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William Baeck: Writing & Photography

A Secret Garden
Did you ever read The Secret Garden as a child? If you only read it in college, don’t bother telling me, it doesn’t really matter. Reading a children’s story as an adult doesn’t count, you only end by knowing less the older you get. Take Alice in Wonderland, which you probably have read. You think you understand more about the story as you’ve grown up because your teachers have bricklayed the facts one on top of the other until your head is piled full of debris heaps of scholastic knowledge and you either topple over or graduate. But a children’s book is made for little Alices, and reading it is an Alicean journey, subterreanean, unconscious, and immediate.
I’m not a child anymore and my days with Mary Lennox are long since over. But on the hall table of our new flat lay a big black key strung on a red ribbon, the skeleton key we’d been handed the first day. And like the one little Mary Lennox found, the door it unlocked led to a secret and communal garden. 
Our flat was a set of converted rooms in a Victorian house, circa 1850. Dozens of Victorian buildings, four storeys tall plus a level below street lined up to form a long, shallow U viewed from the air, most of them along Sutherland Avenue, but with the sides folded back for a half dozen more buildings at each end, one set at Castellain Road and the other at Lauderdale Road. The fourth side was a city block length of high green fence. Together they enclosed acres of garden.
Communal gardens are common in London, they are the British version of the enclosed pools, lawns, and play areas of American apartment complexes, intended only for the apartment dwellers who live there and occasionally their guests. Here gardens were as as vital as parking places. Londoners especially needed their green spaces, and so they placed them everywhere possible. The same impulse that drives a Brit to lay doilies, placemats, and drinks coasters on every horizontal surface scaled up to the conservatories, parks, enclosures, fields, and squares laid out with equal neatness at the neighborhood level. 
But the communal garden gives a sense of private entitlement distinct and separate from the public spaces that checkerboard London. The communal garden is a neighborhood-sized doily for householders and their guests to rest upon, not passersby. That’s because the term “communal” extends only to the renters—that is, the community—and it is enclosed from anyone else. On Sutherland Avenue it gave us renters the right to say, “clear off you sods, we’ve paid to be happy here!” and provided a socially acceptable form of gated community. It’s one of the places you can most clearly see the British discomfort of “the other” stepping into the freehold.
Susan, the owner of our flat, had told us with precision that our communal garden was the third nicest in London.
So out the front of our building we went, turned right at the bright red phone box, and just around the corner was the heavy black door set into the deep green fence. In went the key, a turn to the right, a turn to the left, a hard push with a shoulder and the door swung inward on its noisy thick hinges. 
The entrance was dense with encroaching foliage, making a narrow cavern through which we could glimpse the garden beyond. We pushed our way through the leaves overhanging in black and green, went down a set of steps and walked out into the sunlit garden.
I felt like an initiate as a secret ceremony of greens and whites and golds splashed against my sight. Immediately I thought, “I don’t want to share this place with anyone else.” After the formal patterns of London houses, its repeating bricks and columns like a bookkeeper’s ledger book set in stone, I thought I saw why the English crave naturalistic, informal gardens. The buildings are the English face to the world, straight, solid, imposing, regular, dependable. They are places you can do business with. But gardens are the English heart, wild and blossoming and unapologetic, wicked, vain, eccentric, and cantakerous, splendid and unshy, the merry nose seen through an uptilted tumbler of port. And English gardens have absolutely no manners at all.
It is axiomatic that an English garden is carefully planned to look as if it had never been planned at all. It is thoroughly British cheek because it implies that this is how God would have done it if only He’d thought about it a bit. Thus, if France let its mathematicians plan the French garden, England’s clergy have planned the English one. And honestly, I’d prefer to spend my afternoons sitting in this English view of heaven than pacing off a French view of a geometry lesson.
We had arrived in the kingdom of the pleasant and the quaint.

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