Thursday, 12 January 2012

Allotted Time by Robin Shelton book review in The Daily Yomiuri on 19th May 2007

Allotment gardeners reap intangible rewards
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Allotted Time
By Robin Shelton
Sidgwick and Jackson, 334 pp, 12.99 pounds

"Allotment life is somehow as large a part of English Country Life as a game of village cricket."

Robin Shelton's comment at the end of Allotted Time will be echoed by anyone who has ever wandered past an area of land in Britain that has been divided into plots for hopeful gardeners to rent.

Not that Shelton and his good friend Steve Newcombe would have described themselves as gardeners when a drunken conversation ended with them agreeing to take on a 15-by-9-meter allotment for one year. So what is an allotment? Although it can be traced back to the 11th and 12th centuries, the modern concept of allotmenteering in Britain peaked around the end of World War I. After a brief revival in the government's World War II "Dig For Victory" campaign, it has been in steady decline ever since.

However, these small plots of land, available for lease from local governments at a token annual rent of about 10-20 pounds (20-40 dollars), continue to make an important contribution to the patchwork of traditional British life and are even enjoying something of a revival as a means of escape from the stressful lives that many people lead.

Allotted Time is not written as some kind of horticultural yearbook--thank goodness. Instead, Shelton explains the whys and wherefores behind their decision, and the ups of downs of the ensuing 12 months, in an engaging manner that is peppered with moments of droll wit.

So what drove them to do it? The book jacket claims it was the chance to build a shed, but the text reveals that it was more down to their own voyages of self-discovery. Some men buy expensive sports cars or find girlfriends half their age to deal with midlife crises. Not these two Englishmen--they grew some vegetables.

And for the most part, their journey is an entertaining one, even for someone like myself, whose closest exposure to gardening was growing cress in a tissue-paper covered saucer at primary school.

The story begins in the English village of Twyford, about 50 kilometers west of London, when Shelton, a manic depressive, and Newcombe, a disillusioned mental health carer, take the first tentative steps on their road to redemption, based on two basic principles, summed up by the author as: "Number one states that whatever we need to know...can be gleaned from my mother. Principle number two is based on the belief that, well, stuff just grows, doesn't it?"

In spite of this self-effacing, innocent approach to their project, there are times in the book when the horticultural jargon becomes as dense as the bindweed that is the bane of his allotment life.

And while the finer points of vegetable-growing bog the story down in a little too much detail at times, Shelton saves his account from turning into a gardening handbook with some witty asides and an honesty that perhaps could only come from the pen of someone in search of an answer to his troubles.

At one point, when he says he could watch "some news to stop me from thinking how stupid and s--t gardening is, how equally awful this book is and, consequently, how bloody lousy all of my life is," one realizes just how much of an emotional investment Shelton had made in the project.

In one of the book's appendices Shelton quotes a report on allotments carried out by Britain's Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 1998 that recommended that "health authorities recognize and exploit the therapeutic potential of allotments for people with mental or physical health problems."

For Shelton, the drunken decision that would eventually result in Allotted Time was the first step on his road to recovery. The journey never becomes too personal yet carries a message of hope for readers, wherever they are, that what appears to be a mundane activity can sometimes bring profound benefits.

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