VOLTAIRE’S Candide had the work/life balance just about right: “We must cultivate our garden,” he responded to the relentless assertion of Pangloss, his erstwhile tutor, that all was well in “the best of all possible worlds”.
Having come close to being hanged, publicly flogged by the Inquisition and accidentally murdering someone, Candide is not totally convinced by his tutor’s unrelenting spin.
Candide (or Optimism, a mid-18th century novella) set the bar for picaresque satire and is astoundingly relevant today in its portrayal of the human condition. The reverberations of the wilted Arab Spring are reaching Europe, and we don’t like it. Many are disenchanted with the idea of uniting to work towards a vaguely harmonious outlook and are tempted to retreat into a place of detached watchfulness. Most of us feel an enormous anxiety for Europe, the world and our individual nations’ futures.
Me? I say copy Candide: we must cultivate our gardens.
I have, rather unexpectedly, found myself in the garden a lot, lately. When, six years ago, we decamped from North London to England’s northernmost town, Berwick-upon-Tweed, the garden was certainly one of the attractions. But the reality was a tad daunting.
I’d been used to paved London gardens with a few artfully placed pots of geraniums. This garden of the north was a mighty and unwieldy beast whose borders demanded weeding and with bushes that required shaping. It frightened me and that fear was compounded by my own guerrilla planting of some wild garlic in one of the flower beds.
Fortunately, my savvy brother-in-law spotted the stuff and immediately ordered its removal; wild garlic is one thing nestling prettily under the trees along the banks of the silvery Tweed, but quite another malevolently choking neighbouring lateral spreaders such as buttercups and alpine strawberries.
Stung by my inadequacy, I retreated. I gazed resentfully at the garden from the window. I went out only when the lawn needed hoovering and the borders dusting. Yes, just more bloody housework!
Crank forward the clock six years and this morning you’d have found me at 6am wandering through the drizzle in my zebra print dressing gown pulling up weeds and tying back tendrils. With a smile on my face!
So what has changed? Two things: first: the garden did not stop bothering me when I ignored it. In fact, it became even more insistent in its attention-seeking fulsomeness. A resentful tidy-up here and cut back there made it a more appealing place to be. Besides, it was vital to keep the path to the table tennis table clear.
Secondly, in the autumn of 2015 I was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
I had promised that we would take part in a fledgling Open Gardens scheme in Berwick to promote the newly refurbished Castle Parks above the Tweed and while this promise was not necessarily uppermost in my mind throughout the surgery and chemotherapy which followed, it didn’t quite go away, either.
The garden has played a huge part in my recovery and sense of wellbeing as I progress through chemotherapy. It may sound clichéd, but I have found that reconnecting with the soil – sowing runner beans, kale, courgettes, salad and artichokes – and watching them grow, trimming edges, tying back and fixing supports has been somehow both therapeutic and productive. The garden looks fab.
My Open Garden was a huge success: I reckon we had around 100 people through the gate, a steady trickle. Kate Morison, the parks’ manager, is pleased, too, and we’re already talking about next year. Win-win!
Which brings me to the EU Referendum which, as I write this in my now-sunny garden, will be decided today. Voltaire’s Candide is right: ‘cultivating our garden’ seems to me to be key.
In the face of some of the most extraordinary challenges the world has seen in modern times, from mass migration to so-called ISIS and other extreme groups, we can opt to retreat behind the North Sea and (hope to!) wait it out until it all gets sorted. Or we can cultivate our garden, alongside everyone else.
It won’t be easy. There will be false starts. There will be disappointments. There will be mud, to sink into and to sling. But, there will also be planting and cultivating.
I’ll be voting Remain because I believe it’s easier to roll your sleeves up and get things done, even in an imperfect outward-looking union, than it is to retreat to a place that seems rooted in a vision of our country as it was during the industrial revolution and (God forbid) the Empire.
The world is a changed place. The UK is a changed place. We must cultivate the garden that is now, not the one that once was.
Jackie (Jax) Kaines is a journalist who lives the good life in Berwick-upon-Tweed and blogs at Border Lines