Monday 11 December 2017

Writer Patricia Scanlan: 'Gardens are where my imagination has run rampant'

Be it the magical playground of her childhood garden or the terracotta-tiled patio of her first home, Patricia Scanlan has long found inspiration, serenity and solace in her own little patch of earth

Writer Patricia Scanlan finds inspiration in her garden. Photo: Anthony Woods
Writer Patricia Scanlan finds inspiration in her garden. Photo: Anthony Woods

I've never focused on how significant gardens have been in my creative life - although acknowledging how important they are to me in life as a whole - until I sat down to write this piece.

Looking back, gardens have been the place where my imagination has run rampant, beginning with our childhood garden where four brothers, one sister and I spent hours creating magical worlds and great adventures that - much to my mother's relief - kept us occupied and entertained.

Our garden had a long lawn divided in two by what we called the 'The Bank'. The Bank was the most important feature in any of our games. It was a raised grassy ridge (probably covering builder's rubble)behind which we could crouch during shootouts and stagecoach ambushes in our cowboys-and-Indians scenarios.

Possibly my favourite game in the back garden was The Horse Show. In our Horse Show, The Bank was converted into Becher's Brook, and many was the tumble I took racing my imaginary mount over its high green sward. I was always the show jumper Diana Connolly-Carew, whilst my brothers would argue over who got to be Captain Billy Ringrose, one of our most famous award-winning equestrians.

We jumped over school bags, bins, homemade jumps made with hurleys and yard brushes, and our Nations Cup event for the Aga Khan trophy (a tinfoil-covered flower pot) was far more competitive than anything seen at the RDS.

When I was 12 we moved, not too far away, to a newly built house. I can still remember the sadness of leaving the home and garden I'd grown up in, with all its precious memories.

Our new garden was huge and my parents, both keen gardeners, divided it up into the lawned area and a large vegetable section at the side. Now that we were growing up, my brothers were tasked with weeding and stone removal in the vegetable plot, and it was my job to mow the grass.

It was here that I grew to appreciate what a gift a garden was, especially in summer. I took pride in keeping 'my' lawn manicured. My borders were always sharply edged and it was on this verdant sea of green that I discovered a new and lifelong pleasure… sunbathing. Oh, the joy of sitting in the sun with a book, or painting, or simply lying, eyes closed listing to the birds singing, with the smell of freshly cut grass intermingling with the scent of roses and honeysuckle wafting on the balmy breeze.

I remember long, hot summer evenings watering the crop of peas and beans, trailing on their bamboo canes, and the beetroot, carrots, cabbages and potatoes, with their white blossomy heads, in long, serried rows, as day turned to pink-hued dusk and the heavenly perfume of night-scented stock filled the air.

My dad used seaweed and horse manure to enrich the soil and, sometimes, closing my eyes, I could imagine I was by the sea, or in the depths of the countryside, and not in a suburban garden in Dublin.

What a pleasure it was to go out into the garden and cut cabbage, with a white head nestling in the rich green outer leaves, or fill a basin with beans and peas and sit in the sun shelling them, then dig a stalk of new potatoes and wash the loamy earth off them and cook them all, to accompany whatever joint was for dinner.

Bacon or corned beef, with floury potatoes flavoured with a scattering of salt and a dab of melting butter, and shredded cabbage - boiled lightly, not stewed - tossed in butter and white pepper, and fresh parsley (from the herb garden) sauce was my favourite dinner, but steak and kidney pie and our garden carrots, peas and beans came a close second.

When I went looking to buy my first house, I knew the garden would be key to deciding whether to buy or not. I viewed several properties and remember looking out the kitchen window at the house I eventually bought and going, "Oooohhhh." The garden was long, narrow, forlorn and unkempt but, thanks to the imagination, I could envision what it could be like. Two damson trees marked the halfway point, their branches entwining to form a bower leading to the narrower portion of the garden, and already I could see the patio I would build - nestling into the shelter of the old stone wall to catch the dying rays of the sun.

That year was a life-changing year for me. I had published City Girl, my first novel, in April (27 years ago) and in May I got the keys to the house.

It was a scorching summer, and I planted large terracotta pots with bizzie lizzies, and aubrieta to provide some colour until I could tackle the garden. I was fairly broke then, not knowing whether my writing career would take off or not, but as I sat, eating dinner outside, at a bockety little patio table looking at my new kingdom, a palace on the French Riviera could not have made me any happier

When I got the first royalty cheque for Apartment 3B, my second novel, I treated myself to a washing machine and a new terracotta-tiled patio, with a white-pillared wall separating it from the lawn. I painted the house white and blue, and filled my garden with flowering shrubs; and every sunny evening that I could (I was still working at the day job), I sat outside and read or listened to the birds singing in the damson trees and thought how lucky I was to have such a beautiful space to enjoy. Ideas came for many new books in that peaceful haven, under blue skies, listening to birdsong.

I moved house 10 years ago and so began another gardening adventure, this time a wide, square garden, surrounded by hedges and trees - completely private - and it is as much a place of inspiration as the other gardens have been.

Most mornings, I stand looking out my kitchen window, at the birds feasting at the feeders, or watching the robins, blackbirds, starlings and pigeons splashing in the bird baths. while scenes drift into my mind's eye.

The idea for my new book, Orange Blossom Days, was birthed as I lay on a lounger enjoying one of 2015's rare sunny days.

Mulling over the fact that a Facebook follower had sent me a message giving out that one of the "nicer" characters hadn't won the auction for Apartment 3B, it delighted me to think a reader could get so annoyed about a character. Apartment 3B was set in Dublin, and I got to thinking what great material apartment complexes provide. Living in such close proximity to others often brings up much conflict and drama (especially at the AGMs) as well as camaraderie and shared experiences among the tenants. Been there, done that, can't do it again, I thought regretfully.

And then, a flash of inspiration struck as I lay on my patio surrounded by massive planters of orange non-stop-flowering begonias, and purple and pink trailing surfinias, while looking at flowerbeds filled with geraniums, agapanthus, salvias, and lavenders, which reminded me of a Spanish garden that I loved. Why not set a novel in an exclusive beachside complex in Andalucía?

I'd owned an apartment in southern Spain for years and was very familiar with the towns and urbanisations from Málaga to Marbella. What a treat it would be to share with my readers descriptions of the views across the glittering sea to the majestic coast of Africa, and the great Rock of Gibraltar guarding the narrow straits that divide the two continents, through which the green, roaring Atlantic Ocean feeds the azure Mediterranean.

Or watching the sun slipping slowly down behind the splendid, sharp-edged Sierra Bermeja, slashing the sky with banners of crimson and gold, while sitting at our favourite chiringuito on the white curve of beach caressed by the shushing sea, eating delicious food washed down by ruby Rioja.

Muses whispered in my ear. La Joya de Andalucía. The Jewel of Andalucía.

Characters flew into my head. Anna and Austin buying an apartment and looking forward to their retirement, spending lazy days in the sun. But family weddings and grandchildren who needed minding will scupper that dream!

A feisty Texan, Sally Ann, dealing with being separated from her husband but doing her best to keep things civil for her teenage daughters.

Eduardo de la Fuente, a self-important notary from Madrid desiring to become El Presidente of the management committee so he can settle scores with the concierge, with whom he has running battles, much to his wife's irritation.

Jutta, an ambitious German woman, who owns a fit-out and management business, has several clients in La Joya and prides herself on her professionalism. But pride comes before a fall…

My garden had gifted me again. I couldn't wait to get writing.

'Orange Blossom Days' by Patricia Scanlan, published by Simon & Schuster, is in shops now, priced £13.99.

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