Mr. Richardson, Gardener

Mr. Richardson was our part-time gardener when we lived at the Green Walk in north London. He used to come round a couple of times a week for an afternoon’s jobbing work. As a small boy I would often ‘help’ him with his rather set routine. He would cut the large back lawn with a huge push mower that purred over the grass leaving it beautifully striped with silvery and darker green. He would weed the herbaceous borders with their helianthemums and Michaelmas daisies and the vegetable patch towards the end of the garden. He had a compost heap and a shed down there too, the latter filled with all sorts of intriguing objects like trowels, trugs, spades, sieves, forks, rakes, hoes and long, buff horsetails of bast. This was raffia bast, used for tying plants and binding broken stems. There were also boxes and drawers of assorted nails and screws and a strong smell of creosote used for painting the close boarded fences around the garden.

The compost heap was enclosed by large broken lumps of concrete. These must, I think, have come from a demolished World War II air raid shelter. Behind it, the remotest feature of the garden, was a mature laburnum tree which I regularly used to climb so that I could survey the back gardens of the houses in Mount View Road. I remembered these when a V2 bomb landed nearby in about 1944 and blew the backs of several of the Mount View properties, leaving them like dolls houses with one side removed. I fell out of the laburnum once when a dead branch broke, but made a soft landing on the compost heap though I grazed my head slightly on one of the sharp edges of a concrete boulder.

One of the finest features of the garden was four or five pear trees on the fences to the east and west of the large lawn. These had been trained as espaliers, with lateral branches reaching out horizontally, herring bone style against the fence. In winter the year’s growth would be carefully pruned back to retain the shape of the trees and generate fruiting spurs for the summer’s pears.

This reminds me now of the well-known passage from Czech writer Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighbouring country came and occupied their country [a reference to the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia]. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody's thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly afterwards they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them. But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother's perspective--a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Halfway through his afternoon stints, Mr Richardson would come indoors for a cup of tea and one of my grandmother’s rock cakes. He usually wore a waistcoat over a striped shirt and would take his flat cap off. He sat on a heavy slat-backed carver chair at the end of the wooden kitchen table and I was always intrigued by the fact that he had lost a finger on one hand so that he held cup and cake in an unusual way. The chair followed us for many years, but gradually fell to pieces and finally expired on a bonfire, the kind of bonfire Mr Richardson would have approved of, in about 2010.

Mr. Richardson, a kindly straightforward man who left a strong impression on me, lived with his wife (I remember no children) in Willow Street, a small suburban road with terraced houses on either side built after the railway reached Chingford. It was about quarter of a mile from our house.