Chitra Ramaswamy: Big digs at the allotment

APPARENTLY C has “amazing” news for me. Oh goody, I think. The car has been sold. No, even better, a surprise holiday on a Greek island. No, better still: a lifelong subscription to Dogs Monthly. Or the jackpot: a first edition of Anne of Green Gables.

Arthur Fowler
Arthur Fowler
Arthur Fowler

Sadly, it is none of the above. It turns out that a friend, D, has been in touch to say that after an eight-year wait she has finally been given an allotment. And she wants C, who has been on the list a mere four years (it’s harder to get an allotment than it is a table at Noma), to share it with her.

Now, just in case you think I’m some kind of evil plant-hater, a pro-concrete killjoy who goes around plucking petals from roses, trampling bluebells and high-fiving weeds, let me explain via a simple equation. Allotments = sheds. Sheds = spiders. Ergo, allotments = HELL. Simple. Also, I’m of that generation that came of age watching Arthur Fowler in EastEnders ‘up the allotments’, which basically meant witnessing a grown man crying, drinking or collapsing in – *shudder* – a shed beneath an ominous sky.

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I appreciate that allotments have changed since then, or rather our perception of them has. Now they’re aspirational oases, the ultimate urban accessory, one’s own little plot of land complete with padlock and the promise of a better lifestyle, a place where photosynthesis-starved urbanites can plunge their hands into cool, wormy, earth. I’m still scared of them, though.

And yet... the worm is turning. I think I’m finally growing up. Now, walking Daphne across Leith Links, I watch fellow homo sapiens with curiosity as they push wheelbarrows through their allotments, dig up potatoes, or just sit with a mug of tea when the clouds part to enjoy a rare moment in the sun. They look happy. They look like they know something I don’t.

And I grew up with Ma Ramaswamy, after all, a woman known to hitch up her sari and scale a wall, Mission Impossible-style, in pursuit of a cutting. When my family was forced to leave a house with a garden for a small second-floor council flat in the Thatcher years, I always suspected it was the garden that Ma R missed most. And many years later, as readers of this column will know, she commandeered a missing concrete square in the back court and started a guerilla garden that is still going strong today.

C’s dad, who died a few years ago, never had his own allotment. But, like C, he helped out at a friend’s. He was a kind, gentle man, the sort who was happiest putting on his walking boots and striding out into nature on his own. Sometimes, in the summer, he would leave a plastic bag full of rhubarb outside our door. No sign of him, no note, just a bag of those deep pink stalks with their leafy tops and muddy bottoms. I still miss finding them propped up against the door when I get home.

So maybe, just maybe, I’m starting to like allotments. Not sheds, understand, which are vile breeding grounds for arachnids and should be abolished or kept really, really clean, but the plots themselves. They symbolise our pleasant, nature-loving side. Away from the tax-avoidance, racism and homophobia that I keep being reminded of at the moment, we are a peaceful race who just want to play in dirt. Like hobbits of the Shire, only with smaller, less hairy feet.

“Will you come?” C asked.

“I’m not going in the shed,” I replied, because it’s important to lay down ground rules. They’re the fertiliser of relationships.

“That’s fine,” C said. “You can pick the rhubarb and cook it later.”

“Yes,” I reply. “I’d like that.” n