The childhood garden of one of my dearest friends backed on to the ruins of Netley Abbey. This glorious stoney shambles is a 13th century Cistercian monastery seized by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries 300 years after its founding.
Sold on to swell the king's purse, the abbey eventually fell in to careless ruin throughout the 18th century, her stones sadly filched piece by piece for 'building materials.'
Towards the end of that century, the Abbey found a second breath as a kind of Romantic pilgrimage, the equivalent I guess when, as a teenager, I visited the Lizard King in his paint-daubed grave-shrine in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise.
The minor poet William Sotheby, pal of Scott, Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth, wrote the very shivery Netley Abbey, Midnight (when else?). I try to imagine Clare growing up with the rustle of this out her bedroom window:
Me thought I heard upon the passing wind,
Melodious sounds in solemn chorus join'd,
Echoing the chaunted vesper's peaceful note,
Oft through the veil of night's descending cloud,
Saw gleaming far the visionary croud,
Down the deep vaulted aisle in long procession float.
Clare, far left, adds perspective to the gaunt and scarred buttresses of the Abbey
[Clare and I and some other friends started the first English-language theatre company in Prague just after the revolution, called the Malý, ale Nebezpečny (Small, but Dangerous) company, whose home was the same stage from which Vaclav Havel had pronounced the new republic the year before]
When Clare's father died, and her mother aged, they sold the house and her mother moved to an apartment in Southampton. Clare, in this pandemic age, stands guard over her mother like one of the great 500 century stout oaks that loom over the abbey.
Now, with my stepfather dead, my mother will move from her garden, one she stoked, and prompted, and mustered and rescued from flood and storm and Sydney's blistering heatwaves for more than 50 years.
The house was barely a half century old when she moved in. Its first owner had died, and then the weeds and scrub clawed at the girth of the stand of nine giant rare Sydney Blue Gums that stood sentry over the land, reaching 100 metres into the sky with their centuries old limbs, and discarding a constant shower of leaves and bark with careless disdain, and an occasional one tonne limb to remind us with a thud why Eucalypts are called 'widow-makers' in this hardy land.
There were foxes and possums and whooping galahs and cackling kookaburra, and the "maaaate, maaaaate, maaaate," of the Australian crow. Most magnificently of all, fat blue-tongued lizards would sun themselves on sandstone plinths, their bellies swollen with insect abundance, little reptilian Gods with Buddha bellies.
A birdbath, a statue, and last remaining gums...
When not studying law, or later exercising her judicial authority, my mother poured love, spirit, solitude, and the heart of a New Zealand country child into the garden.
Gradually, herbs, sage, camelia, ferns, purple and white wisteria, jacaranda, and a hundred other species of tree, shrub and flower fell in to a unity of fragrant and colourful cohabitation to form the paths and arches and follied glades of her English garden.
An oak planted from seed to mark a sister's first birthday is now a grand adult, with a largesse of shade over the house and spawning its own seeds. Two mandarin trees more than a century old still give off the most perfectly tart fruit every year.
Twice, I was in the house when a geriatric Blue Gum fell.
The first time, in a freak cyclone, it didn't even bother trying, and slumped without warning into the house, crushing half the rooms with its 70 tonne trunk and almost killing the single occupant home at the time (me).
The second felling was less than a year ago during a sultry pandemic evening when, in a hare-drum crescendo, a companion gum fainting like a Grenadier guard in a heatwave tore through the surrounding branches to its momentous death, thoughtfully taking with it the fences of three or four surrounding neighbours rather than the lovingly reconstructed house of my mother.
Sadly, two more grand old centurions had to be felled by gangs of Lebanese tree-loppers, since their shallow roots had become loosened by the passing of their comrade, more holes in the line against the cannonade of time.
Marc Chagall, Le Paradis... 1912?-ish?
Each time, my mother set about reconstructing her garden, taking the form and hollows in the earth left to her by the absence of these beautiful giants of life, sowing the ground again with sprays of seed, or off-cuts stolen from gardens on her daily walks, a statue added here or there, a headstone-like stump left to mark the spot and dressed with tresses of trailing ivy.
What does it take to leave one's home after half a century?
I will never know, since in my own life I have probably lived in 60 or so homes across a score of countries in a score of years.
Of course, nor does my mother, yet, as I write. But my leaving what was in effect the longest of my childhood homes was easy because for complex reasons it did not seem like a sanctuary then but, to the contrary, seemed to me to possess the dankness and darkness of a Gothic ruin on a moonless night, without a shiver of Romance, but rather a gloomy foreboding unrelieved by its location in the vast sweep of Australian suburban bland.
A globe and nesting bird, Kenya, 2016.
Paradoxically, we loathe things past our childhoods far more than when we lived them. I mean, I thought the whole world lived that way, in ranks of house lined and walled-off like cells.
I knew nothing different until I got the memo, which for me came in the form of the film "Wake in Fright," about which I have written elsewhere, which exposed my own horror to me of a claustrophobic social fabric woven by an aspiration into suburban grandeur.
If there was a reason I traveled, it was because of that home, which inspired travel and left me with the single greatest reason for gratitude. I wanted to get as far away as possible, to be as un-suburban Australia as possible.
I couldn't detect a reason for wanting to live in the 'burbs, couldn't see what people liked about their fences and driveways stacked with glinting foreign cars, and couldn't understand the value of being apparently surrounded by people and yet having so little to do with them.
Who were all these people?
In the grand sepulchral villas of Warrawee, stitched together by small oak-shaded footpaths and laneways, there appeared to be life – it showed itself occasionally in wobbly old folk waddling down the street, she with purple hair and he with grey cardigan, both with ruddy Anglo-Saxon features that projected a stiff grumpiness as an obligatory trait of antiquity – but one could not be sure.
Exploding birds before the vortex of a storm, Kenya, 2016
Where were the piazzas? The fountains? The playgrounds? The cafés and bars? The markets and souks of frankincense and pomegranate and oriental silks? The mixture of lives born of varied existences and criss-crossed camel routes?
There were none, because in this forlorn agglomeration of privileged Aussie suburbia, the mirthless practice of a genteel seclusion from the troubles and Truth of ones' neighbours, with their gin-soaked wives and Jaguar-driving husbands seemed to my unsullied mind an elevated and cotton-coddled, and very attenuated, rehearsal for Death.
As a child, it induced a kind of panicked asphyxia that hummed throughout ones background like the steady beat of the cicadas.
My regrets on my mother leaving her house are almost non-existent.
Rising orb and dawn bird, Kenya, 2016.
But as you can take the boy out of the country, but never the country out of the boy, I am inextricably combined with my past, and I found as I got older a yearning to garden which I expressed in a passion for pot plants, and herbs, and small gardens founded on tiny balconies or rooftops, eked out in temporary stopovers like Herat, or Prishtina, or Port-au-Prince.
Give me a pot, and I give you a garden where I can, as Ovid would have it, sink my trowel – "mid soft green turf there springs a sacred fount."
However more dearly, more cleaved to my heart was my discovery of Rabindranath Tagore's "The Gardener," a book of love and fecund life which, when I read it as a 19 year-old traveling through India for the first time, I felt sure in all my sweetened, youthful naïveté, I would surely mirror in my own life.
When I read Tagore again, and indeed these lines, I am transported instantly back to a time when I felt that the future was now clear and unadulterated, mine for the taking:
"I try to fill my arms with her loveliness, to plunder her sweet smile with kisses, to drink her dark glances with my eyes."
[how soul-rending is that?! Be still my beating heart!]
"Ah, but, where is it? Who can strain the blue from the sky?
I try to grasp the beauty, it eludes me, leaving only the body in my hands.
Baffled and weary I come back.
How can the body touch the flower which only the spirit may touch?"
And yet, it is that garden – my own lust for life – which I have now abandoned as another's, or a mirage, or from which perhaps I am simply expelled.
#chagall #gardens #gardening #tagore #netleyabbey #leavinghome