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Job for life 

July 2021

‘You’ve got a job for life there...’ I guarantee that anyone who has ever worked in a public garden will be familiar with this well-worn phrase. Word of advice: don’t get drawn in. Once, I did just that, mistakenly presuming a response was required, as I continued to scrape moss from cobblestones with a flat-head screwdriver: 

‘You’re probably right there,’ I said.

‘Sorry?’

‘I mean, you’re probably right, I probably do…’

‘Probably do what?’

‘Have a job… You know… For life…’


At which point the visitor wandered off with a horrified look as if I’d just taken my clothes off and started singing the ‘Marseillaise’. The point is, this is a rhetorical observation. It is the smallest of small talk, a jaunty little aphorism tossed casually to the wind; same ballpark as, say, ‘Like painting the Forth Bridge, that, mate…’ or, ‘Once you’re done here you can come and do my garden…’ No further engagement is necessary, or indeed anticipated; just a humble nod of acknowledgement and a wry smile that says, ‘I hear you, buddy, I hear you…’


Then there are the questions to which an answer is clearly expected, such as: ‘So how many gardeners work here?’

 

The reply should of course be ‘six’, or ‘three’, or ‘eleven’, depending upon which is mathematically accurate. But when you’ve been asked this twelve times in the last hour, the temptation to come back with a witty rejoinder like ‘Oh, just me, I do it all myself, I literally have no life!’ is almost too much to bear.

‘Excuse me, why won’t my clematis grow?’ also demands a response, it seems, even when you’re inside a brassica cage, or up a ladder, or having your lunch…

 

As does: ‘You’ve got no slugs; how come you’ve got no slugs, I’ve got hundreds of them and you haven’t got any!’ Or: ‘How do you prune roses?’ Or: ‘Have you seen my wife? She was here a minute ago.’

There are other queries that fall between these two stools: you are not quite sure whether you’re supposed to answer them or just smile politely and continue mulching. King amongst these is: ‘So what do you do in winter? Put your feet up?’ In all honesty, it’s difficult to know quite how to respond to this without seeming rude.

 

There is one form of interrogation that troubles public gardeners more than any other; it also happens to be the most universal:

‘Hello, are you a gardener? Can you tell me, what’s that blue flower called?’

 

This usually warrants further investigation. I find a good jumping off point to be: ‘Which blue flower might that be?’

 

‘Oh it was back there,’ indicating some distant corner of the four-acre walled garden. ‘Don’t you know it?’

 

I once worked in a bookshop and a customer came at me with a similar conundrum:

 

‘Can I help?’ I said, helpfully.

‘I’m looking for a book,’ she replied.

‘Ah, can you give me anything more to go on?’

‘It was definitely green. I know that much.’

When I suggested that this might not be sufficient data to pursue her enquiry with any degree of accuracy, she suggested, rather forcefully, that life would be a lot simpler if we shelved our books in colour order. Maybe she had a point after all…


Recently Dona and I made our first pilgrimage to Chatsworth. It didn’t disappoint. I mean, it was epic, in the original sense of the word, almost heroic in scale and ambition. I was all a-jitter and brimming with questions. Christ, how many actual living gardeners worked in a place this size?! I mean, I simply had to know. And how did they weed that ravine? And how much compost did they use? And there were blue flowers everywhere, and some of them were entirely new to me - if only I could find a gardener...

And then, as we finally spotted one, micro-weeding the Grand Canyon of all rockeries, it was on the tip of my tongue; it took all my reserve, all my restraint, all my years of experience to hold back and refrain from exclaiming out loud:

‘You know what, you’ve got a job for life there, my friend!’

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