Thursday, 9 September 2010

Winter pruning

The house we lived in when we were in Norfolk had originally been a row of cottages. The house had been reversed over the years; what seemed obviously the front of the house was in fact the back, and the ghosts of the back gardens could still be traced in the lawn. Although the gardens were gone, their fruit trees remained: a Victoria plum tree and a few gnarled and lichen-covered apple trees.

One of the very few jobs I was diligent about in our garden was the pruning of the apple trees. I'm not sure why, but I found something relaxing about pruning and something fascinating about shaping these apple trees into the clutching hand shape that is recommended. Every year you take out and shorten the twigs going up and sideways and encourage the tree to have branches that bend down and are reasonably clear of each other so that air can circulate. The tree heals over these many cuts, forming humps on the branches that look like arthritic knuckles. A well pruned old orchard in winter is a magical place, if just a little creepy.

Sometimes radical work might require a small pruning saw or loppers, but mainly it's a job for secateurs. A good sharp pair of secateurs can bite clean through the fattest of twigs. The strength of their jaws and sharpness of their blades, when combined with the numbness and clumsiness of fingers on a cold winter morning, means that secateur-related injuries are not uncommon. Both my wife and my neighbour had a go at taking the ends of their fingers off.

Winter Pruning was another of the stories that had been kicking around in my notebooks for some time. In the original, it had an adult protagonist - a zealous and officious new farm manager, keen to see why the lease on one of the farm cottages appeared to show the same tenant living there for at least a hundred years when clearly that must be impossible. . .

The fate of the farm manager mirrored that of Simon in the story as it appears in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. It is a fate that still makes me grimace when I think about it. Often what I am aiming for with my storytelling is a chill down the spine. Winter Pruning is more visceral.

One of the fears that a writer can guarantee his reader will share is a fear of pain. If I've told it right, Winter Pruning should make you wince.


  1. That's the story that my daughter remembers most! It freaked her out and she loved it. :-)

  2. pulpsfromthebothy9 September 2010 at 21:27

    Orchards in winter are magical.

  3. Hi Chris
    Yes, I loved that story. And I did find that the third paragraph above in which you've described the process of pruning, more than a little chilling as it recalled the old, old lady...
    I finished Uncle Montague the other night, I loved it!! Thank you!!! I'm now onto Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, and the first story, Piroska, reminds me of 'The Vampire Maid' by Hume Nisbet. I love stories that are set by the sea, or on the sea as in Piroska. I think it's something to do with the loneliness of the wide empty sea that makes it so atmospheric.

    By the way, do you remember what variety of apples they were? I love Discovery apples this time of year.
    Best wishes

  4. Glad you enjoyed Uncle Montague and hope the Black Ship is as well-received. I don't know 'The Vampire Maid' - I'll have to check that out.

    And I love Discovery apples too. I don't know what variety they were - but strangely our local shop is selling a delicious apple (whose name I can't remember) which is very similar to one we had. And we also had something a bit like a Cox - but they were HUGE.