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Tim Longville on James Hamilton-Paterson, Griefwork - Slightly Foxed Issue 14

Flowering Passions

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I’ve never had anything you could call A Career. I’ve always either gone where interest suggested and opportunity allowed or just Micawberishly waited for something to turn up. Despite the supposed end of the culture of ‘a job for life’, that approach still seems to make a lot of people uneasy. And they often become even more uneasy when they discover that one of my interests nowadays is cultivating and writing about rare, difficult and often tender plants from distant parts of the world. You can almost see the bubble of unspoken doubt rising from their heads. ‘Is this just some childish joke? Or is he really serious?’ So I was delighted to stumble across spectacular support for that general approach (in the shape of James Hamilton-Paterson) and for that particular interest (in the shape of his novel, Griefwork).

I admire Hamilton-Paterson himself for having spent forty years resolutely defying categorization. At various times he has been underwater explorer, political commentator, botanist, scientific journalist and, above all, a traveller who has moved restlessly from country to country. I also admire the way in which, over the same period, he has somehow managed to write not only non-fiction works on all of those interests (and on several others: for improbable example, Mummies, Death and Life in Ancient Egypt) but also poems, short stories and around half a dozen novels. The novels are dazzlingly well-written, often in extremely rich and elaborate English; deploy a virtuoso variety of narrative voices; and have been much admired by critics: but largely ignored by that mysterious creature, the general public.

Of all his books my own favourite remains the first I discovered, a fairly early novel called Griefwork. One reason for that preference, even if not the most important one, is certainly that some of the most deeply felt parts in it are played not by the book’s (frequently trivial and childish) humans but

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I’ve never had anything you could call A Career. I’ve always either gone where interest suggested and opportunity allowed or just Micawberishly waited for something to turn up. Despite the supposed end of the culture of ‘a job for life’, that approach still seems to make a lot of people uneasy. And they often become even more uneasy when they discover that one of my interests nowadays is cultivating and writing about rare, difficult and often tender plants from distant parts of the world. You can almost see the bubble of unspoken doubt rising from their heads. ‘Is this just some childish joke? Or is he really serious?’ So I was delighted to stumble across spectacular support for that general approach (in the shape of James Hamilton-Paterson) and for that particular interest (in the shape of his novel, Griefwork).

I admire Hamilton-Paterson himself for having spent forty years resolutely defying categorization. At various times he has been underwater explorer, political commentator, botanist, scientific journalist and, above all, a traveller who has moved restlessly from country to country. I also admire the way in which, over the same period, he has somehow managed to write not only non-fiction works on all of those interests (and on several others: for improbable example, Mummies, Death and Life in Ancient Egypt) but also poems, short stories and around half a dozen novels. The novels are dazzlingly well-written, often in extremely rich and elaborate English; deploy a virtuoso variety of narrative voices; and have been much admired by critics: but largely ignored by that mysterious creature, the general public. Of all his books my own favourite remains the first I discovered, a fairly early novel called Griefwork. One reason for that preference, even if not the most important one, is certainly that some of the most deeply felt parts in it are played not by the book’s (frequently trivial and childish) humans but by its (all-too-human if not altogether grown-up) plants. I even discovered it in an almost too appropriate way: while hanging about waiting for something to turn up. Something plant-related, too, since I was in a small Yorkshire town waiting for a gardener who was going to show me his collection of rare salvias. For me, waiting of that sort usually means visiting first the local secondhand bookshop, second the local pub. This time I almost skipped the bookshop, since the town was one of those showily self-conscious and altogether too well-groomed little places and at first glance the bookshop seemed to be entirely full of its book-equivalents: shiny remainders of recent coffee-table trivia. Luckily, I persevered; on a distant out-of-the-way upper shelf Griefwork’s striking cover caught my eye; I read the first paragraph: and knew I had to have it. I hardly noticed the bland gastro-pub which followed, and even the salvias had a hard time holding my attention . . . Almost the whole of this strange novel-cum-operatic passion-play (apart from one extended flashback and a final brief flash forward) takes place during the bitter winter following the end of the Second World War. Its setting is an unnamed port in an unnamed Northern European country, one ravaged psychologically by the accommodations its inhabitants have made to German occupation and physically by both that occupation and its aftermath. The city’s streets are either in ruins or full of debris, while the only part of it still truly alive is its Botanical Garden. Not the whole of that Garden – much of which, even within its high walls, is as mutilated as the city outside – but at least its vast Victorian palm house, an ‘immense stove house . . . laid out like a church, a temple to nineteenth century horticulture which followed instinctively some cruciform model: St Paul’s Cathedral in London, perhaps, or St Peter’s, Rome’. The strange lord of this strange realm is Leon, curator, plant-obsessive, master-propagator, martyr to a weak chest and lungs, for whose continued existence the heat of the stove house is as necessary as it is for that of his plants. Leon is a man of secrets, damaged in health and by early tragic loss. He is not only the lord of the palm house but also its willing slave. He even lives in it, in its boiler house – and in a hidden room behind it, which has its own secret, the book’s dark heart. Odd though he is and odder though he becomes, Leon has been above all a survivor – and one who has also contrived, through the ravages of war and occupation, the survival of his achingly vulnerable plants. Opened by Leon on certain regular evenings throughout that winter to anyone who cared to visit, the humid stove house soon became a magnet, drawing people in from the icy post-war wastes of the city beyond. At such times, it ‘presented the aspect of a cocktail party’, with people in what passed at that time for their best clothes chattering, drinking and (much to Leon’s disapproval: bad for the plants) smoking. The evening visitors to the stove house were ‘grandees, mainly, or what nowadays passed for them’, of whom the most striking was a princess – ‘the wife of some Eastern ambassador – Burmese? Laotian? Bornean?’ – beautiful, sad, but not unhumorous, who brought with her ‘not just a token of the exotic but . . . a reminder that stylishness starts in the heart’. And the stove house had an additional attraction, beyond simple heat. In one pseudo-ecclesiastical transept Leon had arranged all the night-blooming tropical plants. There, electricity was never turned on. Instead, candles were stuck in sconces among the fronds and branches, so that the masses of plants were gently backlit in perfumed ‘chapel-like bowers’, as Hamilton-Paterson calls them. At the end of such evenings, having ushered out his visitors-cum-guests, Leon
locked the outer door, shut the inner and began dousing candles. Light withdrew gradually, stealthily, to the sound of his softly crunching passage. Now and then a branch rustled as he stretched an arm between two plants to reach a hidden sconce. On galoshed feet the darkness spread and as it did the atmosphere thickened, the plants grew denser and taller until by the end, when he was walking back and putting out the last staggered flames on either side of the central aisle, a forest closed silently in behind him. This retreat of the light worked its nightly magic, acting on him as melancholy balm.
Yet this chlorophyll-filled church of glass and iron is not just a place of order and equilibrium, beauty and strangeness, a refuge from the splintered and treacherous world outside. Rather it is a place of wasted love. Many of those night-flowering species, for example, ‘became more strongly scented the darker it was, diffusing their drowsy fragrance in hopeless expectation of the great silent moths whose pollen-dusted bodies they yearned to attract. The right kinds of moth were thousands of miles away, yet still the flowers drenched the air with their languorous frustrations . . .’ And it is not only the plants which are frustrated. True, at one level, the stove house is to Leon, this (seeming, at least) solitary, ‘simply “the House,” neither glass- nor hot- nor palm- but his own unqualified habitation and focal point of being whose curved panes house him as did his own skin’. On the other hand, his at-home-ness is an at-home-ness of a very strange kind. ‘In chatting to his plants,’ for example, ‘he was not so much addressing a collection of intimate house guests as communing with himself. It was often easier for him to put his thoughts into plant voices. He found it less inhibiting.’ And as he waits in the darkness after the candles are snuffed for the plants to speak both to him and for him, ‘From his mouth issued gentle, unvoiced whispers, almost sighs: shuuuff . . . ssiiih . . . They were the repetitive gestures of someone who, quite without knowing it, lives in a state of constant sorrow.’ This is a book packed with such sorrows, such frustrations, all of which are both unappeasable and potentially (and in the end actually) explosive. Leon’s plants, of course, are unavoidably frustrated: in effect displaced persons, condemned to spend sterile, unfertilized lives thousands of miles from homes which many of them, those which are simply the products of Leon’s propagating skills, have never even seen. Some, at least as viewed through Leon’s skewed sensitivities, have additional frustrations. For example, his favourite, a tall tamarind which he has nursed from spindly adolescence to healthy maturity and which he believes harbours a romantic hero’s impossible passion for its neighbour, a self-seeded lowly annual hemlock: a passion which, through Leon’s thoughts, it articulates at length. Vividly described in the sensuous detail of their appearance and in their distressed natures, such plants become individuals with characters varying from the tamarind’s acid Baudelairean melancholy to the bananas’ combination of condescension and stupidity or the academic tetchiness of an ancient Encephalartos. Most are given extended speeches, out from Leon’s head, on to the page. Baldly stated here, that may sound merely – even stomach-turningly – whimsical. There, treated with a mixture of impassioned eloquence, complete conviction and wry humour, it still seems strange but also unnervingly and movingly plausible. Then there are Leon’s own frustrations. What is the real nature of his relationship with the princess? Does he nurse something like a passion for her, she for him? Certainly their oblique exchanges, most of them nominally about botany, are heavy with that possibility. In addition, other and still more explosive frustrations, forms of damage, unrealized or distorted passions, lurk in that hidden room behind the boiler room. In most of this remarkable book’s rich and reverberant pages – pages whose atmosphere hovers somewhere between dream and nightmare, surreal fable and (in the phrase the princess uses in her farewell letter to Leon to describe the palm house itself ) ‘exotic poem’ – almost nothing in the least dramatic happens. And then suddenly it does, and shockingly, hauntingly, everything falls apart. I shall not describe what happens. Secrets are best discovered, not told. Read the book and discover them. Once read, once discovered, never forgotten.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Tim Longville 2007


About the contributor

Tim Longville continues to frequent pubs and second-hand bookshops, to avoid having a career, and to live in hope. His Gardens of the Lake District will – he hopes – be published in the autumn by Frances Lincoln. It contains no stove houses.

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