Cheltenham Festival of Literature - The best of the weeder's digest

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I WAS slow to pick up on PG Wodehouse. That's a hard thing to confess, but it's true. Fate brought me to Bertie Wooster's slick city pad long before Lord Emsworth's Gothic pile, and I never felt comfortable in London. But then I discovered Blandings, with its mossy walks, shrubberies, "flarze" and kitchen garden, and finally understood why, in comparison with this delicious Eden, real gardens would always be second best.

I WAS slow to pick up on PG Wodehouse. That's a hard thing to confess, but it's true. Fate brought me to Bertie Wooster's slick city pad long before Lord Emsworth's Gothic pile, and I never felt comfortable in London. But then I discovered Blandings, with its mossy walks, shrubberies, "flarze" and kitchen garden, and finally understood why, in comparison with this delicious Eden, real gardens would always be second best.

If I could choose who to be in another life, I wouldn't be Einstein, or Jane Austen, or Scott of the Antarctic. I would be Lord Emsworth.

Lord Emsworth, writes Wodehouse, in Lord Emsworth and Others , "was humming as he approached the terrace. He had his programme all mapped out. For perhaps an hour, till the day had cooled off a little, he would read a Pig book in the library. After that he would go and take a sniff at a rose or two and possibly do a bit of snailing. These mild pleasures were all his simple soul demanded. He wanted nothing more."

Gardening is about escape; it's a way to plug into a world that has nothing to do with the quotidian round of dentist appointments, lunch dates and the possible arrival of trains. In our gardens, we make the kind of worlds that we wish we could live in.

Some gardeners are control freaks. Edging and cutting back and tying in are always in the front of their minds. Others drift through a blur of foxglove and wild briar, bohos in bloom. And some gardeners are unsure who they are, and hire landscape designers expensively to tell them.

At Blandings we have escapism incarnate. Here the sunshine descends like an "amber showerbath". Achilleas, thalictrums, campanulas and gypsophila flourish everlastingly in the herbaceous borders. The grass is always green. Even the slugs at Blandings are lulled into delicious reverie under the lettuce leaves of the kitchen garden. Until they are pounced on by the ferocious head gardener, Angus McAllister - for every Eden has its snake, every pearl its piece of grit.

Whenever lovers are inconstant, weather more than usually catastrophic, life generally a bitch, you can lose yourself at Blandings. And, if you are the slightest bit interested in such things, you can also put together a pretty good picture of what an English country garden had in it in the first decades of this century.

Blandings is a fantasy, but Wodehouse was brilliant at the kind of detail that makes landscapes live.

So, in a completely different way, was George Eliot. In gardening terms, the difference between them is that between observer and participant. Wodehouse is - has to be, if his humour is to work - detached from the scenes he describes. Eliot is deeply involved in them.

In Scenes of Clerical Life , she describes Mr Jerome's garden at The White House and the "incomparable advantages possessed by the inhabitants of the White House in the matter of red-streaked apples, russets, northern greens (excellent for baking), swan-egg pears, and early vegetables, to say nothing of flowering 'shrubs', pink hawthorns, lavender bushes" and other delights.

In the kitchen garden, she wrote, "you gathered a moss rose one moment and a bunch of currants the next; you were in a delicious fluctuation between the scent of jasmine and the juice of gooseberries".

Only someone intimately aware of plants and gardens could write about them like that. In her sensuous, lyrical descriptions of wallflowers and auriculas, moss and Provence roses, George Eliot reveals how some, at least, of her leisure time must have been spent. Religion is the dominant, linking theme of the three "Scenes" in the book. But gardening is always there too, providing a grounding subtext, and acting as a symbolic marker between the characters of worth and the flibbertigibbets.

More than 40 years separates George Eliot's book, published in 1858, from Jane Austen's earlier masterpiece, Emma . But Austen, too, uses the grounds surrounding the various houses described in her novel to tell us more about her characters. The hero's, Mr Knightley's, place, for instance, had "an abundance of timber in rows and avenues, which neither fashion nor extravagance had rooted up".

Here, at Donwell Abbey, Jane Austen stages a strawberry-picking party, which includes the rector's wife. Mrs Elton considers herself a connoisseur. "Hautboy infinitely superior - no comparison - the others hardly eatable - hautboys very scarce - Chili preferred - white wood finest flavour of all."

But the heat increases, and the afternoon wears on. "Too rich to be eaten much of," decides Mrs Elton. "Inferior to cherries - currants more refreshing - only objection to gathering the strawberries the stooping - glaring sun - tired to death - could bear it no longer."

Now, it would be very sad if we read Emma only for the sake of learning more about the state of strawberry-growing in England in the early 19th century. But Mrs Elton's mention of the Chili strawberry is intriguing.

A hundred years before Austen wrote Emma , a French naval officer had brought back from Chile a strawberry that tasted of pineapple. This fruit, crossed with a wild Virginian strawberry introduced by John Tradescant, produced the forerunners of the strawberries that we eat today. Literature lurks even in our strawberry beds.

The writer talks about 'The Tulip', her best-selling book on the flower that made and unmade fortunes in the Netherlands in the 17th century, at 2.30pm on Sunday October 24, in Cheltenham's town hall

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