Sunday, 7 March 2010

Places of the heart

The thing about a writers' festival that I love most is that I always come away from it having found something completely unexpected , something outside of normal radar range.

This Adelaide writers' week I went to a session about writers as readers mainly to see Charlotte Wood. I already know I love her work and that anything she says will be brilliant and thoughtful and intelligent. Then, this pohm got up. I'd never heard of him, possibly because I don't have TV and was unaware of his BBC profile, or I am a mad recluse and think I have enough information to last me for the next 20 years until I keel over. I'd even missed the opportunity to have a few drinks with him at the Harper Collins cocktail party on the deck of the Murdoch deathstar the night before because I was too busy guzzling as much of uncle Rupert's Wira Wirra Church Block as possible, while catching up with girlfreinds I never see.

Next time, I shall be more diligent about meeting the visiting international authors, because since reading "Sissinghurst" by Adam Nicholson, I wish I'd taken the opportunity to bail him up and talk manure for an hour or two.

He's not the kind of bloke you'd think would be interested in such things, being standard issue English landed gentry, but when he opened his mouth and began to tell his story, he was rivetting - well, to me anyway, and about 1500 other elderly ladies who obviously had seen the program on Sissinghurst - the home of Vita Sackville West and mecca for lesbians world wide.

Adam Nicholson is her grandson and inherited her stately home and garden from his father Nigel. Well, not the property itself - the National Trust owns that - but the right to live there.

When he returned to his childhood home with his own family he found it changed. What had once been a small boy's paradise of nooks and crannies, climbing trees and secret hides had been replaced by the sanitised neatness of the National Trust's version of a great mansion and garden. But worst of all, the park was no longer a working farm. What had once been under intensive cultivation with cattle, sheep, cerials, hayfields and coppiced woodland was now all under commercial cerial crops to be shipped to Egypt or Equador. Sissinghusrt's fields had once provided industry and produce for a whole region, employing many families, it's fertility ensured by age old land management practices, but all that had disappeared in only forty years.

Nicholson's plan is to restore that aspect of Sissinghurst - it's setting, the working farm that held the house and garden in place - the plush green cushion upon which the jewel of mansion and garden rested. However, the Trust was, and still is to a certain extent, unconvinced of his vision, and this book is his attempt to convince them and the reader that his thesis is the right approach, and it is brilliant. His plan is to restore a working farm to supply the Sissinghurst restaurant with produce grown there, and sell value added produce to visitors.

He weaves his own relatively short family history of association with the house into a longer history of the estate and its prior occupants, its great glory during the Elizabethan era and its eventual degradation until Vita buys it and creates the garden. The book is replete with metaphor, fantastic description and a soaring romantic perception of the natural world. He writes beautifully and convincingly about place, and I particularly love this idea:

I think that the farmed landscape is the most beautiful thing the human race has ever made. There is no need to be parochial about this: the great temperate belt, below the great forest and above the great desert, the humano-bio-sphere, girdling the earth, humanising it, is the great human habitat, the monument to symbiosis, to human and natural interpenetration. Is that human devised skin wrapped around the earth no more than a product of an economic desire to survive, to get the food in? Surely not. More than the wilderness, it is our world, essentially co-operative and the great testament to what we are.
My particular problem with Sissinghurst - that I am both in it and excluded from it, that it is mine and not mine, that it has me by the heart but there is no possession there, that in some ways it is a source of life and meaning and in others a trap - all of this is only a heightened version of what our general realationship to place always has to be. We are all disposessed. We are mortal, the earth is not ours and we are transient passengers, even parasites on it. And so almost by definition we must do things on it and with it which stand to be good in the long term.
In my own mind, I have arrived at a particular phrase: the honourable landscape. Honour is the only thing that survives death. Honour is the denial of self and time. Honour understands about the virtue of the broad compass, of taking account of what matters. Honour is not singular. It stands outside the claims of ego, the desire to exploit, dominate or spoil. It understands about mutuality and the folding in of contradictory desires into a single veriegated but integrated whole. It is a social and moral quality founded on a self-renewing respect for the reality of others. It may be a hopelessly antiquated formulation, but that is in the end what I am interested in here.

Me too. Nicholson articulates perfectly how I feel about our farm, this beautiful place that G-Man's father husbanded with great honour for the last thirty years of his life and which we have now inherited, but not in any possessive sense. Our farm is owned by a family trust. All that Joe bequeathed to us is the desire to maintain it, nurture it and its generations of creatures for a new generation of humans to learn to love and cherish. I hope its future inheritors won't carve it up into residential ponderosas, but while I'm still breathing, that won't happen. As Vita wrote in her diary at her son's suggestion that Sissinghurst be given to the National Trust:

Over my corpse or my ashes; not otherwise... They shan't; I won't; they can't make me;... I never would.


  1. Really enjoyed this post and I agree with Nicholson. He has put into words somethings which I have been thinking but have had difficulty pinning down.

  2. The best thing about it is the depth of history he beds it all down in. Damn, I wish I could write like that.

  3. Loved this post. I'm about two-thirds through 'Sissinghurst' and enjoying it very very much. I love writing about place (doing it, reading it), particularly those like Nicholson who can do it incredibly beautifully and passionately. It's a shame I missed Adelaide Writers Week, because I was in that city the week before but had to leave the day Writers Week started. Otherwise I too would have wanted to bail Nicholson up and talk manure for hours - we could have made a lunch of it (the talk, not the cowshit).

  4. Heheh
    Nigel, we only have ended up taking shit!

  5. Oops, sorry Nigel, I ment we WOULD have ended up talking shit.

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  7. Annette, I agree re Adam Nicolson's writing. You might also like Jane Brown's book: Vita's Other world: A Gardening Biography of V.Sackville-West. It tells the story of the family's early years at Sissinghurst.