My friends Tony and Elaine have hit upon the ultimate solution to gardening - they've carpeted their backyard. When they moved in a couple of years ago they told me laying this 15ft square off-cut was purely to stifle the great hanks of bindweed which infested the little plot, and soon they'd begin tilling with a vengeance. Recently, however, they've discussed recarpeting the garden on account of the stench of rotten underlay. Well, to carpet your garden once may be a weedkiller, but to carpet it twice looks suspiciously like a lifestyle.
Not that I'm critical, you understand - on the contrary; with its twist pile, white plastic chairs, wonky wooden table and tattered parasol, Tony and Elaine's garden has the virtue of making explicit what is implicit in most suburban gardens. Namely, that these are really outdoor rooms, as far removed from nature's grandeur as Jack Straw is from statesmanship. Besides, they're only part of a growing trend. Modern gardens are chock-full of furniture, pergolas, decks, heaters, lamps, barbecues, Jacuzzis and candles. They mostly make little pretence to be anything other than roofless rumpus rooms where lighting and temperature control are subject to cosmic vagary.
I'm not talking about serious gardens here, the kind tended by people who read books on the subject, but the family garden where dogs, kids and sunburnt drunks graze in uneasy proximity. My own awkward relationship with gardens is rooted in childhood. We lived in a high-privet-density location, and such was the mania for topiary that it was often difficult to tell whether the woman in the green coat, or the green car gliding past in the road, were real or slightly shaggy simulacra, artfully shaped and then mysteriously animated. My father had little time for gardening, although he quite liked to quote Tennyson. "Come into the garden, Maude," he would declaim, and my mother would inevitably complete the couplet: "And mow the fucking lawn."
Mow the lawn and, of course, clip the hedges. Mother did try with the garden. She got us kids to grow nasturtiums, tomato plants and runner beans. She had a chequerboard terrace lain with oblong, concrete slabs; then planted geraniums in the oblong beds. Then she held drinks parties at which she wore a muumuu and served Chianti (this, after all, was the 1970s). By contrast I liked nailing bits of wood to the oak tree, hurling rowan berries like grapeshot and digging holes. Bigger and bigger holes, until aged 13 and heavily under the influence of Terry Jacks's seminal death ditty Seasons in the Sun, I dug a hole in the garden so deep that I needed a ladder to descend to the bottom and props to prevent subsidence. I only stopped when I hit the water table - try doing that in a contemporary garden!
In retrospect it wasn't so much a grave I was trying to dig as an escape tunnel. I wanted out of suburbia so bad it hurt. I wanted to go somewhere - anywhere - where there weren't so many contentious allotments. I needed money to do this, so I had to go from door to door hawking the only skill I had - gardening. Well, skill is perhaps an overstatement: I could mow lawns, clip hedges and do the weeding. On the whole the punters were pleased with my services. I suspect they, like me, wanted the geometric lines of their own living rooms ruled on to this obdurate vegetation. However, one man saw fit to express his dissatisfaction (when I'd transformed his head-high rhododendron into a black stump) by chasing me down the road wielding the very electric clippers I'd so effectively employed.
None of this is to say that I don't enjoy a garden - I do. I can even be moved to undertake my own improvements. Living in Oxfordshire in the early 1990s, I felt driven to construct a large fence around the orchard that surrounded our house. I bought fence posts, a sledgehammer, tinkling bundles of wire fencing. I dug, hammered and strung for what seemed like - and in fact were - months. I felt like Levin in Anna Karenina, reconnecting with my sturdy, peasant roots. The aim of the fence was to stop the children getting on to the farm track - but amazingly they contrived to somehow step through the strands of wires. Fiendish little devils. Levin spent the better part of the winter in his study, experimenting with his seed drill in ways its manufacturer had not intended.
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By Will Self
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