I’m not really a gardener, although I come from a family of them.

I live in a flat that has communal grounds, kept in tidy order through monthly visit of a team of men with tractor mowers and huge hedge trimmers.  But even when I had my own little back garden, my heart was never in it; the pleasure to dull effort ratio was never in the right balance for me to do much more than keep it in order.

Yet gardening and gardens frequently appear in my stories.  I only occasionally wonder why, the rest of the time I just close my eyes and visualise how much fun it was when I was a child to creep into the garden to pick pea-pods off the vine and roll the sweet green peas around in my mouth.

In Growth I used the garden and the proud production of an array of vegetables every year as a metaphor for one of the few things that a daughter could ever fathom about her uncommunicative father.

Materiality, like my novel about Rose Fleming, is set in Russia in the mid 1990’s.  Yuri, a teacher of Russian as a foreign language, swallows his contempt for his lazy, expat pupil, Jim, in return for Jim’s  US dollars that fund the rebuilding of Yuri’s family dacha.  Where before they’d only ever had a basic shed as shelter at the garden, it is Yuri’s ambition to have proper house, with electricity, plumbing and most specifically a proper flush toilet.

In my novel I have explored the idea of what the dacha meant to the generation of Russians who were already past retirement age when perestroika came and impoverished them.

Before 1995 the vast majority of Muscovites lived in flats; only the tiny minority of  the very privileged had a house.  Any houses were in outlying areas and were generally formerly dachas of one kind or another.  When I first arrived in Moscow in January 1995 the only person I knew who lived in a house was the managing partner of the firm for which I worked; and he rented it.

It took me a while to understand the concept of  the dacha to most Muscovites at that time.  It was essentially a garden plot allocated to them in an area outside the city, some a great distance away.  In times of hardship, in a country in which there was virtually no logistical system to supply fresh fruit and vegetables, families would have to rely on what they could grow at their dachas in the short summer season.

As they usually had to travel some distance to their allotments, it was common practice to build a small house or cottage so they could stay overnight at weekends or for longer periods during their August holiday.  Small children were frequently sent out of the city for the whole of the summer and usually stayed with their Grandparents at the dacha.

It was a place of refuge, relaxation as well as the source of fresh food which gave people the chance to control and create something for themselves.  Not only could they till the soil, they could build their own little idiosyncratic house.

Monday morning conversations at the office in summer usually centred around the weekend’s gardening or building activities as sophisticated city dwellers showed each other the dirt engrained into the lines on their hands and pointed with ragged fingernails at the scratches on their forearms.

I recall one of my colleagues telling me that it was her dream to have a house of her own so that when she stepped out of her front door she was stepping onto the earth, not onto some drab landing in a common stairwell.  This was an ambition of many, to reconnect with the earth away from the city.

But it led rather alarmingly to the rapid building of large houses just outside the City boundary on what had previously been small garden plots.  Each new house outdid the last in size and opulence, so that now the term ‘dachaland’ covers areas of unregulated development of huge houses.

Where before the traffic jams on the roads out of the city were on a Friday night and were caused by the exodus of cars with wheel barrows on the roof and tomato plant seedlings nodding on the back shelf, or on a Sunday evening bringing the  happily tired and dirty back to their flats.  Now the jams are all the time and every day.

Only if you’re interested…….

Growth appeared in Tell Tales 3, and Materiality in Mechanics’ Institute Review 2

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  1. Interesting post, as always…. particularly like the way you are relating the topic to your own writing, keeps me thinking about Rose…. x

    • Thanks Voula. I’m really only following your lead, and posting something every day means I have to tap into every possible idea! x

  2. brendan stallard

     /  March 30, 2011


    The name Rowena does not appear in the authors for either of those books. This nom-de-blog is clearly the way that Russian triple agents hide nowadays:)

    I thought the picture on the front page of the “Mechanics Review 2” was brilliant. Those front images make a deal of difference and is worth spending time getting right.

    Gardens are full of bugs, one needs a lot of servants to keep them right:)


    • Only one nom for all uses….. Each of the anthologies contains about 20 stories, so the amazon listings don’t show all the authors’ names. Thanks for looking. I like the photo on the front of MIR2 too – it was the result of lots of arguments by the committee I understand.


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