I think it starts here, in the photo on the left. If you walked to the narrow road and turned right, there’s a corner to the left and a drop down a small hill. The road was surfaced with small flint pebbles set in tar. Just at the bottom was a gate from which a track led past a field that, in summer, was decorated with stooks of hay – I remember that as children we were allowed to draw the cut hay into piles with big wooden rakes before it was stacked in a hayrick. On the left was a prefabricated building where a small engineering business went on. At the end of the track was The Crest, my grandparents’ house. My Grandfather was a carpenter from a line of carpenters that I’ve traced back to the eighteenth century and who lived in the same place for so long, a row of cottages is named after them. Only just over five feet tall with a roll-up dangling (usually unlit) from his mouth all day, he was a carpenter in the family business and a smallholder of just a few acres. He uttered curses like the resurgence at Vaucluse, mostly against God who, being a militant atheist, he didn’t believe in. The curses were broadcast in order to annoy passing sunday school teachers. He was entirely self-taught; a lifelong Marxist and member of the Labour Party, and he was the best read person I ever met as a child and, even better, he would lend me his books to read. He taught me to use a slide rule and logarithms, and in his desk (utterly forbidden territory) he had a rotary slide rule. He could make rainbows with a stirrup pump and had a greenhouse with a toad in it called Charlie, and a collection of pianolas in his shed that we were allowed to play with. He kept pigs and cows and hens and grew vegetables and he was unquestionably the most influential person in my life – half of which I’ve spent trying not to be like him and the other half doing the opposite.
So today I prepared the propagator and pots ready for the chillies I wrote about yesterday, to be sown, and you now know that the first two paragraphs of this posting are connected in a very deep way. When I get my thumbs into the dirt I almost always think of him and today I would have loved to have shown him what I was up to. He was always experimenting with growing new things. He grew and dried his own tobacco, I can remember it hung to dry under the eaves of his shed, and it smelt so filthy he was banned from smoking it in the pub. But he would have understood why all this trouble to grow chillies is worthwhile, just as an experiment, just because you might discover something interesting.
And so the new season is poised to begin, a couple of weeks ahead of the game, and I’m already thinking that when all these tender plants germinate there will rapidly come a time when they need repotting and then what? However, all gardeners will also recognise that there are times when you need to rise above the facts, and this is one of them. We’ve thrown a line aboard the season and now we’re (almost) tied to it wherever it takes us, rain, shine, frost, wind snow and drought. Words will be spoken as the tide of pots spreads across the flat in front of every South facing window and the thought of a polytunnel will fill my lustful thoughts – ‘when did that happen?’, I wonder, ‘when did polytunnels replace the desires of (what Dylan Thomas called) ‘my green age’.
“24 degrees centigrade”, I command the thermostat – “Aye aye, skipper” comes the reply -and the great game is on. We’ll win some, lose some and learn some too.