Michael Tierney: Gulf riches versus allotment joy

Burj Khalifa, Dubai - Tallest building in the world. Picture: Contributed

Burj Khalifa, Dubai - Tallest building in the world. Picture: Contributed

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IT’S IMPOSSIBLE not to be dazzled by Dubai’s glamour and architecture, writes Michael Tierney, but life is about simpler pleasures.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai. Nineties supermodel, Helena Christensen. An allotment in Springburn, north Glasgow. A half-dozen eggs, a fruit loaf, sitting on buckets. And me…

I never imagined I would ever write all those words in one paragraph but a few years ago I worked on a book documenting the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, in Dubai. I was invited to meet His Highness and follow his desert entourage while he took part in the Giants Endurance Challenge. Helena, a renowned photographer as well as model, was available to shoot the occasion. I was editorial director so it would have been rude, of course, to say no.

His Highness won his race. Helena took her photographs while I somehow contrived to end up with the UAE flag and his No 7 jersey, he crossed the finishing line. Seven being his lucky number and, coincidentally, the number of zeros I’d like to hear one of these days when I listen to offers…

The Burj Khalifa grew (see below). I attended exclusive parties and events in Dubai. I met fashion designer Giorgio Armani in Milan, who built a stunning hotel in the tower. In January 2010, I attended the inauguration of the tower. Then the company producing the book ran into financial problems.

And now I’m growing carrots in Springburn.

At least I try to while working on books, and other projects, of my own. Our allotment journey started a few months ago when my wife received a surprise call from the secretary of Springburn Allotments saying a plot was now available. My wife had put her name down eight years earlier.

I shook my head. An allotment was the last thing I wanted to get involved in. The kids shook theirs too. Perhaps their mum, finally, had actually lost the plot never mind gained one. August arrived and, with reticent children in tow, it was spent clearing as much overgrown grass and vegetation as possible.

Against the backdrop of much harrumphing we banned iPhones and iPads. The three kids, aged between 10 and 15, somewhat surprisingly began to quite enjoy it. And so we began to plough and dig and weed and shear and cut and cart and burn and sow.

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Aidan, our youngest, said he would go to the allotment every day if it meant I didn’t have to travel as much as previously. The summer holidays were perfect. We met other gardeners who were miles ahead in both knowledge and ability but were more than willing to help.

By September and October the old shed left behind posed a difficult question. I wanted to knock it down and rebuild it but my wife wanted to patch it up from some of the old doors and wood lying around. It’s still in place, tottering like a stack of milk crates. We’ve promised to do it next year.

For the most part I just like to dig for half an hour, turning an old spade over and over, clearing and cleaning the soil, and then sit for a bit and chat with some of the others. There’s a Chinese family with a fantastically ordered plot. The Irishman has dug a fine plot too and his harvest will be grand. The lady next door has bees. On warmer nights bonfires have been lit, beers shared and vegetables swapped.

For many it is a serious pastime. They are up at dawn for a few hours digging trenches for potatoes and returning after work. For those who don’t work they spend days on end with brassicas, roots and others. For me the allotment is an abstraction: somewhere, however briefly, to address the nature of ourselves on the land. A place to clear the head, ruminate over the past and plan the future.

The idea of common land is wonderful. Out in the open air yet barely able to hear the cars up on the Kirkintilloch Road. I’m trying to learn not to always think like a city dweller. I like it. I really do. Though we live in fear of a bad cultivation letter, or our plot deemed un-worked, it is there for as long as we can use it. And I’m struck by the small joy of having no experience and then planting a seed and watching it grow (maybe one day)…

I want to spend more time there. My wife has been unable to go as much as she wished due to a family bereavement but we have promised that, after winter, we will attack it with gusto. All of us: children and dogs included. We sip our tea from flasks, eat homemade sandwiches from their wrapping and watch the kids run around with the dogs. We light a fire and put potatoes on it donated by others. We claim the small birds that have taken to landing in our plot are ours. I have smaller dreams now than I have ever had.

Winter is drawing in like a child wrapped in a curtain. Next summer I’ll be sitting in the grass in my old, second-hand chair, the sun will beat down past the high, Springburn flats. The shed will be new (or renewed) and perhaps I’ll finally forget where Dubai has gone and hardly care.

The cost of building Downtown Burj Khalifa was around £20 billion and, in all honesty, I loved working on that project. But it’s about a tenner annually for Springburn Allotments. Three pounds for OAPs after a five-year membership. I’ve lost more than that running for the bus. And I’m not getting any younger. So I’m quids, and carrots, in. Sheikhs and supermodels? Been there. Even got the jersey…

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