Friday, 26 July 2013

The Struggle - Working Man's Blues

Sometimes I’m sickened by the idea of the ornamental garden.  Especially big lonely ones where no-one is interested enough to go, apart from a man with a machine.  Huge, immaculate lawns worry me. Glittering unused swimming pools make me sad. Identical, showy, pointless plants in countless small gardens;  lack of imagination, thought, interest.  All that landscape fabric.  All that hard surface.  Artificial lawns, for God’s sake. Put it all down to wild-life sanctuaries or proper vegetable growing, let’s stop messing around turning everything into suburbia.  Love it, or live in a flat in a city with a balcony barbecue (is that possible? Perhaps I just made it up, for sheer rhetoric).
But I’m not sickened when someone makes an effort, even if I don’t like it and think they’ve got it wrong.  And even if they’ve taken on more than they can handle, so it’s all falling to bits. I don’t want them to get discouraged and fall by the wayside, I want them to find the pleasure again.  Because gardening out of choice, running your own little world, is also a huge luxury, one that has flourished for ever.  And I’ve always thought of people who never get the chance    a truly terrible deprivation, though not  perhaps Guantanomo Bay.

So today’s themes are work, survival and whether hard work makes better gardens, or better people.  I have a garden up my sleeve to illustrate my points.  It’s Veddw House Garden, whose gardener/owner, Anne Wareham, is irritable about the act of gardening, but loves a good result.  And my song is the mysterious Workingman’s Blues, where the struggle makes a victim of a sinner.  You can find it on the album Modern Times.   I think it will attract you, it has a lovely melody seemingly inappropriate to the theme, but all the better for that, sweetly enticing you to look some hard truths in the face.

Let’s take a look at the garden first.  I visited it a couple of years ago, so things may be different now.  It’s in border country, between England and Wales, in the Wye Valley.  A hunkered down cottage close to the bottom of a long slope.  On one side, at the back of the house, the slope forms a great bowl, heavily fringed with woods.  Anne has done a magnificent thing here, you see it and it seems so easy and obvious, so meant, that you think you yourself would have thought of it, or anyone would.  Not so, not like this anyhow.


From the woods, through a series of banked enclosed garden rooms and  rhythmic hedges, the green seems to drain down to an area of greater intensity, where close lines of yew form the pull and the stop to the flow.  Drain sounds bad, but it’s not, it’s a force field and a holding pattern.  There’s a formal pond at the base, reflecting the sky. 

The green strength flows down, but it does not drain away, it just intensifies and stills. You can sit  below this main event at the back of the house, looking slightly up at it, across a semi-circle of grass and between two exuberant, comfortable borders.

Being slightly outside lets you sense the pull, the flow and the stop without being dominated by the hedges.  To me it was one of those spots, not magic, not spiritual, just one of those places where the design creates a special feeling, of being contained and supported, of being fully here,  tickling the part of the brain that interprets place and surroundings.
But there’s more to this place than a significant spot, a relatively humble house and beautiful, complex and sophisticated grounds.  Anne has investigated local history and threaded some of her findings through the garden, including "gravestones" which give you names of locally significant but lost places.  There is also a short hedged replica of the mapping of the fields around, where people worked so hard against the odds, wresting potatoes from the land.  And there is writing – quite a long plaque with quotes about starvation and difficulty in the 1850s.  It’s beautifully calligraphed, in gold on black, paying full honour to those who lived around here in the past.  But it’s even better placed, by a fence with the wild woodland beyond, looking intractable.

I will admit, I normally dislike writing in gardens.  I don't like it on clothes, or food, or textiles either.  Purist you see, I like stuff to speak for itself, if it can.  But this plaque is both perfectly poignant and perfectly informative.

So you have a sense, from the humble, hunkered cottage, the complex weaving of boundaries, the death in the gravestones, the details of the names and shapes, you have a sense of the people who inhabited and worked this land in the past.  And then, from the higher edges of the hollowed land, you look across to the hills, and you see again the harshness of life for the working poor, before machinery, struggling up and down those slopes, “rearing up their cottages, with great toil and perseverance”, some drawn into petty frauds and thefts because of hunger, some dehumanised by their poverty, apparently in need of the guiding hand of religion.

So all these things add up, and you notice more that adds  to the theme, like the interesting black fences, neat and smart but also vaguely homespun and rackety. 

And the box balls down the steps.  They’re different than most, more like a Sunday School on benches, spreading into the aisles.  They have a homely, innocent look here, but  I fear age and grooming will have smartened them up.
The taller clipped yews amongst the gravestones have the placing and height of adults wandering in a cemetery.


The cotoneaster horizontalis here struck me as ramshackle and  humble too, crowded together.   I would have preferred it without the clematis.


And the empty-headed upper class blue hosta, luxuriating in a fancy over-attended party.  Just not my thing perhaps, but it should not be here, not so many, glaring bluely up at the sky.


The bergenia elsewhere is so much nicer, a decent green and a humbler plant, shining like kindness, working away in the shadows, near the foundations of an old collapsed cottage, now used as seating.


Most planting is perfectly in balance with the structure and the theme - foamy, grassy, gently wild-looking. Soft spray of smallish repeated flowers with nothing too showy or exotic.  Tall mauve campanulas (lactiflora), alchemilla mollis  and fireweed, or willow herb (epilobium angustifolia).  The plants are simple, the cover complete, forged from the wild, tipping back to the wild.  It looks as though it looks after itself but of course it doesn’t.  A glance at the plan shows how huge, unexpectedly symmetrical, and complex the whole garden is, with only two or three people working on it.  You can find it on the Veddw website.
So this is a garden that gives you something to think about in two ways.  First a reluctant gardener, who dislikes the activity but has the resolute energy to create a magnificent ornamental garden for its own sake and for her love of beauty.  Second, the creation is a garden which rejects the aristocratic paraphernalia of the English heritage school in favour of a loving recognition of all those who scratched a living, working themselves to death on these hills.  Some would have managed pretty well, and occasionally lifted their heads and gloried in leaves, air and light, watching the birds.  Some would have suffered from the first to the last.  Perhaps they were born out of their time and place, longing, without knowing it, for centrally-heated offices, public transport and coffee shops.

And I am not the person to say that that second group,  struggling with hunger and illness on top of the work, are lesser people than the first, struggling too.  I don’t believe it , genuinely not.  Mainly because of my own constitutional incapacities, which help me recognise the  extraordinary, completely foreign, abilities of others, in all sorts of indoor spheres.   But also because the Italian land where I partly live shows all the evidence of the decline and difficulty of a family maladapted to their destiny and time, shows it in land too damaged for hay to be cut, dying fruit trees, and the mess and confusion of rubbish and wasted building materials. 

Some people just don’t like working outside.  Some just do. I may be the latter but I will always seek the short cut and the easiest hand-based option - others, who want to, using the machines. 

I have met people who tell me that they finally feel able to admit that they don’t like gardening, have no patience or interest with it and feel a lot better for getting this criminal failure off their chest.  I see one of my sisters has become one of those.  There it is.

So let us leap freely to the song ,which doesn’t say any of that, but is rightly titled and mostly about hardship and poverty, the battle to keep going being the main thing.  The protagonist rattles about – from the railways, to working on ships, to farming and finally a penned animal slaughtered in a field.  He is always the victim of something, from the great economic forces that make his work suddenly worthless, to the fretters and fussers who don’t like the way he lives.  He nurses scattershot grudges as he struggles and fails. 

Not the easiest person to get along with,  leaving his boots and shoes all over the place,  dogmatic, insistent, slightly threatening, nagging everyone to hurry up, this working man is not an attractive character to me.  But I don’t deny his suffering, the gently sung song makes you feel tender towards his self-centred pain and his angry resilience in the face of oppression of every kind. He’s exhausted, lost and hungry: these are his blues.

It’s this kind of tenderness towards the agricultural workers of the past that Veddw House Garden seems to evoke, once you’ve read that plaque.  Yes, you could say we who view the garden and enjoy the theme – which is not the only one - are being sentimental, a little fanciful,  feeling a sweet trickle of pity posing as nostalgia.  But we’re always faced with that dilemma of not being quite authentic when we contemplate those who suffer privation.  We would not be them, not if we can help it.

The song raises questions about economic changes that ravage livelihoods but it places no real blame.   The world goes round again, the money getting shallower and weaker.   That’s a wonderful anthropomorphic image in the song – surely no-one has ever made economic depression so palpably enfeebling.  The working man wants to damage his nameless, ill-defined oppressors, but the song is not a call to arms, it’s a genuine song, about the market economy, the way things are, and ever have been, for the dispossessed are trapped into dependence on their exploiters.

Perhaps hard lives do indeed make hard people.  But I don’t think that  is always true.  Savio, the man who grazes his animals on our Italian land rises at 5 and often works till 10 at night.  He never has a holiday.  But equally he never raises his voice, to daughter, son or animal.  And despite the heat he has never not smiled when we talk.  There are many such, everywhere, and of course he is his own boss.  A degree of control makes most things bearable.


Let’s go back to the exhausted gardener, arms savaged by rose-thorns, nails blackened, filthy-footed, broken-backed, skin burnt and bitten.  All through choice.  Is this a good  way to carry on?   Many people here in Italy are clear that it is not.  I have been implored, by complete strangers, not to create too much work for myself.  Though I really don’t know how else to live, so I anxiously defend my right to take on more than I can handle. 

I do see that the heat can be discouraging, as can cold.  But, in the end, you don’t have to love it all, no-one could, not about anything; you just have to love it enough.   As Veddw House Garden shows – and I have not even begun on the beautiful, extensive plantings on the other side of the house – the end result may be good enough  to justify whatever labour is required and may even scotch the blues.  I don’t expect much from my results, and certainly nothing remotely comparable.  But I do know that working at my garden, admittedly mainly when I want to, will keep me cheerful.  That’s the absolute luxury of liking the work that you have to do.  Like most people,  I’d rather have that than caviar with cashmere and ambergris.