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Rank Yellow Rectangle

On cutting the grass.

Mowing the lawn may be the strangest thing I do. When I was thirty, if you had told me that I would ever do such a thing again, I would have crossly rejected the suggestion. By then I was a metropolitan apartment-dweller, without even a window-box or a potted plant to my name, and I expected to stay that way. Keeping the grass in order was a chore of childhood, pushing our decrepit hand-mower over the patch of grass at the back of one suburban house after another. That mower was one of the few things we always seemed to keep, as we wandered from temporary home to temporary home, notable for being the only American artifact we owned. Its heavy black cast iron casing proclaimed that it had been made in Pennsylvania, to me a place of utter mystery. It was as odd as the quarter dollar that had somehow found its way into my coin collection, which looked as if it had been stamped out by hand and lacked the literate elegance of our old coinage. I gained an impression, from these objects, of the U.S.A. as being a rather backward, lumpy sort of place, which of course in some ways it is. The mower was hard work, especially in our damp summers, and my brother and I did what we could to avoid lawn duty. At that time powered mowers were a rarity. You pushed the machine yourself and, if its blades were not very sharp, you didn’t do a very good job.

One thing I always remember is the way the lawn always looked when we came back, in late summer, from the family’s modest seaside holidays. It was exotically thick and far longer than my father ever would have normally let it grow. And I came to associate this strange sight (as if civilization was quietly breaking down) with the school examination results which were usually contained in the great pile of mail on the doormat at the same time of year. It was an unsettling season. But then came my years in bed-sitting rooms, gardenless apartments or shared houses where the landlord (knowing what to expect from tenants like us) had usually concreted over the backyard. Where the landlord had been optimistic, and left a lawn, there would instead be a rank yellow rectangle of foot-high grass, half-concealing many unpleasant and abandoned items. If ever, during these years, I ventured into houses, schools or colleges where they had lawns and mowed them, I felt a sort of shame that I was not upholding proper British standards. But I had also developed that English snobbish horror of the suburbs, with their lawns and fences, so well described by the novelist Antonia Byatt: “Suburbia, the dread of our generation, the teacup, the nappy, the flowery stair-carpet, the click of the latch of the diminutive garden gate.” I am surprised she did not also mention the whirr of the lawnmower, the summer music of such places from May to September, soothing to some but for others the sound of doom, of ambition thwarted and horizons narrowed down to nothing.

During my time in Moscow, when of course I lived in an apartment (houses were rare), I was struck by the rarity of mown grass. Even the official parks were weedy and unkempt. The British Ambassador’s glorious residence, a former millionaire’s house on the embankment of the river, had a well-kept lawn, and I suspect the semi-secret Kremlin hospital (where the Communist Politburo hid themselves behind fifteen-foot walls for medical treatment their subjects could not get) had well-tended lawns and flowerbeds. But nobody else did, and the mowers, like the drugs and even the surgeons, presumably had to be specially imported. The verges of my Moscow street were mown, very occasionally, by teams of men with actual scythes. In my utterly unreliable memory, they all seem to have smocks and long white beards, but this cannot have been true. I never saw them come or go but often wondered if they traveled by horse-drawn cart, and were accidental hereditary survivors of purges and war, based in some distant yard where the Tsar was still honored and the scythes themselves were perhaps blessed by Orthodox priests each spring. They did a fine job, but the sight suggested to me that lawnmowers, like Velcro, and many other products we had formerly taken for granted, simply had not yet been invented in the U.S.S.R. Or if they had, their existence, like that of the rather smart Soviet coffee grinder I once found, was known only to the elite. I think this experience of abroad helped reconcile me to the British duty of lawnmowing more than anything else. As time went on, I became more and more dedicated to the wellbeing of my soggy, weedy lawn with its bare patches and its holes spitefully dug by squirrels. Antonia Byatt would have been appalled. I bought electrically powered mowers of increasing sophistication. I scanned the sky and the weather forecast for the optimal moment. I have been known to mow the lawn in deep twilight, not far short of darkness, because of approaching rain.

And if I were asked to explain the main difference between me and my late brother, he a bohemian atheist, I a suburban Christian, I think that the simplest way of expressing it would be to ask my listeners to imagine Christopher mowing the lawn. It was unthinkable to me, a bit like picturing Bob Dylan playing croquet, or Mick Jagger taking up ballroom dancing. This futile, unproductive, time-consuming pursuit of a fleeting neatness which will have vanished within three or four days, remains strikingly odd. And there is a revolt against it. Many have bought fake lawns which they never have to mow at all, and glow bright green all the year round, as convincing as the wigs of elderly film stars. An increasing number of British people, inspired by a supposedly insect and bird-friendly movement known as “No-Mow-May,” did not mow their lawns in May. Then they did not mow them in June or July or August either. They are getting used to it. It does not seem to have done much for the insects or the birds, but the humans involved all have a lot of extra drinking time. My local city council have also embraced the “No Mow” movement, and there are verges near me which could do with a severe Moscow-style scything. At least I think so. I suppose quite a lot of other people must welcome the new, wild look. The “No Mow” men are coming into their own, and perhaps the sound of the lawnmower will no longer be heard in the land, as the bohemian atheists discover that they quite like living in suburbs after all, but only if they do not have to cut the grass.