The idea for The Gardener was sown in my mind long ago. I was given my oddly spelled name because my father, a lover of poetry and a lifelong Republican had a fondness for W.B. Yeats’ Down by the salley gardens. My dad was tone deaf, but my mother was a lover of music and the setting of this poem as a song by Benjamin Britten was a favourite of hers. And Granny, her mother, my maternal grandmother, was Irish. As Irish readers may well know, the salleys in Yeats’s garden are willows, the colloquialism salley, used in Ireland and Australia, where cricket bats are known as salleys, comes from the Latin salix. So in essence I am named Willow and for a time considered changing my name, because I liked the notion of being willowy and graceful. But in the end I stuck with Salley, largely because of my godmother and her garden.
When my family moved to London from Stoke-on-Trent, we moved into a flat in my godmother’s house in Chiswick and from that time on, because of the source of my name I was known to my godparents as Salley Gardens and to the end of her life my godmother addressed her many letters to me under that name.
The Gileses had no children of their own and I became a kind of surrogate child to them and with that role came a shared love of gardens. I was very often with my godmother as she tenderly cultivated in their lovely walled garden. There were three herbaceous borders, stocked with lavender, peonies, Canterbury Bells, Solomon’s Seal, lily-of-the-valley and many other old fashioned flowers surrounded the wide lawn, which sported a wild area where aconites, snowdrops, and bluebells bloomed at different times of the year. One section of the garden was dedicated to raspberry canes, currant and gooseberry bushes and tangled blackberry brambles, which used to make into strange potions while playing in the garden. I was given a patch of ground all my own, where I planted orange marigolds and nasturtiums and love-in-a-mist, makes a carpet of ethereal blue in summer and in inters produces papery globes of seed heads, which, sprayed with silver and gold, decorated our utilitarian Christmases. The bodies of the several pet guinea pigs and hamsters, who gave up their lives in my dubious care, fertilised the soil and my pet tortoise, Stumpy, was reliably to be found there, sunning himself in the parsley which I grew from seed, always first soaked in warm tea.
Immediately outside my bedroom window was a rockery with, on one side, a wide, mossy wall. I would climb out of my window on to the top of this wall, where I had fashioned myself a cosy niche, where I would sit reading under the graceful branches of the cherry tree which grew there. Thanks to my name, and my dad, I was an early lover of poetry and, my back against the warm brick wall of the house, wrote many childish poems addressed to my special tree, with which I formed a kind of spiritual communion. Being the child of atheists, I had no experience of organised religion but children, I believe, have an innate spiritual inclination and I was perfectly sure that the tree was conscious and that tree sprites lived within its distinctive bark, and watched over me and assisted and promoted my creative efforts .One of the early traumas in my life was the fall of this tree in the great hurricane of 1957. I mourned its loss grievously for many weeks and months and a small part of me has never quite got over it.
So for a long time I have had the idea of writing a book based around a garden.
But I also have long nurtured an idea about writing a book based on the stretch of land that lies between England and Wales, known as the Welsh Marches. I once had a house in Presteigne which is for the most part Powys. But I had only to cross a bridge to be in England. This stretch of land is still full of ancient reminders of a pagan past, among these many so-called “holy wells” which the Christians took over from a much earlier pagan worship. I had already worked with Celtic history in “Cousins”, where St Cuthbert makes a ghostly appearance, and I decided to set this book in this part of the British Isles, where vestiges of Celtic Christianity can still be found. But more importantly, I wanted to explore the hints of what was called “the old religion”, that is the worship that was practised before the Christianisation of the British Isles. When this took place, around the fifth century, edicts were passed and the old sacred trees and groves, that were worshipped in “the old religion” were cut down. But the sacred wells were harder to be rid of so these were transferred to the local saints, who then took over the reputation for the working of cures for those who came to be healed by them.
I began the novel before lockdown. But lockdown for me, at least, became a stroke of luck because ensconced in my rented country cottage, to which I had retreated to write the book, the garden there became an adjunct of the novel – working on the book and working on the previously untended garden became interweaving sources of mutual nourishment.
I have an idea that how and author is feeling while writing a book gets into the book’s atmosphere. For all the anxiety and understandable fear about me as I wrote this novel, my mood was strangely calm, always with a sense that all would be well if we could only attend better to our relationship with the natural world. In the end, that is what happens for Hassie, my central character. Working on her untended garden and walking through the ancient countryside, and most particularly an ancient wood, the various hurst and traumas she has sustained fall away and she finds new life beginning to evolve within her.
The book has several strands: family disjunction, sibling rivalry, racial prejudice but the theme that most involved me was that of our wanting relationship to nature and the sweep of the virus, which is the dark side of nature, and our vulnerability to it went to reinforce my strong sense that as a race we humans had better come to better terms with these natural forces if we are to continue to live comfortably on this planet.