Woman in the grip of an obsession: a case study

From the FT Weekend magazine, April 4, 2014 12:15 pm

Gardening with the FT: Charlotte Mendelson

By Hannah Beckerman

Flowers, pah! They’re just a waste of space. The novelist on why her garden is all about ‘growing stuff that I can eat’

 

  Charlotte Mendelson is standing in the busily populated garden of her north London home reeling through lists of plants, many of which I’ve never heard of before. “It’s eccentric. It’s not a garden that normal people have,” she laughs as she shows me various ephemera she has picked up on the street or recycled from the house: mixing bowls for plant pots, an old winemaking barrel full of comfrey steeping in water (an excellent home-made plant food) and a sledge propping up an Abutilon tree. But then Charlotte Mendelson is not your average gardener. We’re meeting just a few days after her fourth novel, Almost English, has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, a book she wrote on the two days a week she’s not working as an executive editor at book publisher Headline. Add two children into the mix, and it’s amazing she has any time to garden at all. “It’s the only thing for me that stops me thinking about anything else and that’s why it’s so mentally healthy. It turns off all the worry and the ‘thinkiness’ and you focus on the moment.” As Mendelson takes me on a tour of her garden, pointing out burgeoning shoots of wild garlic, chervil, chicory, mizuna, dragon’s tongue and a dozen other herbs and salad leaves, I realise that this isn’t your typical shrubs-and-flowers style of gardening. “I’m not interested in flowers because they’re a waste of growing space. It’s all about growing stuff I can eat. It’s the stuff that makes my Sainbury’s shop more interesting.” In addition to herbs and salad leaves, she has an impressive collection of fruit trees, edible flowers and even a Hunza apricot seedling she has cultivated from a dried fruit stone. “The main thing I do from the garden is I make salads. Often, I have to buy the main lettuce because I don’t grow big lettuce but I’ll grow 15 different kinds of little salad leaves – such as sorrel and rocket – and also lots of herbs and edible flowers. If you put flowers in salads, they look amazing. So if we have people over for dinner, I’m much prouder of the salad than I am of all the other stuff because I grew it and that’s just a massive thrill.” As we continue our tour, I experience Mendelson’s desire to feed: she’s bursting with enthusiasm for the photographer and me to eat every plant she shows us, and looks on expectantly for our reaction to their taste like a proud mother at parents’ evening. Mendelson hasn’t always been a keen – or what she would describe as “obsessive” – gardener. She didn’t start in earnest until 2007, when she moved with her partner – the writer Joanna Briscoe – and their two children into their current home. “It was basically shrubs so I pulled most of it up and replaced it with much more labour-intensive stuff. Seriously, this is the most expensive – in terms of money and time – garden it’s possible to have because growing vegetables is incredibly time-consuming.” As if to prove the point, Mendelson shows me the seeds that she planted a couple of weeks ago. “So I plant the seeds and they sit in the kitchen irritating everyone and getting knocked over. Then, when they start sprouting, you have to acclimatise them to weather so you bring them out for an hour the first day, a couple of hours the second day – it’s so labour intensive it’s insane.” I suggest it’s a bit like having a small child to look after. “It’s like having about 2,000 very small, very fragile children,” she concedes. Given how busy Mendelson is, I ask why she doesn’t just buy seedlings to save on the labour. “Sometimes I do,” she confesses, “but I like growing quite weird things like Asian greens and five different kinds of kale and you can’t always get seedlings for those.” Next there’s a recently acquired chilli plant to fertilise. Mendelson hands me a tiny child’s paintbrush and instructs me to brush gently around the inside of each flower to transfer pollen from one to the other. I remark that it’s a bit like being a plant IVF doctor. “Very much so, yes. I always feel it’s like running a stud farm. But that’s plants: they’re a bit like the cast of Mad Men because they’re all about spreading their seed.” All of this would appear to demand an incredible amount of patience, which seems slightly at odds with Mendelson’s energetic, exuberant personality. “It’s nothing to do with patience, because you’re distracted by other things. It’s the only thing where time just zooms because there’s so much that I want to do.” Having checked some of her seedlings for sprouting roots, we transfer a few into bigger pots. “We just make a hole, pop it in and hope for the best,” she says pragmatically. “I ought to be wearing gloves but I don’t because you can feel it much better. And I’m really clumsy anyway so I’ll just break everything if I wear gloves.” Her reference to clumsiness reminds me of the main character in Almost English, 16-year-old Marina who, in a bid to escape the trio of elderly Hungarian matriarchs that she and her mother are living with, succeeds in getting herself enrolled in a mid-ranking English boarding school, only to discover she doesn’t fit in there either. I tell Mendelson that some of the scenes in Almost English were such a comically accurate portrayal of teenage social awkwardness that I found them almost painful to read, and wondered just how much of Mendelson there is in Marina. “A lot,” she admits. “I love writing about embarrassment because I’m very easily embarrassed myself. It’s because I’m a self-conscious, analytical, swotty type.” I wonder whether Mendelson’s “swottiness” extends to gardening. “No. As you can see I’m quite slapdash,” she says. “Because it’s not actually about the knowing, it’s about getting muddy and the doing. It’s the only thing that turns off the brain of the woman who thinks too much.” As we head indoors, I ask how she’s feeling about her recent Baileys Prize nomination. “I don’t think the sort of person who writes books is the sort of person who thinks, ‘Ha, I’ve done it now!’” I suspect the same is as true for Mendelson’s gardening as it is for her writing. Despite her clear love of how gardening “clears her brain” I sense that she’s as eager for her kale, nasturtium and wild garlic to be as successful as the other parts of her life. As I leave her to carry on gardening during the first sunny weekend of the year, I ask when we might expect to see her fifth novel. She tells me it might be a little while yet. “I would write more books if I wasn’t so obsessed with gardening,” she confesses. “I garden when I should be doing everything else.” ‘Almost English’, by Charlotte Mendelson, is published in paperback by Picador on April 24, £7.99.  

 

Charlotte Mendelson is standing in the busily populated garden of her north London home reeling through lists of plants, many of which I’ve never heard of before. “It’s eccentric. It’s not a garden that normal people have,” she laughs as she shows me various ephemera she has picked up on the street or recycled from the house: mixing bowls for plant pots, an old winemaking barrel full of comfrey steeping in water (an excellent home-made plant food) and a sledge propping up an Abutilon tree.

But then Charlotte Mendelson is not your average gardener. We’re meeting just a few days after her fourth novel, Almost English, has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, a book she wrote on the two days a week she’s not working as an executive editor at book publisher Headline. Add two children into the mix, and it’s amazing she has any time to garden at all.

“It’s the only thing for me that stops me thinking about anything else and that’s why it’s so mentally healthy. It turns off all the worry and the ‘thinkiness’ and you focus on the moment.”

As Mendelson takes me on a tour of her garden, pointing out burgeoning shoots of wild garlic, chervil, chicory, mizuna, dragon’s tongue and a dozen other herbs and salad leaves, I realise that this isn’t your typical shrubs-and-flowers style of gardening. “I’m not interested in flowers because they’re a waste of growing space. It’s all about growing stuff I can eat. It’s the stuff that makes my Sainbury’s shop more interesting.”

In addition to herbs and salad leaves, she has an impressive collection of fruit trees, edible flowers and even a Hunza apricot seedling she has cultivated from a dried fruit stone.

“The main thing I do from the garden is I make salads. Often, I have to buy the main lettuce because I don’t grow big lettuce but I’ll grow 15 different kinds of little salad leaves – such as sorrel and rocket – and also lots of herbs and edible flowers. If you put flowers in salads, they look amazing. So if we have people over for dinner, I’m much prouder of the salad than I am of all the other stuff because I grew it and that’s just a massive thrill.”

As we continue our tour, I experience Mendelson’s desire to feed: she’s bursting with enthusiasm for the photographer and me to eat every plant she shows us, and looks on expectantly for our reaction to their taste like a proud mother at parents’ evening.

Mendelson hasn’t always been a keen – or what she would describe as “obsessive” – gardener. She didn’t start in earnest until 2007, when she moved with her partner – the writer Joanna Briscoe – and their two children into their current home. “It was basically shrubs so I pulled most of it up and replaced it with much more labour-intensive stuff. Seriously, this is the most expensive – in terms of money and time – garden it’s possible to have because growing vegetables is incredibly time-consuming.”

As if to prove the point, Mendelson shows me the seeds that she planted a couple of weeks ago. “So I plant the seeds and they sit in the kitchen irritating everyone and getting knocked over. Then, when they start sprouting, you have to acclimatise them to weather so you bring them out for an hour the first day, a couple of hours the second day – it’s so labour intensive it’s insane.”

I suggest it’s a bit like having a small child to look after. “It’s like having about 2,000 very small, very fragile children,” she concedes.

Given how busy Mendelson is, I ask why she doesn’t just buy seedlings to save on the labour. “Sometimes I do,” she confesses, “but I like growing quite weird things like Asian greens and five different kinds of kale and you can’t always get seedlings for those.”

Next there’s a recently acquired chilli plant to fertilise. Mendelson hands me a tiny child’s paintbrush and instructs me to brush gently around the inside of each flower to transfer pollen from one to the other. I remark that it’s a bit like being a plant IVF doctor. “Very much so, yes. I always feel it’s like running a stud farm. But that’s plants: they’re a bit like the cast of Mad Men because they’re all about spreading their seed.”

All of this would appear to demand an incredible amount of patience, which seems slightly at odds with Mendelson’s energetic, exuberant personality. “It’s nothing to do with patience, because you’re distracted by other things. It’s the only thing where time just zooms because there’s so much that I want to do.”

Having checked some of her seedlings for sprouting roots, we transfer a few into bigger pots. “We just make a hole, pop it in and hope for the best,” she says pragmatically. “I ought to be wearing gloves but I don’t because you can feel it much better. And I’m really clumsy anyway so I’ll just break everything if I wear gloves.”

Her reference to clumsiness reminds me of the main character in Almost English, 16-year-old Marina who, in a bid to escape the trio of elderly Hungarian matriarchs that she and her mother are living with, succeeds in getting herself enrolled in a mid-ranking English boarding school, only to discover she doesn’t fit in there either.

I tell Mendelson that some of the scenes in Almost English were such a comically accurate portrayal of teenage social awkwardness that I found them almost painful to read, and wondered just how much of Mendelson there is in Marina. “A lot,” she admits. “I love writing about embarrassment because I’m very easily embarrassed myself. It’s because I’m a self-conscious, analytical, swotty type.”

I wonder whether Mendelson’s “swottiness” extends to gardening. “No. As you can see I’m quite slapdash,” she says. “Because it’s not actually about the knowing, it’s about getting muddy and the doing. It’s the only thing that turns off the brain of the woman who thinks too much.”

As we head indoors, I ask how she’s feeling about her recent Baileys Prize nomination. “I don’t think the sort of person who writes books is the sort of person who thinks, ‘Ha, I’ve done it now!’”

I suspect the same is as true for Mendelson’s gardening as it is for her writing. Despite her clear love of how gardening “clears her brain” I sense that she’s as eager for her kale, nasturtium and wild garlic to be as successful as the other parts of her life.

As I leave her to carry on gardening during the first sunny weekend of the year, I ask when we might expect to see her fifth novel. She tells me it might be a little while yet. “I would write more books if I wasn’t so obsessed with gardening,” she confesses. “I garden when I should be doing everything else.”

‘Almost English’, by Charlotte Mendelson, is published in paperback by Picador on April 24, £7.99.

 

Brave women

When Picador.com asked me to write a brief post about a woman who had inspired me, for International Women's Day, I probably should have done what the other authors did: thought of a strong creative heroine, a poet or an artist.  But, for me, a quite different woman sprang immediately to mind.

I am thoroughly my grandmother's granddaughter. At least, I try to be, because she was a hero: both the bravest person and the best cook I've ever known. I have written about her in Almost English and in my essay about only knowing forty words of Hungarian, but I haven't finished yet.

Ten facts about her:

1. When she was born, the third of eight girls, her uncle was sent to register her name, which he forgot. She spent the rest of her life with the wrong one.

2. She was known as the clever sister, and became a communist, to her family's disgust.

3. She went to Charles University in Prague to study Economics; later, as a penniless and essentially single mother in London, she persuaded the LSE to give her a place, despite the fact that her entrance exam was written in the worst English they'd ever seen.

4. At the outbreak of war she saved herself, her (future) husband and several other Hungarian-Czechs marooned in Prague by obtaining false passports, partly by phoning the officer in charge and pretending to be one of her university professors.

5. She found work as a housemaid in London where at first, due to her poor English, she misunderstood her instructions and did a full week's tasks every day.

6. Eventually she was given work in a costume jewellery factory; in time she designed a necklace, then a second, was given a shelf for her own work, then another. Decades later she owned the factory where, well into her eighties, she continued to work a six day week.

7. She was an extremely fast walker and walked everywhere, when not taking the bus. She also swam at every opportunity, preferably outside, and taught me to swim.

8. She believed in culture. No gallery went unvisited, no play unseen. Once someone I knew bumped into her at a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.

9. Her cooking – always Hungarian food – was spectacular. Thanks to her, I believe in the power of paprika and garlic, chicken soup with barley, apple compote with vanilla and lemon peel and, generally, food, in large quantities. When I was a student she would send me jiffy-bags containing carrot batons.

10. She experienced terrible suffering, pain and grief and illness, but remained the giggliest person I have ever known, until the last time I saw her.

I didn't visit her enough. I wish I had. I keep her photograph on my desk to remind me to be strong.