Everything under the sun: The glory of garden centres

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

8 June 2019

9:00 AM

Don’t you just love garden centres? You have to be mad to go on a sunny Sunday morning in the full bedding-out season but all human life is there, enjoying the full English breakfast or even kippers. They sell everything — sofas, lamps, barbecues, waterfalls, bread, toys, meat, mountaineering gear. Oh, and plants and Growmore and those little windmill things. I went to buy extra geraniums and lobelia because it is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever you buy far more than you can possibly need for your pots, those pots expand when you turn your back. It was a gladiatorial clash of trolleys, and I trampled on several old ladies in fighting for the last ivy-leafed Brilliant Scarlet. I got it of course. I am an old hand.

Victorious, I enjoyed a pot of tea and a cheese scone, before checking out, as well as the garden stuff, a squeaky badger (for the dog), a massive sack of niger seed (goldfinches) a book about the planets (grand-daughter) a sun hat (self), some mint imperials and a birthday card. But you just wait until Christmas — that’s when garden centres really come into their own, and not just for the fir trees. If you want outdoor blow-up Santas, 50 varieties of fairy light, flashing reindeer, candles smelling of fruitcake, gnomes or door wreaths made of flamingo pink feathers, look no further. I can NOT wait.

We now have swallows, swifts, flycatchers, chiffchaffs, great tits, finches and treecreepers. There was even a nightingale in the copse for one wonderful night. Every sparrow in Norfolk is nesting in our hedges or under the eaves, one has a wren, and I haven’t even started on the heron and egret by the pond. But for the first time, we have no house martins. Friends in other parts of the country say the same. Why? They can’t all have been blown off course. Maybe they’ll come rushing in at the last minute and it will be non-stop*. Friends in France have swallows that have returned for 20 years to nest on a beam in their sitting room, so the front door stays wide open from May to September, but c’est la vie in rural Quercy.

June is very frothy and royal, flowery frocks and hats and military parades, garden parties, picnics on country house lawns during the opera. The upper classes know how to put on a show and if it’s always the same show, that is part of the point — the unvarying summer routine, set in stone since, oh, 1910 or thereabouts. It’s fun to gawp at, though I wouldn’t care for all that dressing up as one being gawped. But the Victorians and Edwardians did far more parading, strolling in the park in lace and bustles and morning suits, going to Covent Garden to gawp at one another through lorgnettes. I sometimes long to travel back in time, just for one early summer’s day — a rich, titled lady with a barouche, servants and going into dinner two by two, on the arm of a prince. Such daydreaming is not only harmless, it is positively therapeutic. Instead of today’s fashionable meditation or stretching, fainting and writhing in coils, everyone should daydream delightfully. It’s very productive for a writer, too.

What a horrible term ‘dementia’ is. It implies crazed insanity rather than memory loss. Can we not find a better one? Most people reading this will have been touched by it, closely or at a remove, as we have all been similarly affected by the cancers. Those are cruel enough, but, unlike dementia sufferers, cancer ones now often enjoy full recovery or a long remission. My mother never spoke the word aloud and when hers was diagnosed, nearly 50 years ago, she was told she had ‘ulcers’, and had surgery during which one kidney, a large section of bowel and bladder, plus uterus etc were removed. The surgeon told her she would get well (though he told me otherwise) and so she did, enjoying three years of excellent health, until a friend referred to her illness by name. Horrified, she absorbed the truth, then shrivelled and died in eight weeks. Never underestimate the power of words.

In 1988 two daughters, Hannah and Jessica, both 11, went to the first night of a play adapted by Hannah’s father from a ghost story by Jessica’s mother. We wanted them to be there as The Woman in Black was scheduled to run for only six weeks at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, my home town. The girls could have waited, actually. A London producer brought it to several West End theatres, before it landed at the Fortune and we dreamed of a six-month run. This week, we celebrated 30 years there. Stephen Mallatratt died far too young, 15 years ago, so I run on as torchbearer. It’s been a remarkable 30 years. En avant!* The house martins have come back.

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