As I chopped away at the wintry tangle of dead twigs, I couldn't help pondering Churchill's observation that the British have a genius for two things: war and gardening

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This being spring, I seized the day and gave the garden its once- a-year clear-out, sniffing the sudden sunshine as I chopped away at the wintry tangle of dead twigs. Lopping and slicing like some cavalry officer advancing into enemy territory - damson to right of them, damson to left - I couldn't help pondering Churchill's observation that the British have a genius for two things: war and gardening. Certainly, on this bright spring morning, I was inspired by the "swathe of destruction" strategy favoured by Charles the Bold, Sherman and others, and didn't hold back with the secateurs. The result? My once-leafy bower looks like a small hurricane has torn through it: the lavender has been shredded, the roses lie knee-capped; even the clematis was shown no pity. The lawn still groans with the echo of battle, and is littered with the wounded. Only the mimosa survived the onslaught. Its delicate fronds bowed so meekly before the crazed blades that even the hard-hearted Weasel suffered second thoughts and let it sway in peace.

Now I don't want to come over like Candide on the merits of cultivating one's own patch, but I admit to being struck, as the nation reeled over the league tables of primary schools, by the seriousness of the syllabus on offer in any old back garden: it is practically a national curriculum in itself. Quite apart from the undoubted virtues of the physical slog - what you might call compulsory sport - it's a living biology project, displaying the entire life-cycle of plants: reproduction, growth, fruitfulness, disease and death. It is also an observation deck for wildlife - worms, beetles, spiders, and a woodlouse under every rotten leaf - and a chemistry lab: an ongoing experiment in the acid-alkali ratio or lime component of soil, not to mention the explosive effects of assorted plant drugs.

It's the Ladybird book of literature - think of that whole English tradition of pastoral, all those poets snagged on briars and dreaming of red, red roses - and an aesthetic adventure in art appreciation. It finds room for geography lessons - there are hints of Alps and jungle; the cherry blossom carries a delicate Japanese fragrance, and the roses bear a suggestive trace of the Himalayas - and is one of last bastions of classics: the weird botanical vocabulary and allusions to ancient myths (every laurel leaf includes a hint of Daphne's doomed flight from Apollo) bring back long-dormant memories of Double Latin. There are symbolic religious associations - from Eden to the crown of thorns - and the soil is steeped in history: many of the humblest flowers have their roots deep in the nature of the British Empire - seedlings filched from remote coasts and adapted in the high-powered horticultural R & D labs of Kew. The list is almost endless. About the only subject that gardening does not teach is maths (sorry: "Number") and who could not be grateful for that? Yet the presence or absence of compulsory gardening does not seem to have figured in the primary school tables at all. Amazing.

Even the Weasel would hesitate to draw any moral arguments from a single hasty land-clearance. One might be tempted, for instance, to recommend lashing, staking and even pruning as essential aspects of a sound education. But gardens do give us a revealing glimpse into the age-old conflict between nature and nurture. And make no mistake: plants are well capable of having the last word. Last year, I grew bored of some notoriously tricky blue poppies I'd tried out as an experiment, and pulled them up. Now look at them: they have seeded themselves, and colonised an entire corner.

But the garden can never be more than a fleeting refuge from wider cares, and I have been fighting my daily battle with the London underground, like any other commuter. Even my famously placid temper can be unsettled by the increasingly halting service on offer. It is the sort of determined running-down that always precedes privatisation - intended, no doubt, to provoke in passengers a kind of weary acceptance of any change; and I have enjoyed several unexpected late-evening walks along Oxford Street, when the Central line goes off the rails. I am very taken, too, by the colourful language of London Transport's announcers: these days, they like to explain that the train will "non-stop" at Chancery Lane, or warn that they are "operating a non-escalator service" at Holborn. Non-stop? Non-escalator? I am all for verbal inventiveness, but whatever happened to "not" and "no"? I look forward to the day when umpires pronounce batsmen "non-out", traffic signals alert us to "non-through roads", and judges - in a rather pleasant and possibly necessary refinement - start delivering "non-guilty" verdicts.

Speaking of judges, we seem once again quick to blame them for the misdeeds of others. When that Chelsea defender took a comically theatrical dive and won an ill- deserved penalty, it was the referee who took the brickbats, for being fooled. And when it emerged that the winner of last year's Booker Prize, Graham Swift, had been inspired in his award-winning novel partly by a celebrated (but little read) work by Faulkner, we were quick to upbraid the judges for having failed to spot the connection. It is almost touching that we should have such faith in judges in the first place, but how many times must Graham Swift have been asked - this being the second most common question to novelists, after "Is it autobiographical?" - where he got the idea for Last Orders? How many times did it cross his mind to mention that he was a great admirer of As I Lay Dying, and that it had seemed a good wheeze to set the same story in Kent? How often did he feel those words swelling in his mouth, and swallow them. It is true that modern novelists delight in having conversations with powerful works from the past, but Last Orders seems illuminated by no such conversation. Ulysses was, at least, called Ulysses. Perhaps our eagerness to pounce on judges is only another symptom of our now-entrenched impulse to find someone, anyone, to blame apart from the wrongdoer himself. (As it happens, I blame the parents.)

I have to admit that I did pause, as I dug the garden, for the odd cigarette, and not only because the thrown-away butts, plunged into a watery flowerpot, make great insect repellent. It was, as it happened, National No-smoking Day - a spring ritual I heartily applaud, though I trust it will soon be known as National non-smoking day. Ideally, it should resemble one of those great festivals in the Spanish-speaking world, where skeletons come alive and rattle ghoulishly in a drunken carnival atmosphere. It should feel medieval, a day of exorcism, of clowning, of exuberant release. A day, in short, when everyone should feel free to nag and bully smokers to their heart's content, to put them in the stocks and take a shy, as hard as they like. With any luck, this might help them get the non-smoking bug, which is dangerous, antisocial and highly addictive, out of their system - at least until next year