Bertie Inkgreen walked up the gravel driveway to the Plotts on a crisp January afternoon. Bertie was not serene. Bertie had a problem, and was visiting his aunt Philomena and uncle Ulysses (Col. Lord U, etc, retd.) to seek advice.
On a day like this they would undoubtedly be in the gardens. Bertie walked down the left hand side of the house, along a raked gravel path flanked by white-painted stones. Early daffodils, crocus, and dwarf iris were lined up against the wall, tallest at the back, and evenly spaced. This was Uncle Ulysses’s part of the garden.
Bertie found his uncle, wrapped in an ancient army greatcoat, trousers of beige cord tucked into bright pink wellies, and wearing a hat that looked as though it had some heroic role in the Siege of Mafeking. He was staring at a row of broad beans with such ferocity they should surely have stood to attention. ‘Blithering slugs, you got to admire ‘em,’ he grumbled. ‘Ah, Bertie. Cup of tea?’
‘Yes, please, uncle.’
If nothing else, Uncle Ulysses was organised. It seemed mere moments until his battered tin kettle boiled on his old campaign primus. Tea was served in blue-rimmed enamel mugs of a kind not made for at least a full age of mankind.
‘Now, what are you doing on a glorious day like this, looking as though you’ve been denied a weekend pass?’ Uncle Ulysses said.
Bertie took the plunge: ‘The thing is, Uncle, I’ve this idea for a book. And since you and Aunt Philomena are both writers, I thought perhaps you could help me. It’s hard to find time to write. When I do, I sit there, and nothing happens.’
‘Pah!’ Ulysses’s moustaches quivered with the force of his exclamation. ‘You make time, young man, and you get on with it. If I didn’t know you had Plott blood in your veins, I’d say you sound like one of those types who likes the idea of having written a book more than actually writing it.’
‘No, I want to write it, definitely. When I think about it, I get excited, it’s just that when I get down to it,’ Bertie shrugged, ‘Well, I don’t.’
‘Right, my boy, if you want a productive garden, you’ve got to get out there and do the work. No Gardening Elves with pointy-ears to plant your beans, you got to show some initiative. Get your seeds – your ideas, you see? And your compost – the stuff you need to make your ideas work, that’s your plot, you see? And your tools – vocabulary, that sort of thing. Then, sit your bottom in your chair, and get on with it. Can’t expect to eat beans if you haven’t grown beans. Can’t edit a blank page.’
‘What about the nothing happening part?’
Before Ulysses could answer, aunt Philomena appeared. She wore one of Ulysses’ old tweed jackets over what appeared to be a pair of Chinese silk pyjamas, and muddy Doc Martens with roses embroidered on the sides, and a vast, shabby straw hat. ‘Now, Ulysses, don’t confuse the poor boy with planning. Another time.’
Philomena added more tea to the pot and stirred. Bertie was sure that hole in the lid was from a bullet. He peered closer, and Philomena gave him one of her unavoidable smiles
‘Now, have you got a good, firm, chair?’ she said. ‘Backache is a gardener’s curse, dear boy, and a writer’s too. And are you working at the same desk where you pay your bills? That can be like trying to grow azaleas in alkaline soil. Separate them out.’
‘All you need is discipline,’ snorted Ulysses.
‘Ignore him, Bertie. You can’t solve everything with discipline. Now, what if someone said to you, “Gardening’s a waste of time,” and “Why don’t you do something useful?”’
‘But that’s nonsense,’ Bertie said.
‘Exactly, but you might still hear the weevil of doubt. You might hear that little voice every time you sit down for writing.’
‘Well, I do a bit,’ Bertie admitted.
Philomena struck a balletic, floral pose. ‘I want you to imagine that voice getting smaller and smaller, then drop it in a jam jar and close the lid. That person who said that – I expect they’ve never grown anything and live on those horrid frozen vegetables in little cubes. No idea how a fresh tomato tastes. If that’s how they want to live their life, so be it, but they have no right to tell you how to live yours.’
‘I don’t see what this has to do with getting the words down,’ Uncle Ulysses said.
‘Sometimes you have to get stuff out of the way first. You can’t grow vegetables on ground full of old stumps and brambles, can you?’
Ulysses’s brow furrowed mightily, ‘Hmph. S’pose not.’
‘It can be a little daunting,’ Philomena said. ‘You look at a half-acre, and think, Gosh, I’m never going to fill all that. The thing is, dear boy, you don’t have to. No-one grows a whole garden overnight, and no-one writes a whole novel all at once.’
‘Absolutely. One word at a time,’ Ulysses said. ‘Bunch of words, line ‘em up, and you’ve got yourself a sentence. Carry on, and you’ve a paragraph. Then a page, a chapter, in the end you’ve a novel. Same with gardens. Start with nothing, bit of digging, bit of planting, one day you stand back, and it’s there.’
It was, Bertie realised, exactly what he had done with his own small garden.
‘Sometimes it can help to make a special place to write,’ said Philomena. ‘With inspiring pictures, the right music, something that smells nice. You’re giving respect to the Muse, you see? Like a little temple.’
‘Ruddy New Age nonsense,’ Uncle Ulysses said. ‘Just get on with it.’
‘Oh, you’re such an old crosspatch,’ Aunt Philomena beamed. ‘It helps make a place for writing in your life. You can’t garden unless you’ve got a garden, can you? You need to get established, put down your roots.’
‘You can do it anywhere. I grew tomatoes in my quarters,’ Uncle Ulysses said, ‘South-facing window, used some old ammo boxes.’
‘You’re quite right, dear. But it was your room. Permission to write, you see?’
‘Permission, hah,’ Ulysses said. ‘Regular habits. Sit down at the same time every day, and you’ll soon find the old noggin’s going, “Time to Write.” If you want to get your potatoes up before the slugs get them, you’ve got to be out there with your spade, whether you feel like it or not.’
‘Yes, that’s very true,’ said Philomena. ‘Habit does help.’
For a fleeting instant it was as if the sun came out, and Bertie saw a way through his personal bramble-patch. ‘I’m going to try a combination of everything you’ve suggested. Discipline, and setting a time, thank you, uncle. And having a nice place to do it, and not listening to the voices that tell me I should be doing something else.’
‘Perfect, Bertie,’ Philomena said. ‘Now, the sun’s over the yardarm. Fancy a G and T? ’
Bertie felt a lot better. I expect there are lots of other tips, he thought. I wonder what they are?