In a Green Shade: You could walk, under leafy canopy, almost all the way from Elmcote into Lincolnshire and meet not another soul
Johnny’s dachshunds had been fed by Mrs Merrill in the servant’s hall. Now, Miss Voysey had come down to let them out into the garden. Their claws skittered on the hard surface of the scullery corridor as they followed her excitedly to the side door.
Walking alone on The Rose Walk, Miss Dorothy Moore leaned forward to appreciate the scent of the blossom of a damask rose. As she straightened again, she realised that she had become aware of a distant drone, like that of a lawn mower.
Miss Voysey crossed the courtyard and headed toward The Theatre Lawn with her charges; but as she reached this point she stopped. Her expression clouded, then darkened. She began rounding up the dachshunds and marshalled them back along the path, shouting, as she did so: “Mrs Merrill! Mrs Merrill!”
The long case clock at the foot of the main stair chimed lugubriously, in a minor key.
Sunlight through the leaves of a tree played across a print of Primavera by Botticelli hung in a gilt frame on a half landing of the main stair. The flickering effect made it seem as if the figures in its garden scene were dancing.
Aware now of a commotion, Mrs Merrill emerged from the scullery passage door and joined Miss Voysey and her mêlée of dachshunds in the courtyard. Merrill and Voysey conferred. As they did so, their faces became ever paler. Together, they succeeded in corralling the dogs back into the scullery passage. That done, Miss Voysey emerged again. She walked in haste back toward The Circle.
A biplane, gaily painted in yellow, flew over the garden, heading south-southeast. It was low enough for you to be able to hear quite plainly that one cylinder of its engine was misfiring, but not so low that you could claim to see the pilot. When it had quite gone, you remained aware of small puffball clouds in a perfectly blue sky.
Faint wisps of smoke, almost invisible in the sunlight, rose from the chimney of one of the cottages in Elmcote Bartrim.
When Johnny returned to his study he found Mrs Merrill waiting for him. She looked anxious, drained. Her face was grey.
At the very north-western corner of the gardens, where the hillside fell away toward The Spring Slope and The Lower Stream Garden, rocks had been arriving all morning. Now, head gardener Frank Adams, assisted by his head labourer, Ted Pearce, began lifting these rocks into place on a mammoth mound of earth, thus beginning the creation of what was already being referred to as The Rock Garden. “Plums in a pudding,” said Pearce. Adams, an unlit pipe in the corner of his mouth, wondered at how so many rocks could amount to so little on the ground. Pearce nodded in reply but said nothing.
Quite by chance, the first aerial photograph of Elmcote (or at any rate the oldest surviving aerial shot that anyone’s yet discovered) was taken that weekend. It was taken by a flying club member, randomly, as he played with a specially-designed camera he’d acquired.
The quality of the photograph is astonishingly good. You can even see figures in the garden: and from the disposition of their shadows you can work out that it must have been taken around Noon. You can even make out that one of the figures, a woman, has a group of dogs around her.
Speculating about the individual stories of these tiny figures is fascinating; but more than anything, the photograph gives the garden a geographical context. You can see, for instance, that it’s placed at the vanishing point of a great forest; an epic swathe of rolling woodland in the heart of England that begins attenuating as it puts out an arm to the south east. Elmcote is held, delicately, in the fingers of its outstretched hand.
From high up among the clouds, you can appreciate the Shakespearean magic of such a forest. Its other-worldliness. And it was renowned then, as it had been for centuries, for the richness of its flora and its fauna: not just its several species of deer – roe, red and fallow – but also more exotic mammals, like wild cats and martens and boars; and more delicate phenomena: shrews, dormice, several unusual species of bat, adders and grass-snakes in profusion, plus a cornucopia of moths and butterflies and rare birds. It shimmered with life.
And yet, in the days before guide books and tourist trails, it was virtually unexplored – and certainly unexploited. You could walk, under leafy canopy, almost all the way from Elmcote into Lincolnshire and meet not another soul.
The photograph is also useful from another standpoint. It tends to confirm contemporary accounts suggesting that the garden at Elmcote was a garden with few overt structures. There were no follies here: no temples or pagodas or essays in eccentric outhouse architecture.
This, for some, was counter-intuitive: in later years, garden archaeologists would wonder at the amount of structure that they kept uncovering. Walls and steps and terraces and paths: strip away the greenery, they implied, and you might be left with the sort of bare bones you’d be confronted with if you’d unearthed the skeleton of a city. An archetypally great city. A Byzantium or a Troy or a Persepolis.
But no: from the air it is merely a labyrinth of hedge and tree.
All of its low walls and steps were living affairs, every nook and crevice filled with creeping and colonising plants. Even in its hey-day, Elmcote was a garden whose hard structures were, for the most part, artfully hidden.
Somewhere north of Moreton, on the back roads, you always started to suspect you had passed the point of no return
ELMCOTE WAS NOW AT THE HEIGHT of its powers; and this, a sultry evening in late June, was when it cast its strongest spell. Towards sundown in high summer, in the heart of England, the deepest, darkest heart of England, Elmcote begins drawing the day around itself – manor house, garden, hamlet and tree-lined lane, tight in the fields and the woodlands beyond.
It begins to seem like the very last place on earth, the end of the road; and yet, at the same time, an omphalos, the world’s very centre, its font et origo. Classen had not been prepared for this. And yet, thinking back, he’d surely had an inkling as he’d neared his destination, pointing his Riley ever more hesitantly along narrower and narrower sunken lanes: lanes already aspiring to twilight, lanes threaded through tree-tunnels, squeezed between lush verges and tall hedgerows.
Somewhere north of Moreton, on the back roads, you always started to suspect you had passed the point of no return. At crossroads, the signposts (or, more accurately, the fingerposts) were inevitably overgrown; and the hedgerows, dense inter-weavings of elder and hawthorn and hazel, sycamore and buckthorn and woodbine, were cut increasingly rarely by the sorts of gaps in which you might hope to uncover a stile.
Yes, Classen had been aware of all of that.
Now, though, as he penetrated ever deeper into the garden… as he, as it were, entered the very heart of the matter, its powers almost overwhelmed him.
And, yes, it’s true: a lot of nonsense was written about Elmcote in the late 1920s and early 1930s, not least in the pages of Country Life. Writers tended to stretch not for metaphor but for analogy: the pleasure gardens of Kubla Khan, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and of course, that most archetypal of all gardens, the Garden of Eden. All were cited in their turn. One contributor to an American journal rather ambitiously compared the gardens at Elmcote to the grounds of William Randolph Hearst’s retreat at San Simeon. Foolish talk – but almost excusably foolish.
Because how do you convey what cannot adequately be conveyed, explain the inexplicable? These writers were surely attempting to make manifest a feeling that here was a garden so unique that it was, in effect, all gardens.
Yet in some senses, Elmcote’s situation was not entirely promising, located as it was on the northernmost edge of the Cotswold uplands as they fell away toward the Vale of Evesham. In other words, Elmcote’s existence, clinging to the very edge of a plateau of high ground, had always been slightly precarious. Due west of the manor house, where much of the garden lay, the land sloped gently; but north-west, if you walked in a dead straight line, you’d find the land dropping away by almost four hundred feet within a mile and a half. Hardly precipitous – but hardly insignificant either.
Not that you were ever really aware, except in the vaguest of senses, a falling off here, a climb there, of naked topography. If this had been a treeless terrain, the manor house might have seemed a latter-day analogue of a hill fort or a commanding imperial villa, haughty on its ridge, dominating the valley below. But this was no treeless terrain. This was a richly wooded corner of England. To the south, vast areas of the Cotswolds had been cleared, down the millennia, for sheep pasture. But Elmcote lay in marginal land, atavistic woodland; and, as if to emphasise this point, facing it across the Vale of Evesham were the last vestiges of the southernmost edge of the ancient Forest of Arden.
It was hardly the largest garden in England. In acreage terms it was a mere bagatelle compared to the vast parklands of the more celebrated Great Houses of England. Chatsworth, say, or Stowe. But even the most ambitious of the vast estates featured much parkland and very little garden – garden, that is, in the vernacular English sense.
Elmcote was, in comparison with the dreary essays of a Capability Brown, a work of art. Or, rather, a series of works of art. It was an art gallery in which the rooms themselves were the exhibits. Nothing in England rivalled it for its level of its ambition, the dense richness of its design or its intensity. And indeed there were those who believed they could detect something metaphysical or transcendental within its innermost being.
The garden’s central axis began under an ancient cedar of Lebanon, a tree whose lower branches shaded the house’s the dining room windows; and this axis ran for half a mile or more to the north west. It featured room after glorious garden room, each enclosed in walls of high yew hedging – and the narrow doors in these hedges were aligned down the whole axis, forming the equivalent of the enfilade of a Renaissance palace. This enfilade terminated, beyond steps taking you up to a raised palisade a l’italienne of pleached hornbeams, in an impressive wrought iron structure called Heaven’s Gate.
(Apropos, as always, of nothing really; though it perhaps chimes with speculation, across the last week or so, that print, declared dead a decade ago, had been spotted running around again, albeit in circles.)
The person who recently told me I must re-read Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn (he assumed, obviously, that I absolutely must have read it before) didn’t do so because he thought it was a great novel about Fleet Street.
Which is just as well, really, because I’d have gone all churlish and told him that there’s never been a great novel about Fleet Street. Not even a half-decent one.
Fans of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop will object, predictably; but Scoop wasn’t about Fleet Street. Not per se. And after all, much of it is actually set in the fictional East African country of Ishmaelia.
Fleet Street the physical location and Fleet Street journalists figure in lots of novels. Of course they do. But almost always peripherally. No creative writer has ever successfully immersed him or herself in the world of national newspapers during their heyday, roughly from 1920 to 1980, when there really was a community, an irreligious order, billeted within spitting distance of the Inns of Court; and when there really were thunderous print plans in the basements.
I’m including film and theatre in this. Plays featuring our heritage newspaper industry tend to be excruciatingly awful – and not really about newspaper people or their concerns at all. Like, for instance, David Hare’s Pravda. Hare is one of life’s tiresome politicos, perpetually stuck in a priggishly self-righteous version of the Lower Sixth. So he was never going to succeed in saying anything about a community of people he knew nothing about.
But knowledge isn’t really enough either. The problem for those who really do know about this world (paradoxically enough) is that they’re just not very good writers. After all, journalism is no place for a sensitive soul; and even if its survivors are not exactly thick they’re almost always thick-skinned.
I’d stretch this principle to embrace Graham Greene, a more than decent writer who served time as a reporter; yet, in his novels, his journalists are little more than stock characters and the worlds they inhabit are, from a psychological and emotional standpoint, flimsy.
You’d have to suspect that there might be exceptions to this rule though; and Michael Frayn surely comes closest to proving this.
And yet Towards the End of the Morning actually has more to tell us about television than the world of newspapers; and neither are more than colourful backdrops.
It was recommended to me not as a window on a rich and strange corner of the world but for its beautifully observed comic portrait of a manager. A departmental head. A man too busy to get any work done. A man perpetually bewailing the fact that he’s snowed under. A man whose inexperienced new assistant tidies up three weeks’ worth of work in a single afternoon.
We’ve all worked for one of them. (The former. The latter don’t tend to rise very far through the ranks. In any profession. And it is the fate of all those who work for useless managers to become, eventually, sooner rather than later, headless chickens. )
So, no, it’s not really a novel about Fleet Street. However, having entered this laborious and at times rambling caveat, I’m going to risk ridicule and ire by stating that, now and then, in glimpses, Frayn really does write beautifully about Fleet Street. The odd paragraph here and there. Wonderfully evocative fragments conveying what it must have felt like to work in one of the great news factories during the mid 1960s.
And it really does make you reflect wistfully on what he might have achieved had he been bothered.
Stuff, not to put too fine a point upon it, like this:
Just after eight o’clock the glass in all the windows started to vibrate. Here and there light shades and other thin metal fixtures burred faintly, or ticked, or rattled. In Dyson’s department, deserted, and lit only by the yellow sodium light coming in through the windows from the street-lamps in Hand and Ball Court, a ruler sticking out over the edge of old Eddy Moulton’s desk moved itself slowly sideways until it overbalanced and fell on the floor.
The great presses in the basement were running for the first edition.