I AM taking my vast bay tree to task when the new window-cleaner arrives. Then come Richard Mabey and Polly; and then the ever-curious white cat. They all eye my destruction as Jonah eyed the fall of Nineveh, that great city. Richard has just written an anti-destructive acount of Weeds, his new book. All of these watchers know that I am not a destroyer — as, indeed, my garden testifies.
It is a nice, sultry morning for standing about and seeing others toil. Beloved Laurus nobilis, I am only doing this for your own good. Your living branches, so tall, so glossy, are they not a shelter for your dead, that brittle forest of sapless sticks which I now tug out with cracking sounds and much dust? Did bay-leaves crown poets, athletes, and Caesars because of their shapely ability to overlay each other, then pointedly describe infinity on their brows? They were hung on the stelae (gravestones) of Olympic winners, where they mouldered for ages.
My bay tree must be all of 40-feet high. Its lower leaves go into the stockpot. I am teaching it to shine, to not become a kind of laurel necropolis. “I have seen the wicked in great power, spreading himself like a green bay tree,” wrote the Psalmist — which, to some, will suggest the Coalition, no doubt. Society is to be severely trimmed back for its own good. Any minute now, the Damoclean blade will fall, pruning us to the quick.
It is sharpening our wits, however, which the Coalition may not have bargained for. Marches, yes, but an increasingly intellectual response, perhaps not. Even the dreadful banks could be feeling uncomfortable. We are all thinking. I heard the head teacher of an enormous school quietly demolish the argument for cutting out the “waste” of Special Needs workers, as they were not trained teachers. The head teacher was lucid, formidable, rational, and one of those women who will be making the Education Department slow down on some of its smart-alec policies. The future is certainly scary, but it is also very interesting. Politicians will not find this helpful.
On Saturday, we drove to Saffron Walden, that great town. Although Tim the sculptor and I know the way backwards, we consulted the satnav lady. Not to be made fun of, she took us through every minor road and track she could see from the heavens, and guided us through an Essex so lovely that it left us with a kind of travellers’ shock.
With barely another car in sight, and only cyclists doing the September church run, we passed through marvellous villages, took to high and low ground, ducked beneath quiet trees, and glanced by Tudor parks and Celtic earthworks, where we longed to stop and (Tim said) lie in a tent. “Turn left, turn right,” ordered the satnav lady. Do as I say and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.
“Supposing we run out of petrol?” I say.
“There’s a thought,” Tim says.
We pass Spains Hall, where I once gave a talk, and where the cedars were brought from Lebanon. And then we were in the Saffron Arms, devouring wine and chicken with all the artists.
“Have you come a long way?” an ancient person enquires. “Yes,” we say. We are the guests of Richard Bawden, an artist-craftsman, who engraves glass angels and apostles, and paints watercolours, sometimes below my bay tree.