Grit & Gumption
This summer I entered the Garden Museum garden memoir writing competition, the following is my piece, which was long-listed. The link here takes you to the museum page with the shortlist, the most exciting thing about which is that my name is up there next to Mary Keen’s. I doubt I’ll ever scale such heights again, but I’m very delighted about it.
Grit & Gumption
Picture if you will, the 1980’s in rural Lincolnshire: Cold rain blown sideways by the persistent east wind, me in fluorescent socks and legwarmers under a bottle green school uniform, Newsround reporting strike, war or riot, a Sherbet Dib-Dab the peak of the week. Then picture the same dispirited child walking from our unremarkable village main street and unlatching a door in a high wall to enter a sunlit, scented garden of perfect rolled greens and ruffled peonies. To walk into this garden was to leave behind the greyness of my everyday, and it was the first garden in which I felt delight. Its owners and makers were Miss Orange and her sister Miss Betty, who had inherited it from their father and spent whatever time they could improving what he had started years before.
We lived a few miles away from the village where the sisters lived, but they became friends of my mother when I started dance classes with Miss Orange, Miss Betty played the piano accompaniment for these. They had shared a house for the preceding ten years, and in the latter part of their lives I came to know them a little and admire them a lot, for they were as exotic as Lincolnshire was ordinary and I was in awe of them. Whilst we thumped around the WEA parquet on Saturday mornings they were always elegant, draped and cocooned in silks and wool of effortless glamour. Gumption was Miss Orange’s favourite theme in lessons, without this and considerable doses of hard work she told us we would never amount to anything at all. And if our ambition stretched no further than the next hour, she assured us that without it our arabesques would not be beautiful or our tap routines synchronous. She extended this approach to her garden, how else could she have made such a paradisical place out of such unpromising materials? The local soil is a heavy clay, the climate unkind and nurseries at that time more used to supplying the rock gardens and vegetable patches where my friends parents’ worked at weekends.
The garden that I remember was based on cottage plants, but managed to be romantic without collapsing into structureless bolts of flowers. The underlying hardness and physical work required to make a successful cottage garden is concealed by its frothy surface; leading many of us to fail in our attempts to emulate the style, not understanding the huge investment of time and prodigious talents of cultivation that are required. But just as the sisters’ surface glamour belied their strength and determination, so was their garden tightly controlled with only the appearance of loose wildness.There was a small central lawn that rose gently away from thehouse, and walls that bordered the gardenon all sides. Though I am inclined to idealise their success, I can see that part of it was down to those vital walls, built from the same yellow limestone as Lincoln Cathedral (another source of daily wonder for me, I wasn’t a very normal child no matter how hard I tried). Whilst my mother laboured in her garden on the Lincolnshire flatlands, exposed to winds from northern Russia that had blown over the low-lying Netherlands and straight into us, the sisters were able to cosset their plants in this south-facing, sheltered spot. The walls were used to great effect; roses flowered along them to within an inch of their lives, and at their foot a wide bed of bearded irises coasted down the slope towards the house. The plants that stay in my memory are those that would have impressed a teenager of limited horticultural knowledge, violets, tulips, Madonna lilies, fuchsias. Madonna and fuchsia pink were all the rage at the time of course. The borders were allowed to ripple at the edges and the effect was unexpectedly sublime.
Looking back, that garden seems to symbolise what I remember of the sisters’ approach to life, which enabled them to thrive despite sadness and loss. These were only ever hinted at in conversation, as was normal for women of that generation these things were not dwelled upon publicly. Though I was curious it would have been viewed as the most tremendous impertinence for me to ask, but I believe they had lost a lot earlier in life. Their cut-glass accents implied that there had been a lot of money once, and the way in which they issued orders to their students implied that they were not alien to the concept of staff. My mother told me that Miss Betty, who was much the older of the two, had been engaged as a young woman, but her fiancé had died. Miss Orange never married, but had returned from her career as a professional dancer to help look after their elderly father some years before. They never complained, and endured illness and financial hardship without balking. From them I learned that if something isn’t working what you must do is change something and then try harder, and though this doesn’t always help it is preferable to doing nothing. I remember Miss Orange telling me that depression wasn’t an illness and the newly invented diagnosis of stress, or yuppie flu, was weak-willed nonsense. She had more sympathy for those with eating disorders having observed these first hand in dancers, but still saw them as a bit feeble.
So they gardened as they lived, impatient with perceived weakness, uncompromising in the pursuit of beauty and gifted at seeing potential for it everywhere. In Miss Orange’s hands a lumpen Midlands girl like me could become briefly poised and cat-like, provided she listened to her tuition and had enough gumption of course. Miss Betty was able to cajole the unpromising upright in the theatre green rooms into energetic polkas and dreamy waltzes, enough to unfreeze us from November huddles. At home their plastic clay was bullied into fertility with huge mounds of rotted horse muck and seeds and cuttings garnered from all quarters, including our own. And theirs was a garden for all seasons, like all the best gardens. Resting in winter and early spring it was allowed to fallow and wander a little, theirs was the first place I saw the potential of the semi-wild habit of leaving seed heads to overwinter for the plentiful frosts and for the birds that they loved.
What also seems remarkable now is that we soft-bodied, pale girls never resented the lectures about hard work, though mothers now might not think it anyone’s place but their own to give these. But with intelligence and grace the sisters had carved out an independent life in straitened circumstances and in trying to harden us up they were only trying to help us to learn that the world is best met head-on. So we straightened up so as not to seem spineless at the barre, and so too their seedlings and plants all seemed to long to sprout and flower and grow tall. Everyone and everything wanted to please Miss Orange and Miss Betty because the rewards for doing so, their approbation and their smiles were hard-won, rare and thus highly valued.
Miss Betty died first, just after I entered secondary school. She was missed fiercely and quietly by her sister and it was clear that she’d had the best eye for the patterns in the garden as something faltered after her death. Though her profession was not a visual art, she had been able to piece together the shapes and colours that different plants make as the months progress, something that I wrestle with. Miss Orange engaged my older brother to do occasional heavy work and carried on gardening and teaching until she was forced to stop, although she remained clear-minded into old age. I remember them both fondly; theirs were lives and a garden to aspire to, built on the strengths of their excellent shared aesthetic, practical experience and abilities, and a lot of gumption.