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