My Happy Place

Like everyone else, I can’t wait to get away – to Provence, Bavaria, Tuscany – wherever. Not that this green and pleasant land isn’t a chequerboard of historic cities, churches and cathedrals and beautiful rivers, woods and mountains, cliffs and beaches. But the wanderlust is strong.

The philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal claimed that: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ Well, I can’t offer to cure all human ills because my happy place is not a room but the garden.

As soon as the sun lends a little warmth to the air, even though the tree branches are still bare of leaves, I’m out there. And I will be out there, even when the leaves are falling around me in October. It is my dining room, my sitting room, my summer office. As spring advances, you can almost see the fat tree buds bursting and unfurling: branches that were bare in the morning are sporting fresh green leaves by dusk.

I love working out there in the summer. Bees are busy in the lavender and the golden rod in front of me; the hypericum beside me is ablaze with yellow blossom; butterflies dance over the lawn, which slopes down to a hedge, beyond which is a beautiful public park. Beyond that is the other side of the valley and open countryside.

Birds visit the feeders: goldfinches, chaffinches, blue tits, coal tits, robins and sparrows; magpies and jays visit the garden trees, blackbirds make little runs across the lawn, stop suddenly lifting their tail feathers, and then run on again. Squirrels chase each other across the grass and scrabble up into the trees.

Occasionally a breeze sighs in the thick-leaved sycamores.

The cathedral bells chime the hour.
Plato, the grey cat, is on patrol. He pads along the terrace with a patrician air. He pauses, eyes me with disdain, and slinks on past the table, and sits for a while, ears twitching, looking out over the lawn and the arboretum in a proprietary kind of way. Then, with a contemptuous backward glance, he pours himself through a narrow gap in the fence, and disappears.

In the summer of 2017, I was sitting at the table early one June evening with my laptop open in front of me. I had recently published my first novel and was beginning to think that that was it. I was a one trick pony; I didn’t have a second novel in me.

I had brought a martini out with me, some olives and a few savoury biscuits. I’d dropped one without noticing and in a little while I become fascinated by a young male blackbird making little stabs at the crumbs and getting closer and closer to the table. At the same time, I noticed Plato crouching in a nearby flowerbed with eyes narrowed, intent on the bird.

This little scenario got me started. All writers know the horror of that first blank page, but soon words were crossing the screen from left to right. Plato became Aristotle and the little blackbird became my muse. You can find them in the second chapter of Humphrey & Jack.

If, as certain miserable philosophers maintain, happiness is beyond human attainment, there is at least contentment, and the garden is where I am most often, most deeply, content.

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What a beautiful setting, Ian! Definitely an inspiring place to create and relax. Thank you for sharing this. We can now visualise you hard at work. What is your favourite type of coffee?

Reflecting on your ‘My Happy Place’ I think how fortunate those of us with private gardens have been during these difficult last two years. Not only have they been a source of solace and serenity but also, in my case, a focus of activity preparing the ground for the growing season of fruit and veg. And beyond the immediate environment of our home, which backs onto the Leeds Liverpool Canal, our ‘retreat’ just a stone’s throw away from the River Kent in Arnside, South Lakeland, was to prove invaluable once we were free from lockdown. There’s something about the outdoors which soothes and yet stimulates in equal measure. That part of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, where the poet reflects on the spiritual power of nature whilst alone in a boat out on one of his beloved lakes has always resonated with me. Having witnessed at first hand the many moods of the Lakeland fells, I think he had a point.
Enjoy your coffee and your garden, Ian.

You’re blessed to have such a lovely retreat. I began one of my novels at a friend’s house near Ullswater and it was certainly inspiring. I love the Wordsworth passage too. The skating scene is another favourite. I’m lucky that I don’t have to tend the garden or it would not look so lovely. Apart from a pot of rosemary, which has turned into a great bush, I have not been very successful with a little herb garden, not even with mint, although my indoor palms are getting enormous. Best wishes.

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