The icy rime in the shadow of the yew tree does not put Andrew off his beer. I can hear the mumble of chatting, but I am up in the house looking at the horizon. Andrew the Scientist and Peter the Painter are sitting in the flower part of the garden where curving beds,
punctuated by trees that give shade in the summer create private spaces. It is a place for reading but not as you see it in that succession of saccharine Biedermeier paintings of pretty girls in pretty dresses having pretty thoughts amongst the pretty flowers. It is a place for reading because a garden invites Hermes, the boundary-crosser, to rest his winged feet in its shade. It invites meanings to accumulate.
Look at my vegetable garden, for example, with its apple tree in the corner slyly suggesting a comparison to Eden. It is oriented along the points of the compass with a weeping cherry surrounded by rosemary in the central roundel: rosemary for remembrance says Ophelia before she floats away down the river. In the middle of the east and south faces are gates framed with clematis and rambling rose intertwined. Along the south front are four bay trees- bay for poets- pruned by C into ornamental balls on sticks. The north side, where the sun hits, is the hot side where peppers and egg-plant can grow. The south side, in the shade of the lonicera hedge that runs all around the outside of the garden, is the cool damp face, where moss grows on the wet earth.
The garden is the umbilicus of my world. When I move away from it I am decentred. Despite my scorn for kitsch Russian visions of women in the garden, it is true that C is the soul of the garden. It belongs to her and she makes the decisions about what should be planted where and when. With no C there would be no garden, which makes the garden quintessentially feminine. She gives a new relevance to those medieval paintings of the virgin in the garden. When I hike the surrounding peaks, I am aware of C in her garden as the magnet pulling me back. If she weren’t here I imagine myself spiralling off onto longer paths that would take me further and further away.
Sometimes I walk- or cycle- into town. It feels like I am moving away from the centre and when I walk up the hill to return each kilometre that goes by is a kilometre closer to home. And home is not a house but a garden and, specifically, a weeping cherry in a vegetable plot in a flower garden surrounded by fields and trees.
I look back over to Andrew the Scientist and Peter the Painter and see they are standing in front of the black bamboo. Andrew is shaking his head.
“It doesn’t belong here,” he says. “I’d dig it up and burn it.”
“That’s harsh,” says Peter. “The bamboo fits aesthetically. When you sit up there on the slope and look out to the south west where the mountains rise, you could imagine you were in the same world as those Chinese ink painters with their superlative washes.”
“Don’t know about that,” Andrew grumbles, “but a bamboo is an invasive pest, an
unwanted immigrant. Look at it: disgustingly vigorous.”
“I’m enclosing the roots,” I say. “That’s what the trench is for.”
“It’ll get out. It’ll escape and take over. Pest.” Andrew is relentless.
“I like this place,” says Peter. “Have you thought about building a maze in the far field. You could have a Shakespeare garden.”
“Oh god, it’s a thing, isn’t it?” I groan.
“I don’t get you.”
“I mean it’s a goddam thing, a Shakespeare garden. There are people who trawl through “The Bard” looking for references to flowers and planting them. They do Elizabethan knotwork patterns with low-lying shrubs like thyme and sage and plant annoying little stickers all over the place. Hampton Court, OK; here, no. I am not turning great dramatic poetry into versifying keepsakes. It would be the triumph of the bland.”
Andrew looks at me askance. “I thought all that shit was just your thing,” he says. “I thought you got your jollies off seventeenth-century stuff.”
“Look! Here comes Jason,” says Peter. I look up and there I am, fresh-faced and enthusiastic. It is seventeen-year old me. I went back thirty-five years and rescued him from Amsterdam.
“What do you think about a Shakespeare garden?” I ask.
“Great idea!” I reply. “Can we have the three caskets like in Merchant? No, hang on, that’s a bit cheesy. You need to get one of the locals to be the gardener, someone to comment on the absurdities of the state like in Richard II. And we could have a love garden with a statue of Eros. But I don’t like that much either. Too much love would be sickly. Why not have a
statue of Mercury?” My youthful enthusiasm and the assumption that, since the subject was brought up, it is a done deal, going ahead, everyone is aboard, anchors away and Tally-Ho, has a grating innocence to it.
“Mercury, fiery planet close to the sun, or Mercury, poisonous liquid metal?” asks Andrew.
“Neither!” I am oblivious to his sarcasm. “Mercury/Hermes messenger of the gods with natty little wings on his ankles. Also, god of the hermetic and hence things hidden, so we should put him somewhere in the shade. Donne says a thing more worthy than all the worthies did was to keep that hid or something, doesn’t he? I wonder what he was talking about. Anyway, Hermes would help.”
“A herm,” says Peter, “is a statue of the god with virile member up, like in the Poussin painting.”
“Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation,” fifty-one year old me says.
“You’re all nuts,” says Andrew. “Give me an axe and I’ll get rid of this pest.”
“You could have a Shakespeare herm,” I say, “like that hilarious Walter Crane book cover where the woman faints to see the giant penis made by Shakespeare’s balding head rising in the bushes.”