If gardens had ears, what would they hear?

If gardens had ears...

If Homes Had Ears is a new, light-touch, digital exploration of the spaces that define our homes. Launched by the British Library in the summer of 2020, the website uses oral histories and other gems from our sound archive to capture how people regarded their domestic spaces throughout the twentieth century. 

During the curation of If Homes Had Ears, the team and I had worked through how we perceive spaces such as the kitchen or the bedroom. We worked through initial definitions such as ‘a space to prepare food’ before expanding our gaze to include topics such as gender and technological change. Indeed, when we turned our attention to outside the home, the team and I arrived with our own preconceived notions in answer to ‘what is a garden?’.

I was set in considering that idyllic, romanced space from the pages of literature. The water feature, the fruit trees, the lawn and the patio – with an eating space large enough to host extended families. Though that is far from even my own reality. 

As I write this I am sat, perched in a doorframe, with my feet resting on the walls of the balcony that sprouts from the walls of my central London home. It is where I, and those I live with: hang our washing, sit in the sunshine, store bikes, grow herbs, drain mop buckets and peek over to happenings in the park opposite. It’s small, so these purposes and activities happen exclusively – one at a time.

The British Library holds over 70,000 oral histories, with the hours totalling an unfathomable number. When taking topical or thematic explorations of these collections, results are often numerous and the task quickly becomes daunting. Yet, once you dig down into the collections, much like soil, the recordings become rich with insights into human experience. 

The personal, individual accounts of life and growing up provided in oral histories challenged me to step back from the suburban garden vs ‘the great outdoors’ dichotomy; and to think critically about what a living space outside of the home actually means. 

Big garden, little garden, window box?

Oral histories reconstructed the garden, expanding physical boundaries beyond the garden walls. We found from the interviews we listened to, and echoing my own experience, the issue of space comes up often. 

Many who grew up without private or communal gardens considered domestic outdoor space as anything you would consider as your ‘own turf’. For instance, take David Daiches playing in and around the streets of Edinburgh. He reckons the familiarity with which he and his friends walked the streets as children transformed civic spaces into their playground.

David Daiches: When I was small, when I was a schoolboy, we lived in a tenement in Montgomery Street off [inaudible 0:00:09], and so we had no garden. And so, my playground was London Road Public Gardens or the Cotton Hill. You have to say that twice nowadays for people because they look aghast when you say the – “The Cotton Hill?” I played up there all summer in the summer holidays, usually with a pal or a couple of pals, and we would come home and have something to eat at midday, it was called dinner then not lunch, and then we’d go back up in the afternoon. We were never threatened by anybody or anything, and I find it very sad – it would take an armed escort of the SAS to get me up on Cotton Hill after five o’clock at night, because it seems to have been given over totally to all these perambulating males who go round, and all the guys who bash them.

Jack Firth: Hmm-mm.

David: And so, if you get caught in the crossfire, and I think there’s a drug scene going on pretty heavily as well up there, I find that very sad. It’s done away with one of the great delights of living in Edinburgh, to be able to go up there and enjoy it. A wonderful view, it’s a fantastic place to have. We knew every nook and cranny of it when we were kids, and there were places you could hide in or where you could stage Custer’s Last Stand or attack the wagon-train, or The Battle of Loos. There was a First World War tank up there of the [Cambrai 0:01:35] variety, the big rhomboidal shape, and it was parked on a piece of concrete just to the east of the Parthenon. It was well sealed up, so you couldn’t get inside it, but – we tried – but we used to play on that obviously, it was great fun. And of course, there were various Peninsular War cannons sited around the place, one of which I think is still there, points towards Princes Street, and we used to sit on that and decimate the Scott Monument in that immoral way that small boys have.

Jack: But there would never have been any question of going abroad for a holiday.

David: No. I was never abroad ‘til I was in the Army.

Jack: And that must have been very common.

David: Yes.

Jack: There must be many many of your contemporaries where that’s true.

David: Yes, yes. Oh, there’s so many things different, I mean, I was in education all my professional life. Kids nowadays wherever they live, whatever part of the city they live in and I’m talking of Edinburgh here, they can learn to ski, they can learn to sail, they can learn to horse-ride, they can do all these things that we never even dreamt of. I mean, skiing, people didn’t ski in Scotland in my youth. Nobody thought of it. They went to Switzerland to ski, so you had to be pretty wealthy.

Jack: One difference though was that even by the ‘30s, it would still have been much much safer to let your children go out unattended to cross the road, wouldn’t it?

David: That’s right. Well, there’s the famous little amateur film, The Singing Street, which is about children playing in the street. That was made in 1951 and they were still playing in the street then. Even with all Councillor David [Berg’s 0:03:07] efforts, very few children can play in the street today, not even in Princes Street.

[END OF RECORDING – 00:03:14]

Of course, there was also a multitude of people talking about the privilege of space and what it afforded them – the sense of identity imbued from areas prescribed for certain pastimes. A love of tennis is certified by courts next to the house, or a sweet tooth stemming from memories of making desserts with fruit grown in the orchard at the bottom of the lawn.  

The oral histories we listened to built-up the concept of the garden as a space that was immediate, familiar and used for activities that expanded across purposes that were both practical and recreational. The allotment, back garden, window box, pavement, balcony – and everything in between – were spoken about with the same warmth. 

Cultivating identities in the garden

Indeed, these feelings of familiarity as well as the sub/conscious objective to ‘make your mark’ are evident in the activities that take place in our outside spaces. 

The act of gardening is defined as the tending to and cultivation of plants. On the face of it, this feels like a functional, practical task: to produce vegetables for your table, to grow flowers to adorn your space or provide solace for wildlife. Yet, oral histories highlighted that there is not a binary between leisure and utility. Often required household tasks turn into games and funny anecdotes. 

Alan Bloom looks back with glee on the summer of 1921, when he grew celery upon a mound of manure from his family’s long drop. 

Alan Bloom: In – I remember in 1921 it was a very dry year, a long, hot summer. And my father decided to have the loo emptied which was the old fashioned way, with a pit and a seat with three holes in it, for the adults and the children, different sizes. And it was a rather fearsome place in a way, especially at night because I had to take a candle to go to the loo. And it was a thing to do to light a piece of newspaper, which had to be used for a you-know-what, and drop it down the hole. And there was a sort of fear and adventure behind it. But in 1921 Father decided to have the pit dug out which meant getting it from outside, a flap, and having it shovelled into barrows. And they said – he said he wanted a big trench dug to put it in. And I was delighted to dig this trench which would be about two foot wide and a good two feet deep and about twenty, thirty feet long. So darkly, at the dead of night, there was plenty of cigarettes to go at, two chaps came and emptied it in the night. And I followed it up, and they covered it over, mostly. And I finished it off and the celery was grown on it – on the heap. And they said it was the best celery they’d ever had.

[Laughs].

[END OF RECORDING 00:01:35]

Nigel Young: And the garden, yeah, my father bought a piece of the field outside of the houses – able to buy that. And we had an orchard at the top area and then quite a long garden, which is opposite the main house. And then going down towards the lower end, there was a garage at the bottom. And then we had a vegetable garden in between the house and the garage. Father did most of the gardening when he couldn’t persuade me to do any. I was a very reluctant helper, I remember. And [laughs] this is really going back. He asked me if I’d pull out some cabbages which had finished, you know, they were Brussels sprouts and it was coming to the season and they’d all finished. And my friend, who was called Wingrove, and for some reason his nickname was Dinghy. We called him Dinghy Wingrove. And Dinghy and I decided that we were going to – we were going to – it was hard work pulling out these Brussels sprouts because they had fearsome roots on them – and we decided that we would tie some string to my tricycle and pull them out, sort of semi power-assisted extraction of these Brussels sprouts. Of course it didn’t work and after a while we gave up, yeah.

[END OF RECORDING 00:01:31]

When Nigel Young was growing up, he was tasked with harvesting Brussels sprouts from the family’s vegetable patch. He and his friend attempted to industrialise the process with the semi-powered assistance of a tricycle and a piece of string. Of course, this didn’t work. Yet, it did inspire Young to go on and study agriculture at university. He later became a research officer at the Grassland Research Institute in Berkshire.

Of all the experiences we listened to, each could be broadly drawn into a Venn diagram between utility and leisure. Gardening is so much more than hobby in the soil: it provides a sense of who you are and tests you on how you approach new challenges.

Recreating a virtual garden

With these discoveries from our archives, we worked to translate what we had learnt into storytelling opportunities. 

Central to this was our  partnership with the BA (Hons) Animation programme at the London College of Communication, where students produced animations to illustrate audio soundscapes. For the garden, we worked with final year student Mariana Leal to weave these narratives together into an animation which imbued those feelings of nostalgia and nurturing.

We further dismantled our groupings of the collections into three (overlapping) categories – different gardens, sustainable gardens, and listening to nature – all exploring how the outdoors is used by creatures big and small. We looked to how people’s experience of the garden changed when their environment was different. For instance the impact of living in the city, compared to living in the country: how this changed the wildlife that could be heard and interacted with. 

Open your ears, draw back the curtains and peek into domestic life as you may never have heard it before. Discover more on If Homes Had Ears. After all, your world is your playground. 

More to explore

If gardens had ears...

If gardens had ears, what would they hear?

If Homes Had Ears is a new, light-touch digital exploration of the spaces that define our homes. Launched by the British Library in the summer of 2020, the website uses oral histories and other gems from our sound archive to capture how people regarded their domestic spaces throughout the twentieth century.

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