Charlie Hart, Constable, 288pp, £16.99
The playwright Terence Rattigan had a rule when he was asked about reviews: “When you’re writing about something you like but about which you have important reservations, the proper thing is to put your approval at the top of the notice and then bring up the reservations afterwards”.
So let me be perfectly clear: Skymeadow is an enthralling and delightful debut about the creation of an English garden in the depths of Essex and is a welcome addition to the genre of garden books that are often as much about restoration of self and sanity as about gardening itself.
Creating a new garden can be a little like dressing or decorating a theatrical stage set. If this new creation is successful, the garden will take on a dramatic life of its own and its creator becomes spectator, stage manager, director and producer.
There is no shortage of toil and sweat in this memoir. Charlie Hart creates a new, sprawling garden as a form of dealing with dissatisfaction in his career, an unsatisfying bourgeois life in London, and the need for space and solitude together with bringing up a young family of four children with only one driver.
This means that, in addition to being head gardener, Charlie also has to do the school run twice a day, often spending as much as two hours in a car. When his wife, Sybilla, finally passes her driving test – on her sixth attempt – it feel like she has won the Le Mans endurance race.
The premise of this memoir is simple enough. When Charlie and his wife first see Peverels, a farmhouse on a hill in the Peb Valley, surrounded by a blank canvas of seven acres, he describes himself as being at “breaking point”. He is grieving the death of his father, with his mother also being sick and close to death.
Charlie is slowly cracking up, living in a London house with a tiny garden and a life that is described as “steadily growing in noise: the noise of grief, the noise of busyness, the noise that comes from the expectations of others and … the constant clamour of dissatisfaction at work”.
So Charlie seeks redemption, catharsis and release from depression by creating something unique and beautiful and, above all, forging a new spiritual covenant with nature.
Be under no illusion here: this is a profoundly spiritual book whose creation and growth is described with a deeply lyrical, touching and often almost biblical love of language and sense of ritual. It’s a restorative story of mental health and “the healing powers” of digging as well as, ultimately, an almost Coleridge-like personal hymn to the glory of the English garden and nature.
But despite so much dazzling prose and flights of lyricism, this is also a flawed memoir. Creating a garden like Peverels is an act of faith and Hart turns his little slice of paradise in the Essex countryside into a form of “consecration” to the memory of his father who is never even given a name.
It doesn’t require much digging to know that his father was David Hart, a controversial and colourful figure of the 1980s political landscape. He was a political confidant and adviser to Margaret Thatcher who lost and made several fortunes, went bankrupt and helped organise the opposition to the miners. Earlier, he had been an avant-garde filmmaker and was friends with Bruce Robinson, the writer of Withnail & I. He died in 2011, aged 66.
Alas, Charlie does not take off the emotional armour that he uses to protect his father’s memory. The subject is avoided, as are a number of other questions. I think the book could have been more powerful if he had dug into his real feelings about his father and his genuinely interesting political legacy.
What works is the way that Skymeadow is written as a quasi-spiritual book on how gardening can help mental health. The creation of the Harts’ garden is also shown as a way of expressing his love of God and nature in the spirit of the Romantic poets.
But I got the feeling there was a lot of playing down of the family background and Charlie’s own privileged upbringing. At times it reads like a Turnbull & Asser shirt whose owner has had almost every drop of poshness wrung out of it. The contradictions are not confronted directly enough, which makes the book less true to itself.
Charlie Hart has the talent and courage to look life in the face and ask bold questions, which is a great gift. He must not be afraid of the answers or ghosts that come back after the “excavation” is done.
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