Human Flower Project
Back to Green Knowe
After a week’s conference on Marxism, John Levett reconsiders fantasy as “praxis,” visiting again the garden of writer Lucy Boston.
Photo: John Levett
By John Levett
‘Sit down and write a list of novels in which the garden is the star.’
How’d you get on?
In my case … pathetically. It may be the arctic conditions of an English summer or coming back to writing after a week of this year’s Marxism conference, which latter event was, puzzlingly, given the quality of William Morris’s back yard efforts, lacking a session on the English garden. I think that any philosophy and practice that concerns itself with features of alienated labour should address itself to gardening as art; artistic creation being a feature of the engagement of the whole individual and personality in creative, social, fulfilling and, if we treat it as art, non-alienated labour.
Where was I?
Gardens and novels.
I came up with Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Children of Green Knowe. It might be thought that someone who’d spent his working career in primary education would fill a foolscap page. This is England. With gardens. Even Green Knowe is a cheat; it’s house more than garden.
Come to think of it, I can’t recall anything that I read while I was growing up that was set in a garden—Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Coral Island, Who Killed Cock Robin, Choo Choo Round the World—a lot of escapism but not a lot of gardening. The same thing when I was teaching. It was the 1970s when I started teaching in Liverpool and Wallasey (the swanky side of the Mersey)—the decade of urban decay, class confrontation, racial conflict, national liberation movements, punk, gardens put on hold. Teaching became social engineering, a conflict zone for taking sides, building new social formations in towns and cities, confronting urban conflict (always urban as if the countryside was the other side of Narnia). In all this the middle-class child was nowhere to be seen, nor was the garden—gardens and the middle class being inseparable. The child you were teaching was an urban child. No space for fantasy in that life. Confront your own reality, kid. The ‘right-on’ urban child had a yard, a front step, a street, maybe a waste lot. No greenery. No trees in Brooklyn.
Garden at the Manor, novelist Lucy Boston’s house
Photo: John Levett
It took me around a decade to get out of this bind (blind?). I moved to a school in Hertfordshire from which you could see green fields from the classroom window. And taught in open-plan with a colleague who knew children’s literature. Wrote it too; judged the Kate Greenaway award; brought fantasy into my teaching. So the fact that I can recall only a couple of garden fantasies I’m going to put down to tricks and failures of memory and just move on. I ought to know better. Gardens are fantasy.
View of the Manor house
Photo: John Levett
It’s reasonable to recognise that whenever you go looking at gardens there are likely to be other people doing the same thing and other people around me in a garden are to be avoided. I like gardens without others. I like aloneness. I want to be left until I leave. I become proprietorial; my day out, my space, my garden, please queue outside until I’m finished. Somewhere within me I’m gentry. I want to carve out my own space in other people’s gardens; let remembrances play and let imaginings flourish.
Which things seem to me to be the point of gardens. From the point of sitting on that front step, in that street, looking out on that waste lot to the conscious act of picturing what it could be like and how we might go about creating it; imaging ourselves under a tree, walking along paths round corners, sitting by ponds, brushing up against seed heads. Maybe on that lot, maybe on one someplace else which we’ll have one day. Imagining and fantasizing.
There are a lot of Marxists who have problems with utopianism but I’m not amongst them. Having a picture in your head about how things might be is a sustaining vision and a reference point. Creating art is a means of engagement and liberation and points a way to what isn’t there in the moment. Again, it’s why we create gardens. We also want to lose ourselves in them, which provides ideal soil for growing stories and possibilities. There are some gardens that inevitably invite that. Go down to Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Monk’s House in Sussex, Shaw’s Corner at Ayot St. Lawrence, Sissinghurst and defy yourself not to picture the once-gardeners, once-writers going about their business, other people’s business, their conversations, their arguments, their moments of idea-making; walking this path, digging this bed, sitting in a deck-chair under that bough reading Gibbon.
And at the Manor in Hemingford Grey near Huntingdon. It’s perfectly situated. You come off the A14 trunk road (arguably one of the most congested roads in Britain, going from the port of Felixstowe on the east coast to all points north and north west), to points where the drone of traffic gradually falls away, pollarded willows finger upwards, original half-timbers cramp opposite each other and the River Great Ouse surprises. Water meadows stretch away and so too does the thought that you’ll one day afford the cost of a house hereabouts.
The Children of Green Knowe
Image: via Life in Sugar Hollow
It was at the Manor that Lucy Boston wrote her first novel The Children of Green Knowe and found a publisher for it in 1954 when she was in her 60s; five other books set in Green Knowe followed. She died in 1990 at the age of ninety-eight. The Manor is the place to be for a child of any age.
I first came to the Manor a couple of years back when a friend was house-sitting for the summer and went back a few weeks ago with a couple of friends. Friends wanted to take the guided-tour of the house; I didn’t. Having walked around it alone one late-Summer as the evening light faded, walking around it on a tour would somehow miss the magic. So friends took themselves off and so did I.
Some gardens announce themselves as ‘the garden.’ By this I mean that you know you’re at the start on something like an event—the walk-this-way, the tour guide, the looking-at-and-reading-of labels, the practised surprise. The Manor garden’s got it’s formal front but it’s also got its I-think-I’ll-push-off-and-see-what’s-behind-that-wall back end. It’s not cramped and you’re not intruded upon; it’s a place where people and ‘stuff’ don’t get in the way of your own private purposes.
A formal garden at The Manor, Hemingford Grey
Photo: John Levett
‘Private purposes’—whatever it is that you want to get from this place. I never go to gardens to get ideas about a garden or what to stick in it. That’s what I have often got from them but they are never my purpose. I go to gardens for ‘spirit.’ That sounds a bit Hegelian but I’ll live with it. I want to be alone in a garden and take myself to a time and a sensibility. There was a person who walked this path on the day that I was born. She could see USAAF bombers taking off from nearby airfields and at dusk RAF crews doing the same from another runway, from another field. The evening before, some of those aircrew had driven over to the Manor, sat on carpets, cushions, old car seats and listened to Mozart and Beethoven and Benny Goodman on Lucy’s wind-up phonograph. This evening some of them would die.
In a later decade, she would sit in a deck-chair on the front lawn and read of the death of the old king and the accession of a new queen, put the paper down, pick up her exercise book and carry on with her story. All she had to do was look around her; the river, the meadows, trees and bushes, nooks and hideaways, the house and its history, its spirit and its spirits. A place to have spiffing adventures.
Rose spirit at the Manor, home of Lucy Boston
Photo: John Levett
I have no idea how Lucy Boston worked (maybe I should have gone on the guided tour) but it’s of no account. In gardens I can imagine whatever I want. The aircrew were real, the times and events were too. The sensibility of the age, the spirit of the place are immaterial and the stuff of whatever the mind wants to create. It’s my own, personal ‘opium of the people.’ There are parts of living in the twenty-first century that I wish were otherwise and parts of the last century that I miss. There are moments when I need a balm, a comfort; a stepping-out-of-this-moment. History never retreats nor reverses and for me only in this world and within its society can my creativity, in whatever form, reside. Sometimes I need the tea-break and push off to an imagined elsewhere.
Around back at the Manor
Photo: John Levett
So I did. My friends were away for an hour and I slouched around the back of everywhere, listened to whatever was hardly in hearing, soaked up the moment long gone that still stayed, napped and thought up a story that won’t get written because I just don’t have the patience for that sort of thing.
Which is also another reason why I go to gardens. To stroll and stop and show respect for the patience of another gardener but one who has more patience than me. My garden is part of my life but only a part; it comes into it and goes out. I like to imagine that if I lived in the Manor I would be that patient gardener who can wait, tend, hold back, walk away, allow and then just get on with other stuff within a natural tempo of life in nature. But I know I’d never arrive there. Best left for a while in imaginings and stories that come and go.