Recently, I noticed a rather irritating poster on the Underground proclaiming: ‘You never forget your first time.’ It was an advertisement for a villa holiday company – bizarrely – but the irritation I felt (since I am not annoyed by villa holidays per se) had to do with the too obvious double entendre. In fact, one does not forget the first time that one does quite a lot of things – seeing one’s name in print, for instance, or walking along Striding Edge, that most vertiginous of paths on to the top of Helvellyn – and certainly I have never forgotten the first time I read a gardening book.
I was only 20, and still at university, when I was given V. Sackville-West’s Garden Book by a friend, a first-rate gardener who was keen to encourage my burgeoning interest. I see from the flyleaf that she hoped I would be ‘as delighted and inspired by this book’ as she was. Yes, indeed. I had never read anything like it. Gardening advice then meant Percy Thrower and Arthur Billitt – extraordinary characters who looked in the 1970s as if they had landed in a time capsule from the Edwardian era – together with Roses: Their Culture and Management, a book which lived for many years in the downstairs loo, where it was definitely read more as a way of passing the time than for pleasure. To come across a writer, therefore, on such an unpromising subject, who spoke immediately and directly to the reader in an easy yet cultured style, was a revelation.
V. Sackville-West’s Garden Book, published by Michael Joseph, was an anthology compiled from four earlier books – In Your Garden (1951), In Your Garden Again (1953), More for Your Garden (1955) and Even More for Your Garden (1958). These were themselves anthologies of the best of her immensely popular weekly Observer articles, which had appeared since 1947 and were to continue until 1961, the year before she died. (When I began to write
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