Gardening: Penelope Lively looks back on ‘the view from old age’

Writer Penelope Lively in her garden

Writer Penelope Lively in her garden - Credit: Nigel Sutton

On the very wet evening of Monday, 13th October, Penelope Lively was due to speak about her book, Ammonites and Leaping Fish, at the Stoke Newington Bookshop. She suspected that no-one would be mad enough to turn out in such weather, but in fact, the bookshop was full. I was among those wishing to hear from this thoughtful writer about the book she describes as, “not quite a memoir. Rather, the view from old age”.

Writer Penelope Lively in her garden

Writer Penelope Lively in her garden - Credit: Nigel Sutton

It was a wide-ranging view, but as it contained references to gardening, and regret at not being able to garden so much as before, I later sought the chance to hear more about that aspect of her life.

It was not raining, merely blowing a gale when Penelope showed me her garden in Islington. Although we did not spend long outside there was time to take in what a pleasing space it is, not big but light, with raised beds around the walls, several different fuchsias, a twenty-year old corokia, ground cover roses expressly to deter the fox, the golden variety of Hakonechloa grass with its lovely arching form, various ferns and, the latest to go in, the bulbs of tulips, grape hyacinths and daffodils.

Gardening, says Penelope, is always to do with hoping and looking forward. She was pleased to have got those bulbs in herself, despite her arthritic back, and is already thinking of winter violas for her window box.

As Penelope also observed, gardening is about looking back as well as forward. It seems there was never a time when she was not aware of the gardens around her, the one her mother made when they lived in Egypt, her grandmother’s garden in Somerset, but it was not until she and her late husband, Jack, had one of their own that they became gardeners, first in Swansea, then Oxfordshire. In Swansea they were new enough to the game lovingly to conserve existing plants only to be asked, ‘Why are you keeping that willowherb?’ but by the second Oxfordshire garden they were well into their stride.

Virginia Creeper in Frognal Hampstead

Virginia Creeper in Frognal Hampstead - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Penelope says that her grandmother also learned to garden as she went along, guided by the then fairly recent books of William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll (those very books are now on Penelope’s shelves in London). Down the hillside site in Somerset there were flowerbeds, a sunken rose garden, a canal garden with irises, yew hedges. There was a gardener with whom her grandmother was “constantly at war” and a potting shed the particular smell of which she tries to recapture, head on one side, sniffing, remembering, seeking to identify its components … earth is in there, and raffia, and something woodish, dampish. Her mother’s garden, though in Egypt, retained the same English idiom, with roses and water lilies, but daffodils and apples would not work, and instead of rabbits eating lettuces it was the mongoose eating persimmons.

Vegetables feature in Penelope’s recollections of the gardening she and Jack did together. Jack’s father had been a good grower of vegetables. If a gardening gene has passed down the female line in her family (her daughter has it too, she says) in Jack’s family it sounds to have been a more traditional men-and-vegetable growing gene. Half the site of the garden in North Oxfordshire had been a farmyard, so their vegetables grew huge and lush with the benefit of three hundred years’ worth of manure. She did not say if her son has inherited a fondness for vegetable growing, only that his patience was limited for long parental conversations about carrots.

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In most people’s lives there is a “road not taken”… in Penelope’s, she says, that road is archaeology. Not that she considers herself as scholarly, but that she might have been a good practical, grubbing-about-in-earth archaeologist. To a modest degree, all gardeners are that, and she has written appreciatively of the pottery and bottle glass finds from her two main gardens. Digging the ground has also been a good way to free up a stalled piece of writing, although it is a pity for her readers that the time she tried a book on gardening it remained stalled. Well, maybe now, she says tentatively… not a whole book though, but perhaps if someone were to ask for a piece or two…

Virginia Creeper growing in Waitrose Car Park in Holloway

Virginia Creeper growing in Waitrose Car Park in Holloway - Credit: Nigel Sutton