The first page of my month-at-a-glance diary is a personal information form that looks like a crop hit by drought. Names, addresses and telephone numbers appear, but nothing else comes up. Medical Information National Insurance number, BUPA number, GP?s address, allergies all blank. So is the Automobile Information: drivers license number, car registration, insurance company, AA numbers. Under Emergency Information is scribbled a nugget of truth: ‘We make or mar our lives by choices’, The Mind of the Soul. Next to Credit Card Information is scrawled: ‘In creating, the hardest part is to begin’ (Anon). Under Blood Group is ‘Vernalisation: need of cold’.
Somehow, I’ve managed to muddle through half a century without ever harvesting my Essential Information. Under Notify is a little Proust, pencilled in: ‘Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed; to kindness, to knowledge, we make promises only; pain we obey’.
Inspiring as these snips of wisdom are, they are no substitute for the seedbed of reality. At least that’s how I felt sitting on a steep bank on the M11 waiting for the AA to come and save me after my car suddenly died. It was the Peugeot version of a heart attack, one minute speeding along at 70mph, the next minute nothing. I’d recently read Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking about her husband’s sudden death. It begins with the premonitory words: ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.’
In my case, it was just a car that died. A diesel engine that changed in an instant. I was lucky: I was able to steer the car over to the hard shoulder (five seconds later it was unsteerable); the AA card was in the flotsam of the glove compartment; my mobile worked; a day glo green vest, property of the Royal Horticultural Society, was in the car; the hazard lights worked.
Still, for someone who believes that disaster is ever imminent, I was ill-prepared for the AA operator who ordered me to ‘Get out of the car now!’ She told me how to find the blue numbers on the stake nearest the car B151 so they could identify exactly where I was, then said ‘Go sit on the bank,’ a bank that looked like a Munro, on the coldest day of the year. When I reached the summit, I took two Nurofen and tried to reach my Next of Kin who thought I was on the 1:30 Stowmarket train to London. In fact, I’d spent 40 minutes searching for a space in the station car park, while my train came and went. In hysteria and despair, I began the two-hour drive.
I’m not of the Dalai Lama school that believes that when things are breaking down in your life it means something big and wonderful is trying to get born. I believe that it’s a warning: stop being so frazzled, pull yourself together, concentrate, calm down. By the time the AA rescue vehicle arrived, I’d vowed to finish writing my will, write a Living Will, keep a torch and a blanket in the car, fill in the Emergency Information, find out my blood type.
‘First we’ve got to get your car off the motorway,’ Derrick said calmly, pulling down the step and helping me into his truck. Suddenly, I was sitting in a warm cocoon, soothed by the familiar and comforting voices of Gardener’s Question Time. That’s where I’d first heard the botanical word ‘vernalisation’, the cooling of seed during germination in order to accelerate flowering when it is planted. I’d go further: it’s our own need for a cold snap to bring us to our senses, help us steer to safety during these harried times. To see the breakdown as warning, the warning as a blessing.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on December 15, 2005.