In An English City Garden

I lived happily without a garden for a long time. As a narrowboat liveaboard I spent nearly a dozen years ephemerally wallowing, like a particularly carefree, self-employed otter, in any parts of this landscape of water and green that could possibly serve as communal and welcoming spaces, to those of us abiding (mostly) by the requirements of the waterways authorities while still trying to find a kind of freedom in a life afloat. When boating is going well, some of the finest, semi-wild places in England are yours. Wherever you bang in your pin, that’s your home. We seldom envied the lavish gardens we occasionally cruised past in the smart southern villages, the lawns and roses viewed uniquely from waterside. In allowing me that intimate view of human nature planted – unfenced, so generously, or perhaps in the assumption that the water boundary afforded privacy enough – they had fulfilled their function for me. My garden was a pot of rosemary on the roof, which had faked its own death more often than S. Holmes.

Suddenly, thanks to serendipity and rock-bottom northern house prices, I find I have a garden, and a lovely one, I think. It seems to be where most of my songs start out. They do significantly better than the carrots, it being a city garden and filled with “soil”, actually the assorted collective tragedy of a billion industrial and domestic histories: steel, bricks, coal, looms, wire, teeth, clogs, wedding rings, those frightening metal Victorian baby teething rattles, coffin hinges, all ground roughly up into gritty particles which are dagger-like and near-fatal to navigating fledgling tubers. Over the back wall is the cemetery, which I like to think leaches bone and marrow and blood generously back into our land like crepuscular fabric softener. The blackberries are literally something else.

Gardens and music go together, and not just at Glyndebourne. What hardy perennials Cecil Sharp planted in our collective folk consciousness (this is really a thing, they talk about it on Radio 4 all the time now) when, reclining in the vicarage garden in Hambridge, he heard John England’s earthy tones for the first time, singing The Seeds of Love, a Real Folk SongTM! I like to imagine Cecil doused in lavendery Somerset sunshine, sitting up sharply (ha!) from his wicker chair, and incredulously, tremulously lowering his little round specs, very much in the style of Dr Alan Grant in Jurassic Park (“They DO sing in modes!”). It’s the wellspring of a whole mythology surrounding the last throes of a working class rural music and the collectors who poured their life’s energy and quite a lot of sanity into both keeping it alive and pinning it down.

(Last summer I helped workshop a wonderful new play called “Folk”, by Nell Leyshon, at the National Theatre, and in the process discovered that this beloved, Merchant Ivory-directed, Vaughan Williams-scored “Folk Sherlock” fantasy is, in fact, more or less, fantasy. Simon Russell-Beale read Cecil Sharp’s part. Sigh. You could roast meat in his voice. It’s like a voice got wrung out and then cooked again in its own voice-juice. It’s a confit of a voice.)

At the 2003 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Kazuo Ishiguro encapsulated so beautifully some of the things many of us felt it timely to question about heritage, repertoire and national identity in English vernacular music, questions the folk community was then exploring with increasing depth and articulacy, albeit often in musical form rather than verbally. It took a writer to make it explicit, and to offer us new words to help us describe what we might find, and where. Ishiguro’s sentiments chimed with musicians like Chris Wood and evolved into the unofficial motto for a newly tender and nuanced appreciation of English folk culture. To paraphrase (I think): the treasure we were looking for was in our own back yard.

I love the metaphor of heritage latent in the soil or thriving among a confusion of serviceable garden blooms. From songs on the air around Charles Marson’s Somerset vicarage, to a discreetly buttoned treasure-chest hidden in the shadows of some Ishiguro-esque orangerie (stay with me), it seems that access to some garden of the mind can be integral in liberating our creative selves.

From my attic window, I can see almost every kind of garden there is (well, it’s a bit light on the moats.) Neat, food-producing. Showy, floral, herb-edged. Neglected, wild, green and catty. Concreted. Several houses in the terrace are combined into one communal living scheme, and their garden is a treasure  – if I was seven again I’d spend all my time there hiding, naming snails and scraping my knees. Two doors down in the other direction, the entire garden is given to chickens. There’s not a scrap of grass. Riot fences have been roped together to contain the chooks. It’s wrong, but we call it Hen-tanamo Bay.

What I can’t see is no gardens, but there are certainly no gardens in the lives of many. There are families and individuals in our bit of town who are recently arrived, fleeing something or seeking something else, with barely a possession or a permanent living space, let alone a patch of green. There are allotment schemes helping refugees grow food while in temporary accommodation. I am so lucky to be able to go out and dig, to get out there and breathe, and to know – more or less – how to try and get things growing, on a piece of land I could call mine if I wanted. Or mine and the bank’s.

Because it’s not really mine – I’m just passing through for now. Perhaps I’ll end up staying long enough to crumble down in to particularly sarcastic gravel and ruin my descendents’ carrots. More likely I’m just a visitor, like most people in this post-industrial suburb with its strange and unsettling moments of urban almost-beauty. It’s why I feel at home here. My garden isn’t even really England, in the same way that my songs aren’t English. We just find ourselves here, today. An English garden, like an English music, is a treasure chest from a billion international migrations, watered with tears.

Place and heritage are so complexly felt, and so individually. Personally, I’m not really interested in national identity. I try not to define myself or others in terms of where we come from (I am truly thrilling to accompany through Passport Control). It’s probably thanks to my upbringing (my mother was a Young Communist and my father was SWP, I shouldn’t even EXIST) that the song lyrics “This land is your land, this land is my land” and  “No-one has any right to buy and sell the Earth for private gain” permanently jostle each other in my head like the best mash-up ever.

Not only is my back garden not really mine, but neither is the treasure buried there really my treasure. And it needn’t be, for it to be something amazing, something to be treasured.  We are all visitors.

Thanks Kazuo Ishiguro, Chris Wood, Woody Guthrie, Leon Rosselson.