My 13-year-old son Isaac wants to follow in the footsteps of another East Anglian, Ed Sheeran. Skilful cajoling on his part met with hesitant moaning on mine, but last weekend he won.
I made a grumpy foray down to a shed that had a load of junk in it. The junk was moved, the shed swept and Isaac now has a home for his band, Siege. It may only be a shed, but it is his place and he is happy with it. If Isaac manages to squeeze from the universe a tenth of what Sheeran has it will be a good thing. In the meantime he is sporting a very carefully crafted fringe.
Every year my wife, Sybilla, and I tell ourselves that we are doing just fine and that this winter is far better than the last. But as soon as something genuinely springlike approaches we confess to ourselves quite how dreadful winter has been and how relieved we are to be out of it. This is a sort of internal expectation management. The truth is that each winter will probably be worse than we had hoped and better than we feared: that is the nature of things. In the meantime we push on.
Last week, after a day being battered by a cruel easterly, I had a dream that we moved to Jerusalem. That would be a fine thing. Why don’t we? I am English to my fingernails but there is no reason why an Englishman couldn’t hole up somewhere hotter.
I have spent the last six years building a new garden and I live close to where my father and grandfather lived. But that is not why I don’t want to move. I don’t want to move because I harbour a long-term hope that by doggedly sticking to one place it might become a magnet for those I love. Not just for our children (and one day, we hope, grandchildren) but for our wider family too. Places are important.
In the medieval period it was commonly held that Mary took a particular interest in this place, such that England was known throughout the Catholic world as “Mary’s Dowry”. We don’t know exactly how this came about, but Richard II seems to have made a particular commitment, recorded in the Wilton Diptych, in which he hands his orb, and therefore his kingdom, to Mary. I doubt this act was taken in isolation and we must imagine the hearts of our forebears burnt particularly strongly for Mary.
On the March 29, England will be re-dedicated to Mary in a service at the National Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham in Norfolk. Among other things, this strikes me as a radical and yet orthodox effort to recapture the joy of family. We need to break bread together, to laugh and to joke and to know the tender heart of a mother. I hope this service marks the coming of a new summer for England. I hope that the warmth of the Holy Family might fall again in this place.
When Isaac’s fellow band members come to the house they invariably meet Sybilla. If they are lucky she might lob them a packet of sweets. I am sure the kids who meet Sybilla feel they know Isaac a little better as a result. Can it be that we are invited so fully into the Holy Family? Invited to know Mary that we might know Jesus better?
One evening I distinctly remember sitting on the sofa minding my own business. Something glinted at the edge of my imagination. Suddenly I felt I saw (imaginatively speaking), something of the Cross and those standing by, and those words “Here is your Mother” (John 19:27) seemed to impress themselves upon me in a new way. I rarely if ever cry, but I found myself weeping.
Just as Jesus had kept the best wine till last at the start of his ministry, so he seemed to have kept this gift of incalculable value, the gift of His very own Mother, to his last moments on the Cross. Such warmth, such kindness, such generosity – and yet for great stretches of my life I had turned my nose up at the invitation. That is why I wept. It was the culmination of a decades worth of shaking up and it was the moment when I finally knew I had to become a Catholic.
We are nearing that moment in the year when I feel most like a gardener. Each day my hands are in the soil and each evening I have to hoist myself out of my armchair in order to wobble upstairs on stiff legs. Trays of basil and pots of peas are teetering about in my study.
Just as Isaac has his shed, I have my study. Tomatoes are coming and sweet peas are being set out. This year I got most of the weeding and mulching done early because I knew I would have to make time for the launch of a new book in April.
Gardens can be dangerous places, and particularly at this time of year an effort must be made not to see in them simply a long list of jobs. My garden has such an intensive set of demands that I am forced to accept that the things I can’t get done will simply have to remain undone. Accepting this gracefully seems to be the only way to stand baggage-free in the present and enjoy the garden as it is: the only way to enjoy this place, or any other.
Charlie Hart is a gardening writer. He is the author of No Fear Gardening: How to Think Like a Gardener (Constable)