Writers were once allowed to be obsessive about the tools of their trade. It provided wonderful grist to the biographical mill. Did this author grind powder to make his own ink? Would he only use HB pencils to liberate his prose? Was his paper lined or unlined? Did he, like the magnificent Tom Sharpe, have a fixation about typewriters? A typewriter can breed obsession, but sadly, a word processor can't.
Word processors (and all the computing garbage that comes with them) are now essential tools. But they are untrustworthy. We can't ever have confidence in them, in the way that I always used to rely on Pilot G-1 pens and the backs of used scripts to see me through. Clean paper always gave me the heebie-jeebies. And I'm only a hack. Heaven knows what fetishes might have developed if ever I'd attempted a novel.
In gardening, the relationship between the work in hand and the tools you use is still clear and close. Tools are not complex things. Manufacturers try to make them complicated by marketing spades that are also supposed to work as apple pickers and hay rakes. It is obviously bad for business that a spade is a spade is a spade. There's no built-in obsolescence. The tools that John Evelyn described in the 17th century as necessary for the cultivation of a decent garden have not changed in any essentials for more than 400 years.
Tools grow out of particular circumstances. Spades aren't as common in the Caribbean, for instance, as they are in Europe. On Dominica or St Lucia, the thinnest skim of earth sits on top of the rock that carves the islands into jagged peaks and troughs. There is torrential rain. Gardening there is underpinned by the need to keep your earth on your plot, not washed down a precipitous slope and whirled away by a river in full spate. The earth there is tickled into cultivation, rather than deep dug.
The cutlass – what we'd call a machete – is the essential tool for Caribbean gardeners, as basic a requirement as a spade is to us. It's used to cut down weed, which is packed straight on top of the soil to rot and gradually create extra humus. Laid bare, the soil would quickly erode. With a quick flick of the wrist, the cutlass becomes a planting tool, creating shallow holes in the ground for roots of dasheen or young bananas. With the edge sharpened up again, it can split coconuts or fend off the creeping tendrils of jungle vine.
But in Europe, you can move from country to country and find roughly the same kinds of tool being used by gardeners everywhere. There are interesting small differences. Italians use pruning knifes more competently and more frequently than we do. We reach for secateurs more often than knives. Secateurs is a French word so anglicised we forget that this essential bit of gardening kit was invented in France in 1881, hand-forged in the city of Moissac, Tarn-et-Garonne. Initially they were produced for pruning vines, but they came in handy for roses as well.
Part of the problem with knives is that so few people now know how to keep a decent edge on them. The same with scythes. The hideous, noisy strimmer has replaced the slow, quiet swish of the scythe and the elegant, balletic, swaying motion of a man who knows how to use one properly. I'm not a Luddite, but the din of strimmers, chainsaws, leaf blowers and shredders often takes away the one essential element a garden should have. Repose.
There are small differences, though, even in the design of something as basic as a spade, which are intriguing. On the Continent, you see a kind of spade with a long handle. The blade may be triangular rather than the rectangular, foot-powered design common here. If you watch a Frenchman using one of these long-handled spades, you see the action is quite different. He almost throws it into the ground, like a spear. There's no grip, no proper handle at the top of the shaft. The actions associated with digging with a long-handled spade are diagonal, rather than vertical, which is our way: spade straight in, almost at right angles, foot on top of spade, hands in line with foot.
This fascination with the minutiae of gardening tools is what attracts me to the beautiful things made by the Sneeboer brothers, Aad, Jaap and Frank (check out the website at sneeboer.com). In the small town of Bovenkarspel in the West Frisian area of Holland, they continue to make the hand-forged tools their grandfather made there in 1913. They make beautiful spades, hoes and shovels, which I can't justify buying, as I've already got plenty. But I have fallen for one of their trowels, longer and narrower than the one I normally use, still shining in the shed with unnatural brightness. I've done no more yet than gently get to know it by picking it up, flourishing it around in the air and admiring its lightness and balance. But come planting time next month, I feel it's going to be a great ally.
If you google 'Sneeboer trowel', you'll get eight different possibilities. Mine is the one described as the long, thin trowel, with a stainless-steel blade of 19cm and a cherrywood handle. You can get it (£30.95) from Harrod Horticultural (harrodhorticultural.com, or call 0845 402 5300). I feel that James Barnes, Victorian head gardener of Bicton in Devon and one of my heroes, would have liked this trowel. He was a great gardener, but a martinet. A place for everything and everything in its place. That sort of man. He brought a libel case against his employer, Baroness Rolle, when she complained that on his retirement in the 1860s, he had left the grounds at Bicton in a mess. Barnes sued, won, and was awarded £200 in damages.
A look into the Bicton toolsheds would have told Baroness Rolle that she was on to a loser. Barnes describes the layout of one of them as though he was detailing a military formation. On one row of pegs (the shed, one of several, was 54ft long) hung the long-handled tools, grass rakes, leaf rakes, iron rakes. On the next row of pegs were the "draw hoes, tan forks, dung forks and prongs, strong forks for digging and surface stirring, spades and shovels of various kinds, pickaxes, mattocks and bills, dung drags, edging shears..."
For Barnes, these are not just tools of the trade. They are objects of worth and weight: Sheffield steel, English ash, meticulously cleaned and oiled before returning to their allotted spaces in the shrine. I'll be thinking of him as I press my new trowel into its sprung clip in the toolshed.
MY FOUR FAVOURITE GARDENING TOOLS
Mine’s an old one made by Wooldridge & Sons, with a 75cm/31in-long handle. For a tall person, it’s the perfect tool for working between plants in a border. Griffin, Brades, Skelton and Elwell make old tools.
I’ve recently become a convert to the Japanese Niwaki brand. Mine are the Okatsune standard type (from £34; niwaki.com/store).
I have four, in case of loss. All have stainless-steel tines and wooden handles; the most recent one (ash-handled) is made by Greenman (£8.99).
The handiest in our garden is a Bahco triangular bow saw with a 53cm/21in blade that doesn’t wobble. £11.20 from my-tool-shed.co.uk