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Olivia Laing on the Inspiration Behind The Garden Against Time

Posted on 2nd May 2024 by Anna Orhanen

Combining memoir and cultural history in alluring prose, The Garden Against Time is the new book from the acclaimed author of The Lonely City, Funny Weather and Everybody. As well as a perceptive meditation on humankind's relationship with gardens across history, Olivia Laing's beautiful book chronicles the project of restoring her own, attached to the Suffolk house she moved into during the Covid-19 pandemic. In this piece, the author reflects on the experiences that gave birth to The Garden Against Time.

The Roots of The Garden Against Time

I’ve always wanted to restore a garden, ever since I first read The Secret Garden as a child. The books that I grew up on were thicketed with gardens: shaggy, mysterious, unkempt spaces in which lost or lonely children could discover marvels. My favourite was The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston, set in a big fenland house surrounded by a wonderful, slightly sinister garden complete with walking topiary and seventeenth-century ghosts. 

As I grew older, I graduated to non-fiction accounts of garden-making, chief among them the filmmaker Derek Jarman’s memoir Modern Nature. How that book shaped my life! It made me want to create a garden, but it also demonstrated the deep pleasure and surprising variety of writing that could arise from the practice of gardening. Sometimes Jarman is simply making lists: jotting down seed sown, roses planted and insects observed in the garden he was making on the shingle at Dungeness. Elsewhere, the tone is that of a rapturous observer, a painter meticulously charting the shifting colours and scents of a May evening or December storm. Accounts of cruising on the Heath sit alongside scholarly discussions of medieval plant lore. I was bewitched.

In my twenties I trained as a herbalist, still deep under Jarman’s spell. I was living in squats, caravans and housing co-operatives, but I gardened wherever I could, sowing calendula and borage, feverfew and fennel: herbs you would have found in any self-respecting medieval monastery. Each time I moved I’d find somewhere to make a garden, often lugging away decades of rubbish before I could even dig in soil. I acted as if I’d be rooted in place for decades, though it was usually only a matter of a year or two before the landlord ended the contract and I was forced to move again.

This temporary life didn’t end until I got married in my forties. Ian loved gardens too and together we decided to move to Suffolk. The Secret Garden was still ticking away at the back of my mind. I wanted to find somewhere lost and untidy, a place that felt contained and full of mystery. To my amazement, we came across it after a year of searching. The house had belonged to the distinguished garden designer Mark Rumary. After his death a decade earlier the garden had been pretty much left to its own devices. It was wreathed in ivy and choked with bamboo, but even at a glance I could see dozens of covetable plants.

We moved in during the pandemic, in a gap between lockdowns. For two years I worked on the garden’s restoration, writing up my labours each day in a series of black notebooks. These diaries – seven in total – became the backbone of The Garden Against Time, the running thread to which each digression returns. I wrote down everything: how many tulips I planted, what the weather was like, what song I was singing as I weeded the pond beds. Like Jarman before me, I wanted to preserve the experience of work in a garden, to convey the outrageous immediacy of the natural world, its perpetual now! now! now!

But the book didn’t exactly arise out of this daily work. I knew before I moved that I wanted to write about paradise, following on from The Lonely City, which looked at the purgatory of urban loneliness and alienation, and Everybody, which explored the hell of embodiment and bodily prejudice. Paradise sounds, well, paradisiacal, but I had an inkling it had a more sinister aspect too. Lockdown had made it very evident that access to gardens was limited along class and economic lines. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter protests across the world had drawn attention to the hidden relationship between the heritage landscape and slavery. Where had the money come from for that concerted work of beautification. Who had paid for paradise, and who was excluded from it?

For two years, I made a garden with my hands while journeying through paradise in my mind. By day I was outside and at night I read. I didn’t really start writing the book until the garden was finished. But before I’d even moved in, I’d mapped out the structure. I knew I wanted to explore the cost of paradise in the first half, examining in particular slavery and the enclosures, the process by which common land was taken into private hands in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. 

At the same time, I wanted to tell a different kind of story about paradise. I knew from Jarman’s adventures in Dungeness that gardens could also be an act of resistance and radical refusal. In the second half of the book, I focused on these places, from queer havens, like Cedric Morris’s Benton End in Suffolk, to gardens that were refuges from war, like Iris Origo’s La Foce in Italy. I populated my paradise with radical thinkers like Milton and William Morris, who believed with all their hearts that Eden could be shared.

All the time I kept returning to my own garden. I wanted to write about it so that it could be a place for the reader to rest and recuperate, to gather themselves before further travels. That’s what it has been for me, a place of sanctuary and delight. I wanted to open the door and share it, too.

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