A charming, oddly moving and genuinely useful book – A. L. Kennedy
Okay all I can say in fairness before I start this review is that Kay was on a hiding to nothing when I picked up this book to read. Firstly, and if I’ve told you this story before please bear with me, but when we were looking to buy our current flat I imposed two conditions on Carrie (who did most of the looking): a) enough rooms so that we could both have our own office, and, b) no garden no matter how small, so you can see that I might not be Kay’s first choice as a reviewer (not that I was – A.L. Kennedy got to see this long before I did, which is why the above quote appears prominently on the book’s cover), and, secondly, I’d just finished reading a novel by one of the greatest descriptive writers of the twentieth century – Vladimir Nabokov – and you try going on after him.
And, yet (much to my surprise, delight and relief – Kay knows my wife), she stood her ground, entertained and even impressed me from time to time. Kay Sexton is a great writer in the same way that Billy Connolly is a great comedian: it doesn’t matter what subject you give them they’re capable of talking about it in such a way as to keep – and hold – your interest. My wife and I have known Kay for years but to be fair I only really know her through Carrie who published some of Kay’s excellent work in her magazines.
Kay is a real writer, the kind who writes novels, that kind of writer, but she’s also a jobbing writer; unlike many of us she actually is paid for writing. Imagine you’re Kay then and you get a publisher who’s interested in publishing your first book. Only it’s not your first novel, no, he wants to write a book to order. Magic. The only catch is that it’s about allotments. What do you do? You write the damn book.
Yes, this is a book about allotments, those small plots of land made available – often by the local Council – for leasing by individual, non-professional gardeners as a means of obtaining meaningful leisure and social activity coupled with the personal experience of sowing, growing, cultivating and harvesting healthy fruit and vegetables amidst the concrete jungle; flowers are frowned upon. To my mind allotments sound as much fun as the world of horseracing sounds thrilling and intriguing but Dick Francis fans might take me to task on that. The simple fact is that where two or more individuals have to interact with each other there is the potential for drama, farce and outright comedy: who would have thought that the life of a vet would be quite so entertaining and yet James Herriott had a nice sideline in novels to supplement his vet’s salary. Or what about that beloved series The Good Life? Can you imagine reading through the treatment for that show? But it worked. So, if you’re like me and have an aversion to (bordering on an absolute loathing for) any form of gardening, just hold your horses a second: Minding my Peas and Cucumbers is a memoir, a mystery, a science textbook, rules of etiquette, a cook book as well as being a how to (or, to be honest, more of a how not to) guide to growing your own . . . whatever you call stuff that grows in the ground, plants, I suppose, living organisms belonging to the kingdom of Plantae and you don’t need to own an allotment to do that. But the most important thing about this book (albeit about forty-five years too late to do me any good) is that it explains why kids don’t like their greens. There is a reason, a scientifically proven reason why. But I’ll come back to that in a bit.
First and foremost one needs to get an allotment. So you fill in the paperwork in your neatest joined-up handwriting and apply to your local council and you wait. And wait and wait and wait and then you check and discover there’s been a bureaucratic blunder and instead of nearing the top of the list you still have about another ten years to wait. (That is not an exaggeration.) Getting an allotment of your own is harder than getting into Eton – a comparison Kay herself draws. Seriously. If your little tyke is showing even the vaguest interest in botany put their name on the list now.
The basic arc of the book covers Kay’s history from being a co-worker, plot sitter and volunteer, from not having a plot to nearly having a plot until, by the end, she finally gets her own plot. It is not a straightforward path from applying to acquiring, not simply a matter of waiting her turn. Anyone who is thinking seriously about taking on an allotment needs to read her story and the stories of the people she gets to know along the way because one of them will most likely become your story. There is a delightful array of unusual and slightly eccentric characters to be encountered between these covers like the “Waitrose Woman (so called because she once turned down the offer of a Sainsbury’s carrier bag to take her crops home, insisting that ‘she couldn’t be seen with anything but Waitrose’)”, Compact and Bijou who “divided their plot in two, front and back, with a picket fence and winding paths decorated with many gnomes”, Errol the chrysanthemums, the Sick Lady, HSM (who I shall come back to in a moment), Celia – the “Imelda Marcos of trowels” and a cast of dozens most of whom were happily placing bets on how long novices might last.
Allotments are fascinating and deserve their own documentary series. The sites are complex sociological melting pots and the habits and beliefs of allotment-holders are a peculiar blend of mythology, thoroughly tested local tips and profoundly developed obsessions. Add in the history and archaeology, flora and fauna, competitions and culinary expertise and there's enough material to keep a researcher busy for decades – or until they get an allotment of their own and lose all interest in outside matters. Each site is peculiar (in every sense of the word) and particular, with conditions, rules, traditions and crops specifically designed for that ground.
In the last section I mentioned HSM. Most allotment-holders, although generally convivial, tend to clam up when it comes to their personal lives. Passing on tips and tricks about how to combat “the various sneak attacks of soil-borne nasties like eelworms, vine weevils and the depredations of keel slugs which go through a root crop like Attila the Hun through a sleeping village” are one thing but much conjecturing goes on about the extra-allotmental activities and other halves of their neighbours. HSM is a particular subject of fascination for Kay and her friends.
I have to say I imagined allotments as being a primarily male-infested domain but it seems that’s no longer the case and Kay is far from being the exception. There are many women mentioned in the book like Maisie whose soft-heartedness was so legendary that “[s]he had once left her allotment hat hanging up in her shed for the entire winter because an orb spider had laid an egg sac in it and she didn’t want to disturb the babies” but who would happily “‘fire-bomb’ slugs with a blowtorch” or Celia who I mentioned above with her wardrobe full of boxes full of trowels:
There were days when I wondered how you became a Celia: was something sprinkled on you at birth, like Fairy Growmore, or did you receive a series of horticultural lucky breaks that led to you being able to grow plants that other people couldn’t even pronounce?
And then there’s HSM:
HSM stood for Home-Schooling Mother and I wanted to like her, I really did, but… As an example, HSM’s three children spent a lot of time at the allotment. There was no reason why they shouldn’t, as long as they were also learning whatever lessons were appropriate, but something about the way they walked – in a single file, their heads down, the little boy kicking at tussocks of grass while his sisters trailed hand tools behind them as they dawdled – suggested they regarded the hours spent on their plot as penitential.
HSM was a paragon of self-sufficiency, which is why I wanted to like her. She baked her own bread and was trying to cultivate her own grain. She spun wool. She knew the common name to every native plant and enough botanical ones to give my horticulturally-replete friend Celia a run for her money.
But if there’s an HSM one might not unreasonably imagine there might be an HSF – what of him? And how come she was selling stuff at market (something forbidden in the rules) when she objected to the allotment shop selling items for a profit “even when the profit was immediately ploughed back into improving the site”? She is a mystery that the women worry away at until one chilly autumn day Kay discovers her three kids, Portia, Reatta and Ayar, locked in their mother’s hut. Just what is going on with this woman?
I knew only one allotment-holder better equipped to ferret out a mystery than myself … Celia.
All is revealed, don’t you worry.
When newbies came into our allotment shop to buy barrowloads of manure, or seeds, or just to seek advice, the old guard would look over like gamblers betting on a horse race. For the newcomer it must have been like the very first day at school, having to learn the rules, jargon and arcane behaviours required to fit in as an outsider.
And that’s before the Inspection Committee comes anywhere near your plot. Considering how long most people have to wait before they get their hand on their treasured piece of earth it can all be taken away from them so easily. This being the case, the chapter entitled ‘How to Win Inspections and Impress Allotment Officers’ is probably one of the most important ones in the book. Within that chapter Kay lists ten areas of concern covering cultivated areas, weeds, structures, rubbish, bonfires, paths, ponds, dogs, unwelcome visitors and immorality – yes, you read me right – on which subject Kay has this to say:
Immorality – it’s illegal. Despite the Darling Buds of May effect (which means that anybody near gooseberry bushes or a man whose trousers are held up with string immediately becomes robustly suggestive in the Pa Larkin style), using your plot for illegal, immoral or antisocial purposes will – almost everywhere – get your tenancy terminated immediately. On allotment sites owned by the Church of England there can be some odd little rules about Sunday working, which comes under immoral behaviour, believe it or not, but I don’t think they are enforced any more.
That may well be the case south of the border but the Wee Frees wouldn’t be quite so tolerant I’m sure.
If I wasn’t already resolute in my determination never to garden again, this book would not convince me to give it a go. Gardening is hard. If you think all you have to do is dig a few holes, bung in a seed or a bulb or something, cover and then let Nature do her bit you are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. I reiterate: gardening is hard and I don’t mean hard as in hard labour, I mean hard as in complex. Here is part of Errol’s instructions for growing watermelons:
Use Russian watermelon seed. Start the seed off in peat pots on a shelf over a radiator 95 days before you expect to harvest them
Build three south-facing watermelon beds. They need to be seven feet by seven with wood walls three feet tall and a further two-foot of windbreak above that. Set an opening in one of the walls and make sure you can fold back your windbreak to get into the bed. Make the windbreak of old sheets of fleece, anything that’s white – whitewash the inside walls of the beds too.
Take out the soil to a depth of two feet and replace it with a mixture of equal thirds: well-rotted manure, home-made compost, good topsoil. Mound it up so there is a hill in the middle of each bed.
When the last frost has passed, and each seedling has four leaves, put two pots in the ground on each hill. After two weeks, thin out the weaker seedlings and lay straw in the bed so that it’s level with the hill. Don’t compress this. This reflects sun back to the fruit and holds warmth.
Water daily – make sure the water is blood temperature. The best feed for watermelons is weekly liquid nitrogen until they set flowers and then a weekly potassium feed as the fruit grows.
Of course he might have just been pulling her leg. As well as several other questionable approaches to getting the best crops, there are, I assure you, more than enough real hints to keep you happy.
I may have objected to our accommodation including a garden but I assure you I have no problems with it containing a kitchen although it’s fair to say that I’m about as good a cook as I ever was a gardener. Kay’s book is, however, peppered with recipes, things to do with all these fruits and vegetables you’ve probably never heard of before like “Snow Belle: a porcelain white and perfectly globular variety [of radish] that’s particularly good for salads”, calabrese, kohlrabi, borlotti, blue potatoes, everlasting onions and pineberries (white strawberries that taste like a pineapple) although there are plenty of recipes for more familiar fair, like ‘Winter-Stored Apple and Frozen Blackberry Tarte Tatin’, ‘Purple Sprouting Broccoli Hash’, ‘Almost Instant Chutney’, ‘Sunshine Carrots’ and ‘Plum Curd’. Here’s one of the shorter ones:
- 12 or so thumb-sized summer radishes
- 2 cloves garlic
- 200 grammes soft spreadable cheese
- A good-sized bunch of fresh herbs (enough to sit on the palm of your hand): parsley, marjoram, thyme, dill, chives, tarragon – more or less whatever you have to hand, but stay away from basil and mint, both of which overpower the peppery and bright taste of the radish
Whiz the first four ingredients together in a food processor, or finely chop by hand, then hand-chop the herbs to remove any woody stalks and blend them into the mixture with your fingers.
Put in a dish and refrigerate for at least two hours. Serve with hot cheese scones, wholemeal bread or melba toast.
I mentioned it earlier. Now here it is. The reason I hated eating cabbage and Brussels sprouts as a kid:
Tolerance for brassicas (cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.) comes from our genes. A certain class of people, called ‘supertasters’, are sensitive to a particular bitter chemical compound – 6-n-propylthiouracil, familiarly known as PROP – which they find unpalatably strong. Some people, known as ‘non-tasters’, just don’t pick up any taste of PROP at all, while ‘medium tasters’ do get the bitterness on their taste buds but don’t object to it.
Virtually all children, pre-puberty, have a stronger reaction to PROP than adults, so the childhood hatred of ‘greens’ is not just picky eating, and may fade by one’s twenties, which suggests that this supertaster gene may be an evolutionary mechanism that stopped primitive children eating unsafe foods they foraged alongside adults.
I can testify to the fact that as a kid I would howl at the table when made to eat cabbage especially and now I regard it as a bit of a treat, particularly red cabbage. I’ve still never developed a fondness for the astringent taste of rhubarb and gooseberries although these aren’t PROP-rich. If you are tempted to try a little gardening, however, Kay does have this to say about rhubarb:
Rhubarb has many advantages, not least that it is easy to grow. If the planet is side-swiped by a nuclear disaster, I predict that along with the cockroaches, rhubarb plants will survive!
This is a lovely book. It’s a hardback and so will cost you about £9.99 ($14.15 on Amazon.com) unless it’s on offer somewhere which it likely will be. It is not available as an e-book as far as I’m aware (Kay thinks there’s one coming though) but if it was, so much would be lost in the process of transference: the illustrations, the tables, the various fonts all would vanish certainly on a Kindle. This has the look of a book that would get given to an elderly relative at Christmas – I know Carrie is thinking about giving a copy to her dad who doesn’t have an allotment (he has a large garden) but was a great fan of James Herriott – and I’m sure many of them would appreciate it, but the book’s scope is wider than that. To that end I don’t think the book’s title does it any favours but it’s slightly better than Trugs, Dibbers, Trowels and Twine and everything good about gardening with little tips and words of wisdom and inspiration on the simplest of pleasures by Isobel Carlson which is advertised at the back of the book. Nabokov, sadly, it is not but Kay does give James Herriot a run for his money.
Although much as the book entertained me I am still sorry to report that it has done nothing to sway me from my currently held opinions about all things appertaining to gardening and I suspect that the only thing that would might be starvation and even then if there is a nuclear holocaust the likelihood is that you will find me subsisting on cockroaches and rhubarb before I'd think about planting anything no matter how many allotments had been freed up by the devastation. Unfortunately Kay doesn’t have a recipe for a recipe for Cockroach and Rhubarb Crumble. Perhaps in the sequel, eh? A post apocalyptic gardening book – there’s got to be a market.
Minding My Peas and Cucumbers: Quirky Tales of Allotment Life is published by Summersdale Publishers Limited.
Kay Sexton proves that there’s hope for all of us. She left school with no discernable qualifications and has had a plethora of jobs ranging from glamour model, mortician’s assistant, dental receptionist, chambermaid and nudist camp agony aunt (there has to be a book in there somewhere). Eventually she had to enter the real world and spent more than a decade as Chief Executive for charitable and environmental organisations worldwide. She has also been a house writer for several environmental/social responsibility non-profits.
Her publication credits range from H&E International to France Today to the World Water Forum Annual Report. Kay’s fiction has been chosen for over forty anthologies and been broadcast on Radio 4. Her unpublished novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, she was shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2008, a finalist for the Bridport Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story prize 2010 alongside A.L. Kennedy, Rose Tremain, Jackie Kay and Helen Simpson. You can follow her misadventures in literature on her blog: Writing Neuroses ... mine are rare, yours may be legion.