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Saturday, 24 July 2010

Working on the allotment

Starting on a shed on our plot on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments from Simon Baddeley on Vimeo.I got three planks, stored in the garage roof, left over from building an extra room in our Handsworth home twenty years ago, put them on the rack of Lin's car and took them out to the allotments using a spirit level to make a level rectangle that I must fill with earth and stones and detritus, tamping it well down to get a surface for flags. After that we'll look out for a shed. Oscar came to the plot with me, sat as usual in the blue plastic cycle box while I was on the road. He wandered around staying close, lay in the sun and watched, until another terrier on the park side started nosing around the fence. OscarOscar from Simon Baddeley on Vimeo. There's hardly a moment when I'm not thinking of the recession and since asymmetric war occurs everywhere involving all, Wikileaks helps even an intelligence deficit. Julian Assange on the failures of journalism "Too few Western journalists have died". This observation reminds me of a comment by my stepfather on war correspondents during the 1940s - several of whom he knew as friends in later years. He told me that ordinary soldiers often thought they were crazy. For their part, war journalists believing themselves less exposed than real soldiers, would - compensating for their non-combatant status - take undemanded risks in pursuit of a story. (Some examples of Wikileaks content re Afghanistan)
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I continued digging, working faster than before after Jill's advice; not worrying about picking out stones and weeds, just turning the soil with the fork. Later I can go over the ground and pick out roots and larger stones and other detritus that got mixed with the soil when the developer levelled the ground of the original allotments and pushed all the topsoil into an enormous mound near the backs of the houses on Holly Road, only re-spreading the resulting mélange in the early months of this year. Bits and pieces of plastic, glass, polythene, rusty iron, a chunk of lead, pieces of wood, ground up parts of sheds, greenhouses, fences and other things that were once on the old private plots of the Victoria Jubilee Allotments.
Victoria Jubilee Allotments stripped 2005
Topsoil from the VJA site in 2005. Photo: Luke Unsworth
There are whole bricks, old and new, chunks of gravel and tarmac, and innumerable smooth rounded stones and pebbles that were once under the surface of the twenty mile wide tropical prehistoric river estuary that someone on Uplands Allotments, up the road, told me flowed through this area millions of year ago.
fat-hen. It's food!
The weeds on our plot include fat hen, purple toadflax, redshanks and groundsel, dock, nettles and a sprinkling of couch grass. Fat hen - chenopodium album - like the other plants is a wild flower with so many different names in English alone - white goosefoot, lamb's quarters, nickel greens, pigweed or dungweed. In Hindi it's Bathua and can be used among other things to flavour paratha or make raita; cropped as food in India, and once regularly used as a vegetable here - like the steamed horta (χόρτα βραστά) we enjoy in Greece. Toadflax - linaria purpurea - provides pollen for bees; a laxative for people. Redshanks is one of the first weeds to appear on new topsoil. It can be used against diarrhoea and infections, its fresh leaves with their characteristic dark spot in the centre can staunch bleeding while its shoots and young leaves can be cooked as a vegetable. Groundsel - Old-man-in-the-spring, ragwort, grimsel, grinsel, grundsel, simson, birdseed, chickenweed, old-man-of-the-spring, squaw weed, Grundy swallow, ground glutton, common butterweed - is poisonous to many mammals, including humans but has also been described by herbalists as having many virtues.
** ** ** ** Present reading: Just finished The Allotment by Colin Crouch and David Ward. Just started Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski. Though Katzanzaki's The Fratricides comes to mind I know of no Greek novel - and would be fascinated to find one - that so captures the mingling of personal and political at the moment a country was poised between retreating Nazism and the adversity that affected all of Eastern Europe, precipitating Greece's four year Civil War (ο Eμφύλιος).
There's been rumours and rumours of allotment rent increases for at least a year. I've just seen a note on the Birmingham & District Allotments Council website dated 9 July 2010:
Had a sneak preview of the new rent increases - not good news at all! Will post them on the website as soon as possible. All I can say that by 2013 there may be a lot of plots surrendered!

I ought to relax with shock horror but - pause - there's a longer argument. Allotments were once for the poor - a plot of land on which a working man could raise food for his family. Increasingly reasons for working an allotment have become more layered - in the words of an Oxford Brookes study, which produced a pie-diagram of plotholders' reasons for leasing:If I understand this, the 'cheap food' motive is one among many others, with 'health', 'quality food', 'environmental concerns' being of equal or higher importance. Allotments in many places have become gentrified. More are becoming so - worked by people who could afford to pay more, especially as 'cheap food' isn't a priority. Add-in an unprecedented cash squeeze on the public sector and there are more reasons why local government managers and councillors to plan rent increases for municipal allotments, increases that will have been preceded on private allotments (note the £150 annual rental option proposed by The New Allotment Company).
I was given a reminder of harder facts by Richard Wiltshire at least four years ago. He gently but firmly interrupted my flowing derogation of developers, victimisation of gardeners, the bias of community planning gain agreements, loss of urban growing space..."If people are so keen to grow their own food why don't they use and share domestic gardens that exist in abundance among the non-tower block residing middle classes."
Richard had just co-authored Growing in the Community - an LGA policy report which has government favour both before and, I suspect, even more so after the latest election. It emphasises the move away from a 19th century tradition of allotments as an antidote to pauperisation. Richard had stopped me to impart reservations about the allotments as opposed to city farms. "Why are city farms thriving and allotments under threat?" The word 'allotment' contains an implication of calculative philanthropy - "We'll allot you some land to grow food...until we need it to make money." Much allotment land is on prime urban development land with potential rental value vastly in excess of current allotment rents. He argues that the degree of protection accorded allotments would be more politically acceptable if a greater number of plot-holders were more ready to exercise the social responsibilities, locally and nationally, that should go with being so sheltered from market forces. Instead many view their plots as held by right, shouting too loudly against any move to increase rents - and in the process undermining their political position, especially the standing of their national body - NSALG. The way this argument goes is that - like parks with which I'm well familiar and have written - the existing case for allotments as a public good has become largely redundant. If allotments are to survive and thrive a new and more sophisticated case, like that now refined for public parks [see the Philadelphia Report] must be made to justify not replacing them with buildings. I'd go along with that. It's a case that we'll need to have in hand when Birmingham City Council presents us with its plot rent rise proposals. Present charges:

Plot Category


Over 60 Rate

Small ( Cat A )



Standard ( Cats B/C )



Large ( Cats D/E )



Mini Plot (Cat A*)



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