In her latest tale of woe at her Cambridgeshire home, Germaine Greer gets the men in to mend her fence and screams blue murder at them
Builders hate plants. All builders hate all plants all of the time. The builder’s ideal landscape is entirely plant-free, a truly vacant lot. As far as builders are concerned plants are things that get in the way of building and therefore their mortal enemies. They dream of a landscape where no gutter can fill with leaves and no drain can be raped by a root and front loaders and diggers can disport themselves at their own sweet will.
If a site should be encumbered with trees, builders will do their best to eliminate them, by backing vehicles into them, pouring chemicals into their root run, or simply by pulling them down. If a brickie has a few kilos of mortar left on his board, he will lope around the garden looking for a tree-bole to dump it behind. If there are concrete slabs of other lumber to stack, a builder will find a likely tree and prop his pile against it. If you ask him to move it he will dump it on your most precious daphne. If after he and his vehicles have pounded your grass paths to leafless laterite, a fat spearhead of daffodil should still struggle through, he will stand on it while he lights a cigarette.
The last time the builders were in my garden they buried all the old tarmac that they stripped off the drive in the bed where my yew hedge was to be planted, along with an enormous number of milk- bottles, paint cans and about five eight- foot lengths of tanalised 12-by-threes. I thought if I kept a closer eye on them I could prevent such a thing happening again. I reckoned without the tubby man in the little camouflage hat. It was not enough to tell ‘Him in the Hat’ (as Charlie the gardener called him) what to do and pointless to try to tell him what not to do, for he thought of quite extraordinary things to do and did them before anyone could tell him nay.
Him in the Hat appeared at the Mills when the client decided that she wanted her tumbledown fence rebuilt in preparation for the coming onslaught by the Department of Transport bulldozers. The etiquette of hiring builders requires that the client instruct a surveyor who then instructs the foreman who then instructs the subcontractor who may well have subcontracted parts of the job out still further from the command centre. The client is not supposed to interfere with these costly relationships. When she starts screaming blue murder and wringing her hands, everyone is entitled to ignore her completely. It is assumed, apart from anything else, that the person who is really paying the bills is not she, but some male other. If you are an oldie, a female and a gardener, it stands to reason that you are a silly old moo. If you offer this masculine horde a cup of freshly brewed tea, then they know beyond reasonable doubt that you are a silly old moo.
At first the surveyor pretended that he couldn’t find the fence, which was actually collapsing into the roadway along which he drove every day, didn’t know which fence we meant, though we had only one, didn’t know how long it was, hadn’t got the measure, but eventually we managed to agree which fence needed rebuilding and that his company should rebuild it.
Enter Him in the Hat. In an unusual three-way conversation between surveyor, subcontractor and client, the client stipulated that the fence must not under any circumstances be treated with creosote, but tanalised and painted with Sadolin’s black. This was because the fence ran up under her horse chestnut, her cedar and her three mature beeches, upon which a preservation order had been issued (a saga in itself, this). Him in the Hat with a chain-saw and with every appearance of enjoyment, demolished the straggling myrobalans that had pushed the fence over in the first place. Then he removed the existing fence, leaving the north garden open to the cigarette packets, drink cartons, sweet and crisp wrappers, fertilizer bags and newspapers that blew along the road verge and disappeared for a month or so.
His return was heralded by a terrible stink of creosote. Great pyres of oozing brown timber had been built all over the back yard. No, said Him in the Hat, who found it much easier to talk than listen, it wasn’t a tanalin either, but it was pressure- treated, like he said. The client told him to take it away. The surveyor went pale.
The client called the council. The environmental officer came out. Yes, it was creosote and yes it would burn the roots of the beeches and no they wouldn’t like it one bit. The client compromised; the uprights would have to be wrapped in polythene.
Her unlucky star being by then regnant, she invited the builders to undertake the hanging of a new gate, the building of a small retaining wall, and the levelling of the north garden. The gate was necessary because the builders had smashed the old one, which was anyway too low by contrast with the new fence. In the course of hanging the new gate Him in the Hat decided to demolish a section of flint wall which the contractors had to rebuild at their expense, which rather affected the clarity of their communications thereafter. When it came to the levelling of the garden we might as well have been trying to re-erect the Tower of Babel.
One corner of the garden being much lower than the wall, the client suggested that it be backfilled with subsoil before the top-soil went in. Him in the Hat announced that there was no subsoil to be had in England for love or money. This was odd, seeing that a new housing development under construction in the neighbouring village was surrounded by hillocks of excavated top-soil. Instead of a couple of yards of this which he probably could have had for nothing. Him in the Hat had 20 tons of hoggin dumped all over my good sandy loam by a lorry with a grab that amputated several limbs from the horse chestnut on the way in.
The client pondered and then uttered. The hoggin, which Him in the Hat called ‘As Rays’, would have to go. The surveyor remonstrated; the client insisted. The ‘As Rays’ was raised once more and carted away. The subsoil from the wall footings which had been harrowed and dumped all over the old top-soil was scraped into the corner where it was needed. Then came the new top-soil, which was brown rather than black as our good fenland screenings are, and full of stones, as like subsoil as may be. Him in the Hat made several attempts to level the resultant stone-strewn hump by driving round and round and up and down on it with an old pallet tied to the back of my garden tractor before he gave up.
This morning the surveyor rang to ask if I would like them to make good the gravel paths that they tore holes in with their enormous machines, but my unlucky star had set. I said no. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to do my own grading in a hired Bob-cat, a machine as subtle and versatile as a lace-maker’s needle and much more fun.