However there were one or two things to clear first.
Then the fence blew down.
We started clearing the site and preparing the ground.
Then there was the archaeology.The re-siting of the big slabs that had supported an old oil tank.
A heck of a lot of digging. And levelling. Laying of porous, breathable membrane. And the shovelling of vast quantities of sand. At last some of the marble can go down – using an intricate plan.
The greenhouse arrives.
We exchange the big water butt for a smaller one and the base makes an appearance. More brickwork required. The day dawns and help (daughter Amy) has arrived.On Day One we get this far.And on Day Two we finish the task.
On Day Three I planned to sleep, but found myself starting on the excavation of the narrow passageway linking the greenhouse to the back of the house. I must be mad.
It is some time since I posted about the men I have been writing about who were Far East POWs (and their wives and families). The MS is currently being read by an historian so I planned to take a break. Nevertheless I have been thinking about the men rather a lot. In the past few weeks I have been labouring against the clock to clear the ground for a new fence where mature trees once stood (https://greenwritingroom.com/2014/03/14/). I have also been trying to make a level base for a greenhouse (a task I have never done before).
In the course of these endeavours I have been very tired, very hungry and slightly injured. Then I contracted a feverish cold, and the weather became strangely hot for April. With each of these sensations I couldn’t help remembering the accounts of the extreme versions the prisoners suffered on the railway. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be sicker or to have no rest, or food. As I stamped down the earth on my greenhouse base-to-be, I found myself repeating the phrase my father had remembered from his days when they were building the embankment on which to lay the tracks on the Thailand-Burma Railroad.
At the end of each days work we marched up and down on the newly placed earth stamping it down firmly. I remember the Japanese engineers shouting “Orr men stepping very hardly”.
It sounds perverse to say that I also enjoyed myself, I actually like labour, something I suspect I have learnt from my father. Anyway the fence (done by professionals in contrast to my DIY)) is now up.
I can now get on with the rest. There is still rather a lot of earth to move, rather a lot of sand to lay as a base and all that lovely marble (purchased for another purpose several years ago) to go on top. In the meantime I have managed a few hours of editing on the POW MS. The men are not forgotten.
We bought this a year ago and were impressed by its growth in its first season.
This year, it really decided to get up and go.
We have now re-sealed the big wooden shed around its base – a job that has been waiting for nearly ten years! We have relaid the wobbly bricks in front of said shed and repainted both bay windows on the front of the house.
Clearly drives are more universally exciting than I’d imagined. Now the main drive is finished, everyone stops as they walk past to comment. They can tell me how many layers of hardcore, grit and sand have gone down, how good the workmen were and how much they like the bricks we have chosen – very gratifying. The only drawback is that I am struggling to finish the path that joins up the drive with the front door and EG and I are also trying to rebuild the bank that is still a pit of rubble and we keep stopping to talk.
Of course, it may be that the old concrete slabs were such an eyesore that the village is heaving a vast sigh of relief.
You wouldn’t think that the excitement of a new drive was worth waking up at 5.30 am for. Yet, for the last three mornings I have been waking at this hour and been out in the garden working on my bit of path or levelling bricks in the old bit of the drive before the men come to fill in the sand again. I think it is the sense of coming near completion of a project. This is (nearly) the end stage of a very long sequence, of dreams, ideas, design, assessing finance, finding builders, working as they worked (they were very helpful). I don’t think it is that different from writing a book – though rather quicker and a little more under one’s own control in the final stages. When I was working 9 to 5, I used to wake early and write before setting off for work.
They have finished – we have a new drive – but the surrounding chaos is daunting. We will have to barrow large quantities of earth and probably buy some as well. I still have much path work to do, and this includes the path to the front door. We forgot to ask them to move back the wooden half-barrel they had shifted and whose bottom will certainly fall out if we touch it. Still the fun bit is to come, making the surrounding garden beautiful again.
We’re a little concerned about the birds. The noise and movement right near their feeding areas must have been very disruptive. The mad blackbird is unfazed, but I think is short of some (bird) marbles and doesn’t know it is supposed to be wild.
White souls have been inhabiting the garden last two mornings. These rather beautiful ghosts are the frost covers that I wrap around vulnerable plants that are just coming into new leaf. And yes, I know I should only grow hardy plants, but sometimes the tender growth on tree peonies gets zapped and one of the great joys of spring is waiting for the oh-so-slow buds to open into fragile cabbage-sized blooms. I am equally soppy about the new growth on my maples. In fact I go a little gaga each spring as I watch the leaves unfolding (and again in autumn as they blaze before dying).
Last night was a treat beyond description. We had recorded a performance of Mahler 1, conducted by Simon Rattle with the Berlin Phil, in Singapore. I am a Mahler addict anyway, but this was so beautiful, intense and powerful, that I cannot imagine a more fulfilling experience. I so much prefer to have my heart beating too fast because of a musical crescendo than because a foolish character in fiction or TV drama is blatantly putting themselves in danger and we are invited to watch their downfall.
Shattering, but immensely satisfying day playing with bricks. The brick paving on the drive was washed so all the sand has gone. Over the twenty years they have been there many bricks have sunk and there are bad, wobbly patches. I found I could extract the bad bricks, introduce sharp sand and make them level again. I have also been robbing the bricks from the area that is being redone (THEY START TOMORROW – only a week later than scheduled) and my brick paths can progress at last. The garden is a war zone now, with piles of earth, turfs, pots full of uprooted shrubs and bulbs, bags of rubble and sand.
The birds are unfazed and nesting industriously. The early martins have stayed and settled and are burbling away outside the bedroom window.
On Thursday I did some serious work on Border Line and managed to post another submission yesterday. I don’t plan to talk about politics in this blog, but the events in Boston and elsewhere have made an uncomfortable backdrop to our domestic and very lucky and privileged lives.
I have noticed an interesting effect of age. I no longer put off doing a major job properly. So in the garden, finding the protective mortar flaking off the lowest level of bricks in one area – which was in the same state four years ago when I was laying paving slabs there – I know that I must deal with it. I have this feeling with all heavy work in the garden; best to do it now, I may not feel like it in a year or so’s time, and best make a good lasting job of it.
This feeling spreads to other areas not necessarily involving physical strength. There is no longer anything to be gained by waiting for a better/quieter/more mature period in my life. While the tendency to cook up long term schemes and projects has not left me, perhaps I am finally learning to live in the moment.
I read that you should only touch a piece of paper once – meaning that when you open a letter you should answer and file it in one go. Looking at the pile of paper in the box that masquerades as my in-tray, I still have a way to go on that front.
Of course it may not be age at all. I have just finished reading an unpublished memoir of a WWII Far Eastern Prisoner of War (Dishonourable Guest, by W G Riley). Riley is a young Signalman who starts POW life in Changi, works on the Thailand-Burma Railroad, gets transported on the doomed Hokofu Maru troopship, and is one of the 23 Britons rescued in the dramatic Cabanatuan Raid at Luzon. I have read many POW memoirs in the course of the last three year’s research. Elements are the same, but each man’s story is unique. You would have to be very obtuse to reach the end of even one of these memoirs and not learn to appreciate the moment.
Riley made, in his son’s words, ‘anguished attempts to get the work published’. His whole life was affected, not only by his experience as a prisoner, but also by his need to get his story written and known. It was never published as a book, but his son, Steve, had the second version of the text (the first was lost) typeset and printed 1988. This certainly puts the odd rejection by agents or publishers into perspective.
Flat out in the garden for the last two and a half days. The weather very unfriendly on the hands, but we have had some periods of sunshine. Trying to lay brick paths before the old slabs of concrete are lifted to revamp the drive. There is a great bag of sand on the old drive and I have to use enough of it be able to move it before the 16th April, so conditions that I would normally think of as indoor only, are suddenly possible. EG worked hard on clearing weeds off the drive that will remain and gathering the piles of pebbles that are in the path of the new drive. We still have to take out some shrubs and cut down others. In the midst of this I had a call from the local nursery to say that they had some bare-rooted box for me after all. Today has been a tricky series of gymnastics in the tiny knot garden we made when the girls were small. I dug up the worst plants and trimmed them back to live growth, replanted them and put in the ten new ones. It looked fine a few years ago.
But it had become very thin and full of dead wood. If spring ever arrives we may see it restored. The ground is strangely dry, yet I am reluctant to water, given the nightly frosts. All the buds on the fruit trees and the japanese quince are ready to burst open. I fear they are going to go ahead any day now, frost or not. I have continued to bed the granite setts into the edge of the old dragon bed (There is a pile of giant granite boulders through the middle of the bed hiding an old stump). I am not sure about the look of this – a bit contrived, but it will give a hard edge for the mower and I can’t think where else to put them. We are still baffled by the vast quantity of granite and other stones all over this garden.
I love the randomness of existence; so Monday morning there was a knock on the door and a great lorry craned a large bag of sand onto our driveway. The snow cover and the icicles everywhere make laying brick paths unwise. Instead I managed to send an email to an agent, who felt like the right person for my Prisoner of War non-fiction book – though the firm is closed for submissions, so I have probably just annoyed him. I also finally posted a submission to an agent for my fiction book Border Line.
An interesting post on How I Handle Rejection on Shannon’s blog http://shannonathompson.com made me reflect on how I handle both rejection and praise. I went to a recent email from a friend who had read Border Line critically for me and realised that I had lapped up the praise and not paid enough attention to the criticism. I had dealt with the post-it notes on the manuscript, but not really listened to a more fundamental worry in the covering email. So I spent a happy few hours – and I mean happy – addressing the problem. It is so much easier when someone has kindly identified the sticky patch or the unreal person. When you are writing you tend to have your nose up against the leaves and the shape of the trees get lost.
My mood underwent some yo-yo transformations as I tried to alter the picture for the (imaginary) cover of Border Line on my website. I learnt, as I always do on these occasions, a lot about how not to work in iWeb, but finally I got it sorted. Then, having published the new version, I was maddened to find that one page uploaded the new version, but another stuck to the old. Much trial and error later, I could get the new pages correct only of I used the www. before my address. Today it works properly. There are some gnomes working hard behind the scenes and I just don’t quite speak their language.