Culture / Politics

We must cultivate our garden

The sensation of the season: a sage, a seer, even a sex symbol. (Alwyn Turner)

The sensation of the season: a sage, a seer, even a sex symbol.

It was a big house, separated off from the city by high, ivy-clad walls. It used to be a house full of life, echoing to the sounds of parties and passion and politics. But that was a long time ago. Now there was just the Old Man, the foreign maid and Chance the gardener. The three of them alone in the big old house, cut off from the rest of the city. They didn’t go out and it was a rare occasion when anyone else came in.

From the outside, it looked as though the house was neglected and abandoned. But behind those walls, hidden from vulgar eyes, Chance had made his own private world. There was nothing of neglect about his garden; he had kept it as beautiful as it had been when the house was still alive. And it was his garden, his alone. The foreign maid wasn’t interested, and it had been twenty years since the Old Man had even ventured out there.

And then one day the Old Man died, and the maid left, and Chance was told that he too would have to leave.

But he had lived here all his life, tending quietly to the plants and the trees in the garden. He had never crossed the threshold of the Old Man’s property. This was the full extent of his experience, and he had no ambitions outside of it. He had no family, no knowledge of the wider world, save what he had seen on the television, he didn’t even have any memories of the house in better days. All he knew was his work and his television set.

Happily, this turned out to be enough for him to survive and thrive in the city. Luck was on his side. Through a series of coincidences and misunderstandings, he was given a new name, Chauncey Gardiner, and he found himself embraced by high society, high finance and high politics. He even found himself on television. And the people watching their television sets at home were enchanted by him.

He had been shut away in the big house for so long that he seemed to have stepped into the modern world from another time, a quieter, more decent time. Even his clothes were old-fashioned, for they had once belonged to the Old Man. And all of this stirred memories of long-forgotten times to warm the hearts of his listeners. Though they recognised him as a ghost of their past, still he seemed somehow more real than those around him.

And so the public – both the powerful and the powerless – were captivated by his artless homilies about gardens, the observations of nature that he had made during his long years of isolation. When he spoke humbly and without guile of how the seasons turned, his listeners heard hope and profundity.

Even his most modest, most obvious statements were treated as deep insights. Such a direct, unsophisticated, honest man was a relief in a society plagued by self-doubt. After all, ‘sometimes it is only by accepting fables as reality that we can advance’.

He was the sensation of the season, acclaimed as a sage, a seer, even a sex symbol. He was a blank page on which anyone and everyone could write their own view of the world. And they did. They wrote all sorts of things.

And soon the thoughts of some turned to the idea of how they might elevate him to a position of genuine authority. Perhaps this man, who had never been troubled by thoughts of power, a man untried and untainted, perhaps he might be just the person to lead the nation back to happier times…


Jerzy Kosiński’s novel Being There was published in 1971. Kosiński went on to write the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s film adaptation, starring Peter Sellers, which was released in 1979.

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