Jerome Bruner, an American educationalist and psychologist practising in the mid 20th century, wrote about the importance of looking out for “the tinker’s shuffle and the flying of kites” in everyday life; being open to surprise (Bruner’s term) and being ready to learn from the unexpected. Does it sound pretentious if I say that it is often thus with my research for my book?
Take today, for example; listening on the car radio to Gardeners’ Question Time, broadcast this week from the headquarters of a charity called Gardening Leave which offers gardening as therapy to ex-soldiers with mental health problems. Charity workers talked of how being surrounded by greenery reduces stress hormones in saliva (indeed, I have a vivid memory of the calming effect of gazing at just 30 seconds of a TV gardening programme playing to an otherwise empty staff room in the maelstrom of a busy labour ward). Ex-servicemen described the camaraderie and banter amongst the gardeners; the sense of doing something useful; the opportunities to be alone and quiet.
The presenter asked one man (thick Glaswegian accent, big burly chap with lots of tattoos; radio does nothing to dispel stereotypes) if the garden being walled contributed to this sense of peace. The man agreed it did – because he felt safe. He said he had hyper-vigilance; a state of constant “red alert”, which can lead to agoraphobia and social isolation because the sufferer only feels safe in a darkened room. In the walled garden there were no doorways for the enemy to hide, no windows for snippers; it was his refuge.
And the significance of this to my novel? My hero, Charlotte, is a suffragette; a movement which participants and historians alike recognise as having much in common with an army. Charlotte has suffered an unspecified trauma and has retreated from London to recover. At first, she experiences flashbacks and nightmares; these then fade into a state of emotional numbness and detachment as she sleeps the days away. GQT’s squaddie helped me understand that this is because Charlotte’s bedroom has become her safe place. His story also explained why she is reluctant to venture out into the sunlit garden – and how, when she eventually does, the garden in turn becomes her haven whilst the world beyond become a place of fear.