Friend, Mentor … Grandpa, John Hall
at work in the Botanic Gardens, Belfast, in 1960.
A quiet and gentle man, I never once saw him
leave the house without his pocket watch in his waistcoat,
and New Testament in the inside pocket of his jacket.
He taught me the basics of Edwardian gardening
when I was a little boy –
“Never bother with the common names of plants, son”,
he told me, “learn their proper names. It will instil
the mental discipline and professionalism
of doing things properly;
and knowing the proper names will allow you to
work anywhere in the world, with people
from any language, and they will know precisely
to what plant you refer.”
He taught me that
the key to a healthy garden is the soil;
instilled in me appreciation for the gardeners’
best friend … the worm;
and that a garden was tended with diligence,
observation, and physical labour.
I quickly learned to cherish the “old” ways
of working and thinking, and to be exceedingly suspicious
of so-called “science”, which turned the garden
into a dumping ground for chemicals.
His daily example let me see that a “Real Man”
is the one who
has the moral discipline to remove himself
from the proximity of loud, aggressive, moral savages;
exercises moderation and discernment in all things; and
has tender-hearted empathy
for the plants and animals around him.
He gave me my first ‘paid’ gardening job in 1969
– removing the stones from the beds outside the Tropical House
at the Botanic … those same beds are still there today,
and look exactly the same as I remember them.
Constantly forced to choose between the skills that he taught me,
or listen to the audience-pleasing, sponsor-inspired assertions
of some TV presenter, or figure in a ‘lab coat’,
I have relied upon the methods of the old Edwardian gardeners
– Every Time.
The term “gentle man” has been meaningless for the past
thirty years – such having died or, like myself, aged to the point
of being derided by the youths of the modern world ,
… but his example and memory has made the isolation
of being a gentleman – of being like him – throughout my life,
not merely bearable …
but actually a privilege.
I think of him every time I feel the softness,
and smell the aroma, of friable garden soil.