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One of England's Great Gardening Classics
on January 13, 2014
You know, one of the really great things about gardeners is how wonderfully generous they are with advice, most of it rubbish of course and rarely is it advice they themselves follow in anything like a systematic way, as I have noticed. But every so often you pick up a nugget of great value from a gardening acquaintance, and experienced gardeners are always on the lookout for that. So here is something along the line of a pearl of rare price. If you have never read Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell, go out and buy this fine book immediately. It was written in 1950, near the end of the author's long life, and it is a novel about a crusty old English gardener near the end of his own long life, looking back on what made him the gardener - and the man - he is now. You can just hear the lilting sing-song of the rural accents of the village characters; Arkell has captured them with perfect pitch. What a lovely and humane book this is, a gentle comedy enriched with sober observation on the practice and philosophy of gardening. It has the broad comedy of Beverley Nichols' great gardening books but also their depth and perhaps a bit more gravitas. It is truly a gem and, though far too brief, something you will take to heart and cherish.
But don't just take my word for it. It is a standard-bearer of the Modern Library's gardening series, edited by the best-selling writer Michael Pollan. He writes in his introduction to the series that these are all books for literate gardeners: "And so I read to garden, and gardened to read, counting myself lucky for having stumbled on a sideline with such a lively and lasting literature. For what other pastime has spawned so many fine books?" And that is followed by enthusiastic comments on Old Herbaceous itself by gardening great Penelope Hobhouse.
The narrator's tone is elegiac and heavily nostalgic, as is not surprising in a gardener whose life and career began as a foundling and gardener's boy in the Victorian era, saw the great-house golden era of Edwardian times, the economic dislocations of World War I, the roaring twenties and then World War II and the post-war era of shortages and rationing. It plugs directly into the enlivening current that makes the television series "Downton Abbey" so popular: nostalgic, beautifully observed and humane, while history washes over and changes fully realized characters that we love and care about. Officially this is a book about gardening, but really it is a book about saying goodbye, letting go, having your life in its proper perspective at all times, living quietly and with beauty and dignity. All things gardeners are working out in their own gardens the world over.
You would have to have a heart of stone not to feel Old Herbaceous' pain in the scene when he has to part with his beloved but now frail Mrs. Charteris, who owned the manor home for many years and has to move into smaller quarters; or when he is cruelly given the sack late in life by the new owners (though this is later rescinded). Here is the likable and sunny Old Herbaceous himself, philosophizing about the good things that come to a man with age: "If you could peel the years from a man's life, as you do the leaves from a globe artichoke, you would find him having his happiest time between the ages of fifty and sixty-five...A golden, mellowing period which brings out all that is best in a man. Kindliness creeps in; cheerfulness spreads its warming rays, even a little humor..."
The warming rays and gentle humor of this book are certainly charming. It is a short, nostalgic and deeply humane novel that has earned its place as one of England's great gardening classics.