Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Alain-Fournier, Eric Keiller: three of them killed in the Great War, and poor Gurney sent mad. These young men – the eldest, Thomas, was 39 – haunt the pages of Monty Don’s latest book, ‘The Road to Le Tholonet’, as does the young author himself.
This is not a ‘gardening book’, nor is it even simply a ‘book about gardens’. It is most certainly not a glossy coffee-table number to tie-in with Monty’s TV series about French gardens: and for that he has received no end of stick from disappointed viewers and fans. How unreasonable of the man, they seem to cry, to publish a book he wanted to write, rather than the one we wanted to read (or, rather, look at)! Monty has woven together memoir, travelogue, garden history, to create a book full of good things.
Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes seems to influence the tone of the book, with Monty’s ‘lost domain’ being the Le Tholonet of the title. More particularly, the garden at La Bertranne and its owner Mme Tailleaux, a sixty-ish widow to whom the young author is introduced by a cousin. Mme Tailleaux takes on Monty as a part-time gardener, feeds him and introduces him to the locals. She also provides him with a link back to the artists, writers and others who she knew before the Second World War: the late M Tailleaux was himself an artist, and a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica hangs on the studio wall.
The episode is brief, and wonderfully understated. Twice subsequently Monty revisits La Bertranne – once when Mme Tailleaux is in her nineties, and again shortly after her death (of which he is unaware). On the last occasion he fears the worst, that the house and garden of his youthfull idyll will have fallen into dilapidation, or – worse still – have been tarted up as the holiday retreat of a Deutsche Banker. But no – whereas fiction would surely have opted for one of these bathetic conclusions (‘last night I dreamed I went to Le Tholonet’)– Monty instead finds that the Tailleaux’s son has returned home and intends to restore the garden. A happy ending: but one which actually occurs in chapter 3 of the book. Again, the ‘obvious’ narrative strategy of keeping the secret to the end is resisted. Instead, Monty allows the spirit of La Bertranne to escape the bottle early on, and to pervade the rest of the book with its melancholy charm.
“It was not so much a case of seeing old friends as of seeing and laying the ghosts of my old self, and settling that piece of my past easily into my present.”
The book follows a northerly journey through France, starting on the Mediterranean coast and in Provence – where the young Monty first fell for the charms of Gallic life and culture – and ending up on the Belgian border, among the war graves and battlefields of the Great War. Along the way he visits a variety of gardens, some featured in the TV series, others not. Several vignettes will be familiar to those who watched the series, and it is nice to revisit them. Monty is not afraid of being forthright in his views – the absurdity of the famous ornamental potager at Villandry, for instance, where 30,000 lettuces are grown each year purely for show, ending up on the compost heap.
There is also the pleasure – for me at least – of revisiting the Francophilia of youth: when gardening was a million miles from my mind, and I yearned for the post-war intellectual milieu of Les Deux Magots, Sartre, de Beauvoir and – never ashamed of anachronism – the Nouvelle Vague, pastis and filter-less Gitanes. I too, like Monty, would “happily smoke a packet of Disque Bleu a day, if there were not more imaginative ways of killing myself.”
And so we come, at the end, to those fallen young men of the Great War. Eric Keiller is not known to us before we read this book: he was barely known even to Monty, his great-nephew. But he was one of the 8,000 or so men killed and never found at a place called High Wood in the Somme valley during the offensive there which dragged on through the summer and autumn of 1916. “O the Somme – the valley of the Somme…a delight of rolling country, of a lovely river, and trees, trees, trees” wrote Ivor Gurney in a letter home before the devastation had etched the name of the place so deep in the national soul. It is, 97 years later, a quiet and lovely place again: the trees regrown, rich farmland once more under the plough. Somewhere in that earth lies Eric Keiller: “He is almost certainly still there, is tree, is French soil.”
Monty wrote a student dissertation on the poet Edward Thomas, who died in 1917 at the age of 39. When Eleanor Farjeon asked Thomas why, at his age and with a family to support, he had joined-up, he is said to have bent down, picked up a handful of earth, and said: ‘Simply for this.’ The place of the soil, in gardening and in belonging, is another theme which runs through this book – and through much of Monty Don’s other work, not least his role as President of the Soil Association and organic missionary.
I do not share Monty’s experience of the war cemeteries as “too well kept, too clean, too orderly to be anyone’s notion of a garden.” Certainly, some of the huge cemeteries – Tyne Cot springs to mind, so does Lutyens’ Thiepval memorial – are so overwhelming as to be almost brutal: but that, surely, is fitting. I think fondly of the little cemetery in Agny, where Edward Thomas lies surrounded by a small break of trees, a few flowers and neatly mown grass: this is a very English garden, more churchyard than monument.
And I think of Julian Barnes’ exquisite short story ‘Evermore’: an elegy for the war dead and their graves:
“Like Blighty Valley and Thistle Dump, both half-hidden from the road in a fold of valley; or Quarry, a graveyard looking as though it had been abandoned by its village; or Devonshire, that tiny, private patch for the Devonshires, who died on the first day of the Somme, who fought to hold that ridge and hold it still.” (Julian Barnes, Cross Channel, 1996)
Here is the heart of the book, I think. A deep, deep love of the soil – French and English – after all, as he reminds us, only a couple of hundred miles separated the trenches from the depths of rural England, whence so many soldiers came and died. Gardening connects us with the earth, and with those who have worked it before us. We may no longer work the fields as our forebears did for generations, but our gardens, and the cycle of the gardening year, do give us the chance to hold that thread, however thin it may now have worn.
It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth
from Edward Thomas, ‘Digging’