Posts Tagged ‘Old Herbaceous’

Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell ~ 1950. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1951. Illustrated by John Minton. Hardcover. 155 pages.

The second book of 2018 was something of a soft landing after my hair-straight-back initiation into the somewhat frenetic world of Elizabeth Bowen.

This next one is as straightforward as it gets; pure narrative of the simpler sort. I hasten to say it has all of the merits of its genre, that of the nostalgia piece, vide Miss Read and her ilk.

Elderly Bert Pinnegar, lifelong gardener at the “Big House” of his quiet English village, sits at his cottage window musing over his past, from humble beginnings through the stages of promotion from garden boy to head gardener, and on into retirement and inevitable physical decline of old age.

It all started so long ago…

Opening her cottage door, on a May morning some eighty-odd years ago, Mrs. Pinnegar, the cowman’s wife, had received a shock, and no mistake. There, on the door-step, wrapped in an old cotton skirt, was a baby, as newly-born as made no difference. Mrs. Pinnegar, a kindly soul, with six children of her own, passed the village maidens in review. Several of them were ‘expecting,’ but Mrs. Pinnegar, unofficial midwife and friend of all families, knew their dates to a nicety and the problem was not so easily solved. There had been no gipsies through the village for weeks. . . . Being a practical woman, the cowman’s wife picked up the parcel the fairies had brought her; christened it Herbert, after an uncle who was killed in the Crimea, and set about her Monday’s wash. When you had six of your own, one more didn’t matter.

Naturally, there was a bit of chatter at the time, but unexpected arrivals never made front-page news in an English village. A rick fire and talk of the Prussians in Paris were much more exciting. Young Herbert settled down in his new home; seasons came and went; the new self-binder started tying the sheaves with string . . .

Still, being picked up on a door-step did take the gilt off the gingerbread a bit; especially when you’d got along in the world and become someone in the village. True, there was nobody left to throw his birth in his teeth. Everybody was dead—every man Jack of them! Old folk went and new folk came, until you couldn’t find a single soul who remembered anything. Very soon he’d go, too, and then there’d be nothing left but houses—and gardens.

Funny, that! You planted a tree; you watched it grow; you picked the fruit and, when you were old, you sat in the shade of it. Then you died and they forgot all about you—just as though you had never been. . . . But the tree went on growing, and everybody took it for granted. It always had been there and it always would be there. . . . Everybody ought to plant a tree, sometime or another—if only to keep them humble in the sight of the Lord.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this gentle story which can’t be imagined from the excerpt above. Arkell rambles along, documenting the highs and lows of his invented countryman’s life. There is some garden lore tucked in here and there, but not enough to take it to anything like a “garden” book. It’s a nostalgia piece, pure and simple, and the author makes no attempt to take it beyond that level.

Pleasant enough in its own way, and I passed an evening with Our Bert in mild enjoyment. Engaging enough to keep one entertained. If you like Miss Read, you’ll like Reginald Arkell.

I think I mentioned something of the same regarding the other of Arkell’s bucolic novels which I read during my 2014 Century of Books, Trumpets Over Merriford. And I believe I used the term “quaint” for that one, and it applies equally aptly to Old Herbaceous.

Looking at my rating of Trumpets Over Merriford, I see I gave it a 6.5 rating. I’m feeling rather more generous regarding the tale of the gardener. Let’s say 7.5/10. Because it’s a nice little thing, relaxing to read in between bouts with the seed catalogues this planning time of year for those of us with horticulture as part of our lives.




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