New Year’s Day, 3:00 a.m. Raw cold. Walking home through Sefton park, hope and despair wrestling in my head. A light flickers in the Victorian palm-house. But it’s been derelict for years. And where are the statues? Their plinths are bare. I squeeze through a gap in the perimeter fence, peer through the rusting skeleton. Eight men sit around a long table. Copious drinking. Heated argument. Waving of arms. Faces florid in lamp-light. A waft of old ale, good wine, cheap brandy. Then the shock. Here they are. The statues. Taking time off from guarding the bananas, orchids and the great palm that once soared to the top of the dome.
Along one side the explorers; charting and claiming the world: James Cook; Prince Henry the Navigator; Christopher Columbus; Gerardus Mercator. Along the other, the scientists; staying at home, planting, studying, classifying: Andre le Notre; John Parkinson; Carl Linnaeus. At the head of the table the Joker; the one who sailed big, studied small, thought both: Charles Darwin.
The point at issue is the gaining of true wisdom. The explorers claim that one must travel widely to expand the mind. The gardeners argue that wisdom is best achieved through the study of small things. Darwin stands and picks up a pamphlet. “Let William Blake,” he says, “hold sway.” He reads:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
“A mind looking inward,” he says, “will learn neither from its own back yard, nor the whole world; whereas one that looks out will gain wisdom from either or both.” There is a hush; then argument erupts once more. I walk into a new year, inclining my head toward hope.