Flower Power

My friend Emma recently gave me a book about authors’ gardens. It is a beautiful publication that celebrates the gardens of great writers including Agatha Christie, John Ruskin, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. She joked in her note to me that perhaps one day my garden would make it into such a book. Um, no. At least, not anytime soon. But it did get me thinking about my garden and the role it plays in my life.

The bottom pond June 2018

I have always enjoyed the garden but for the first dozen years we lived in Oxford it was simply an additional space to the house for the boys to play in. As they grew older and the call for sandpits, tree houses, go-kart tracks and slippy slides receded, we began to look at doing something more structural with our outside space. First came a pond. After all, who can resist a water feature? Then a second pond, higher up the rockery, and a stream to link them. There is something timeless and beautiful about running water – always calming and refreshing. The pond has been a source of endless delight and fascination. It is populated by newts, frogs, beetles, snails and endless flights of damsel and dragon flies as well as the occasional Border terrier who splashes about to cool down on a hot summer’s day.

The view of the bottom of the garden in 2016 with an old shed, tree roots in the lawn and a privet hedge that seemed to go on for ever

We became more ambitious and by 2016 a major project to refurbish the bottom half of the garden was underway. Chris stood in the middle of the lawn with a glass of Prosecco and waved his arms around: ‘I want a big round lawn, a wall, raised vegetable beds and colour all summer.’ He announced. His dream was realised by a brilliant Venezuelan garden creator called Aristides Escallonia. What a name and what a talented young man. I have spent the last two seasons learning the hard way how to grow vegetables, fruit and salad while Chris worked out how to mow a round lawn with a lawn mower that wants only to go in a straight line.

 

The vegetable garden and wall in spring 2017 replacing the shed and the old privet hedge

Chris mowing the round lawn with a truculent lawnmower that has its own ideas about going in straight lines

The vegetable garden in June 2018. The wall is now painted yellow and the greenhouse doubles as a mini-conservatory in the winter

Why am I telling you about this when I usually talk about writing? Well, it occurred to me this last week, as we were preparing to open the garden for the National Gardens Scheme (an organisation that raises nearly £1 million a year for charity), that my garden is a lot like one of my books. It has structure, chapters, anecdotes and detail. In fact, as I start my next book, I am thinking about it in the way I am planning the next development in our garden: creatively but within the scope of what is factual, or in the case of the garden, possible.

Paving stones lead from the formal vegetable garden through a woodland area to the pond

A book needs some hard landscaping to work. An overall structure is vital otherwise the reader will just wander aimlessly around wondering what this is all about.  The same applies to the garden. There is something magical about moving from one space to another or from one chapter to the next. From the outset of any book I have a clear idea of the scope and its shape but the detail develops as I go along. In most cases my books are limited by the war years but this new book is larger in timescale because it is a biography. The focus will be the years 1940 to 1960 but it will dip into the late nineteenth century at one end and refer to the early twenty-first century at the other.

Rosa Nostalgia – a true beauty

Now that I have the structure in my head – I never commit it to paper for some odd reason – I can work on the contents. If I think of the historical dates as solid forms like trees then the events that occur in the book and which affect my characters are the shrubs and roses. Oh yes, I have to mention roses. They are my absolute favourite flower and I have dozens in the garden: climbers, ramblers, shrub and tea-roses. They are white, pink, red, orange and yellow. Each is a beauty and has a special place in my heart. I know who gave it to me or where I bought it, when I planted it, how often I have pruned it and how many times it flowers in a season. My characters develop like roses to some extent and I like to think that I come to love or at least admire them, as much as I do my roses, when I write about them. Would it be too far-fetched to imagine Cecil Beaton as a splendid Danse du Feu? or Audrey Withers as Zephirine Drouhin? Who knows? And does it matter? It is my metaphor after all.

Danse du feu, a magnificent climber and one of my favourite red roses

Perennials are minor characters but they are essential in any narrative or good border. I have a strong affection for dahlias, lupins and hydrangeas – not the bosomy type but the panticulata varieties. Peonies also feature in luxuriant shades of white, pink and deep red-purple in my borders and these will also appear in the book. They are the surprise players who add greatly to the narrative but need propping up by the structure of the story. In Our Uninvited Guests one of my best surprises was the French agent Pierre Delaye. He occupies just two pages in the chapter about the Free French but he was a stand-out fascinating man and I enormously enjoyed weaving his story into the main narrative.

And finally there are the annuals. It is always tempting, especially before open gardens, to sprinkle pretty annuals around the borders to add a flash of colour. Resist, I always say to myself. Having too many characters in a book is equally to be resisted. It causes confusion and runs the risk of just becoming a list of names in the index. Over the past couple of months people have asked me why I did not include this house or that person in Our Uninvited Guests and my reply is very much the same as when someone asks me why I don’t plant azaleas or camellias – they don’t work in the context. In the case of the plants it is because we don’t have acid soil. In the case of the book it is usually because Bletchley Park (the most requested) has been done to death and in fact no one actually lived in Bletchley Park, they just worked in the huts, or that the person in question left no records. There is always a case for leaving things out, as there is in a garden and I have come to realise that it is essential to have the courage to do that.

Our Oxford garden, June 2018, ready and dressed for Open Gardens, but just for one day…

My passion for my garden and for writing is almost equal. Hard to say which would win in a head to head contest. Luckily I do not have to decide but if I’m honest, the garden feeds my writing but not vice versa. When I’m deep into writing a book I am wholly in the present (and the past) and my garden is then just a delicious respite from the atmosphere of my writing room. But when I am in the planning phase, as I am now, hours in the garden give me much needed mental space and band-width to let ideas pop into my head and begin to form. It is an organic process planning a book and what better place to do it than in the middle of a shrub border with mud under my finger nails, burrs in my hair and plants all around me.

 

Agatha Christie and the Knox Commandments

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In March I had an email from a lady in Australia who I have been corresponding with over the past year or so. I suppose she is what I would describe as an e-friend but I feel that makes her sound unreal, which she most definitely is not. Whatever the description of our relationship, I have discovered that she has excellent taste in reading. She told me recently that she has been reading my books interspersed with detective stories by none other than Agatha Christie. Wow. To be selected to feature on a bookshelf or bedside table next to the greatest writer of detective fiction of all time is quite an honour.

As it happens I have been a huge fan of Agatha Christie for the past thirty-five or more years. After my university final exams, for which I had worked harder than for any other set of exams in my life, I went into a period of shut-down. I hid away in my parents’ farmhouse and read first the entire works of Dostoyevsky, which was perhaps not the wisest of moves, and then the entire works of Agatha Christie, which was a much better decision. I found such pleasure in inhabiting her various worlds and learning to appreciate her brilliant construction, feinting and plot-twisting. What I did not know then but I do know now is that she was a founder member of the Detection Club, formed in 1930, during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, an era when classic murder mystery novels were overwhelmingly popular.

Monsignor Ronald Knox © Lafayette, NPG London

The club included among its members the writers Dorothy L. Sayers, Hugh Walpole, G.K. Chesterton (its first president) and Monsignor Ronald Knox. This last man is the link in the chain to my most recent book but I will come to that in a while. The club’s oath is glorious: ‘Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?’

Members had a set of guidelines which were drawn up by Knox and were known as the Knox Commandments. It might seem rather odd that a man of faith, a man described by some as the greatest Roman Catholic scholar of the twentieth century, should be a member of a detective writing club but that is the delight of this great polymath. He wrote detective stories in the same way he might have set a crossword puzzle. He was not interested in the emotional motives of his perpetrators but in the solving of a crime that could keep the reader guessing right to the end of the book. And he wrote the books – ten in all – to supplement his modest stipend.

His Commandments number ten, of course, and were adhered to by the members. They forbid the murder being committed by the detective. A Watson-type side-kick has to reveal all thoughts that pass through his mind; the detective cannot conceal any clues he finds, and twin brothers and doubles ‘generally must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them’. Most of the rules stand the test of time, such as no supernatural or preternatural agencies being permitted or no hitherto undiscovered poisons, but others strike one as anomalous today such as ‘no Chinaman must figure in the story’. He also suggests that no more than one secret room or passage should be allowed. Unless today’s detective stories are set in old houses I feel the secret passage is rather outdated. Having said that, Knox spent the Second World War in a haunted house in Shropshire, so I suspect that secret passages were not far from reality at Aldenham Park.

Ronald Knox gave up writing detective stories in 1937 at the request of Lady Daphne Acton (although he did publish one last story in 1947). He had taken her on as a pupil as she wished to convert to Catholicism as he had done twenty years earlier. She was twenty-five, beautiful and highly intelligent. Before they first met he had been alarmed at the prospect of instructing a young woman – his own experience having been at Oxford and then at Bury St Edmunds where he came across few women in the course of his ministry. But he need not have worried. She put him immediately at his ease and he was soon captivated by her. Her brother-in-law invited him to accompany them on a cruise to the Adriatic and it was there that the two of them made a pact: Ronald would give up writing detective fiction (Lady Acton threw a copy of Double Cross Purposes overboard) and she would stop wearing the colour of lipstick he disliked. That went into the blue waters as well. She would offer him peace and a place to work, which he yearned, and he in turn would continue to instruct her.

In June 1939 Knox moved books, curtains, furniture and a lifetime of memories from Rose Place in Oxford to the Acton’s family home, Aldenham Park in Shropshire. His plan was to fulfil his life’s ambition which was to translate both books of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English. It was a task American scholars had estimated would take a decade using ten translators. Knox completed it in less than five years and in considerably less peace and quiet than he and Daphne Acton had anticipated. A day before Chamberlain announced that the country was at war with Germany, nine nuns and five lay sisters from the Convent of the Assumption in Kensington arrived at Aldenham at the invitation of Lord Acton.

Sisters from The Assumption, Kensington Square, London photographed at Aldenham Park in c. 1941. Their habits were purple and designed by House Worth © The Assumption Archive

Three weeks later fifty-five girls between the ages of eleven and seventeen arrived to be taught by the nuns. Lord Acton had been approached by the Reverend Mother and thought it more satisfactory to have a girls’ school at his country house than the army. It turns out he was right. To have the army take over was the worst possible outcome for home owners as their needs were opposed in almost every way to those of the previous incumbents. Large country houses had been looked after by armies of servants for a small number of spoilt inhabitants. When the tables were turned and armies of officers and soldiers were looked after by a small number of men from the catering corps, the houses were found to be completely inadequate: no central heating and few bathrooms were just some of the problems that confronted the new occupants.

Knox moved into the gardener’s cottage and worked in the corner of Lady Acton’s sitting room. It was in this small space that the Knox Bible was translated in an atmosphere of girls, ghosts and godliness. It was surely one of the strangest juxtapositions of the Second World War. Ronald Knox continued to correspond with members from the Detection Club and remained close personal friends with Agatha Christie, whose house Greenway in Devon was requisitioned by the US Coast Guard.
Lives entwined, experiences shared and all mixed up on a bookshelf in Australia. Thank you, Ellen Hall, for reminding me how much I love historical coincidences.

Girls, Ghosts and Godliness appears in Our Uninvited Guests