geraniums. Now, like everything else, this pandemic is forcing me to confront gardening failures that tap into deeper issues than the dissonance between my reading about gardens and not cultivating my own.
Today, juggling home-schooling and work, I pause from trying to angle my computer screen so that the Zoom camera won’t reveal my overflowing wardrobe and listen to my daughter’s voice. I’m feeling lonely, she says, through the door. We take our books into the garden. It’s sunny, still a bit chilly. Impossible to think of April without T.S. Eliot popping into the head. I have a Hortus journal and she has James and the Giant Peach and we dust off chairs and sit down.
The reduced train service means it is eerily quiet and for the first time in probably a decade I have a good look at what is around me. It isn’t pretty: a rotting veg trug and mouldy old buckets, a rusting mini-trampoline and an ill-advised eucalyptus plant (the one tree you should not plant in a small area that I shoved in the ground as a sapling and is now a giant needing a deep cut). The trailing passion fruit tree has fully occupied the ‘veranda’ on the back of the house and ivy blankets the wall. Bedraggled sweet pea bamboo frames dangle string and abandoned bird feeders hang in the branches. It’s scrappy and small, but south-facing at least. I’d forgotten that it is such a suntrap.
My daughter wants to know what my book is, so I read from Ronald Blythe: ‘My first true garden also belonged to aged women, a mother and daughter. It was dense with what they called ‘their bits’, a ravishing cushion of flowers and scents threaded through with winding dirt paths just wide enough for them to shuffle along and pat and fluff things into place.’
Your turn, I say. She reads: ‘‘My dear young fellow,’ the Old-Green-Grasshopper said gently, ‘there are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t started wondering about yet.’’
I caress my Hortus book. What is it about these text-based gardens that I love? The combination of the cultivated and the wild, I suppose. The experimentation with boundaries – reaching the edge of the wild-wood or opening the secret gate – and then a retreat that we practice in our mind’s eye before trying out for real. It’s to do with notions of safety and home (linked to some sort of awful social aspiration too, probably, dreaming of big houses and even bigger gardens). I look around again. You wouldn’t think it possible to have made as many garden mistakes as I have in such a small section of earth. I can see that under one of the passion flower’s many tendrils, a long-forgotten honeysuckle is getting ready to flower.
We put our books down and climb on upturned plant pots to look over the wall. Such wilderness so close to the house along the bankside of the tracks that I’m even glad I never got to own it. It’s a scrap of the wild that belongs to nobody, really. We agree to do our reading out here every day, weather permitting, for the rest of this strange, enclosed, precious time.
Suzanne Joinson is a writer and academic. Her previous diary entry for The Clearing, Running for the Trees is here. She has published two novels with Bloomsbury, A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer’s Wife. Her writing appears widely and she and writes regularly for The New York Times. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester. Read more about Suzanne on her website.