Since its conception in the 1860’s as a grand, gated, upper middle-class suburban outpost, this street in North-East London has survived two world wars and a succession of decades each less supportive of its grand ambition than the last. By the 1970s all but a few of its houses had suffered the indignity of subdivision. A flat per floor and a shared garden.
Our home is in one such house. It occupies the lowest and once lowliest level, its front windows lit by a sunny square of paving, and its rear facing a shady patch of north-facing greenery. By the end of the summer the garden retreats into the shadow cast by the house, and becomes, for six months of the year, a damp and boggy twilight zone. It is not until March that pale glimmers of sunshine start to reappear in the furthest corners and the garden is reborn.
I’m not sure I can call myself a gardener. I work in the garden, sometimes obsessively, I potter and I play. I buy books, I study and I try to learn. My interest awakens in early spring and it peaks in late summer when I become aware of the diminishing light. For these six light-filled months, I am captivated by this tiny patch of green. I fall under its spell and I pamper it. I spend money on it, I tend it and I nourish it. But for half the year it sulks in the gloom of winter and offers me little. I turn my back and ignore it. I blame my indifference on the lack of light or the excess of rain, on the ravaging effects of two large dogs or a general lack of funds. But mostly it has been its size that I have resented. Because this square of green is all that’s left of a much larger plot. For years its sunnier other half, now owned by neighbours, has sat tantalizingly beyond a broken fence and a tangle of unkempt shrubs and climbers. Its disappointing lack of scale has limited my ambition and I have cared for it with a shameful lack of real commitment, one eye on the promised land beyond the fence.
Last year, scarred by an unsuccessful bid to buy it back, I was forced to readjust my own ambitions for the portion I am left with and I have made my peace with it.
It is half a garden.