Jason Goodwin: The price of Absolute Power? Turns out it’s £250 a week +VAT

An unforgettable week at the controls of a metal monster goes to Jason Goodwin's head.

There are, as they say, those who are born to power, those who achieve it and some who have it thrust upon them, but that is to ignore the fourth possibility: that you can rent it for £250 a week, plus VAT and insurance.

Imagine, for a moment, being endued with vast strength, much as ministers should be with righteousness. Reaching out, you topple walls with a sweep of an arm. You grab small trees and wrench them from their sockets or score channels in the ground with iron fingernails. Boulders you roll aside, hefting sackloads of stone for all the world like supermarket shopping bags.

I hired the digger on a Friday and by Monday I was grading with the best of them, digging out overgrown hazel by its roots like a gargantuan badger and dealing firmly with the bamboo. The remnants of an Edwardian shrubbery, dark and ivy clad, followed it onto the bonfire heap. I gathered the leafmould that had accumulated in a damp corner into a serviceable heap and nimbly tucked the tree surgeon’s wood chippings into the old pigsty, hardly breaking anything in the process.

I’d be lying if I said the digger ever became an extension of my own arm. I tended to gouge where I meant to smooth and trying to extend the arm and curl the bucket at the same time was like patting my head and rubbing my stomach.

“In this mood of getting it done, I foresaw long, sweeping hedges of yew and garden steps. I saw trees felled and moved, paths etched into the grass, beds and borders opened up with a gesture.”

When I overextended the hydraulics, the machinery made a kind of grimacing noise, so I was accompanied around the garden by the sound of mechanical hand-wringing and noisy lament and, on day three, I noticed liquid seeping into the bucket from above. But that’s the thing about power: when you have it, everyone loves you.

The hire company couldn’t have been more gracious. Within a few hours, a man from the hydraulic company had turned up and fixed the leaky coupling. We chatted for a while and he gave me a bobble hat with his company logo woven into it and its motto ‘Get it done’ like a presidential campaign tag.

The weather turned crisp, so I found myself wearing the hat and getting it done. We could scrape back the steep sides of the sunken croquet lawn and improve the levels, regardless of the orchids that bloom in that sparse land beneath the western windows. In this mood of getting it done, I foresaw long, sweeping hedges of yew and garden steps. I saw trees felled and moved, paths etched into the grass, beds and borders opened up with a gesture.

Then, I am glad to say, friends came and liked the garden for what it was and reminded me that you can play with grass at different lengths instead of moving earth, so, once the trench for mains water was dug, I gave the digger back. Like Cincinnatus, I found I had no lasting taste for power.

Cincinnatus was the Roman statesman who, four centuries before the birth of Christ, left his farm to repel an invasion, in return for what would now be called royal, or presidential, authority. Having defeated Rome’s enemies, the general put aside his powers and returned to the plough, setting an example of civic virtue that would resonate through the ages.

The founders of the American republic saw a clear resemblance between Cincinnatus and their first president, George Washington, who declined kingship and modestly retired to his estates after serving. Cincinnati in Ohio, a state that recently voted for the incumbent president, was named after him. I’m looking forward to the orchids in the spring.