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Thursday, 5 February 2015

My plot

'Above all remember; allotment gardening is fun, it's healthy and it's a great way to meet people. So the most important thing is to enjoy your allotment.'
Advice from the Allotments Section at Birmingham City Council suggests it takes 3 years to get a new allotment in order, but that's if you are already skilled and organised.

I and Lin and now my waged help, Winnie, have been digging over and over, weeding, weeding, weeding (dragging out those sinuous creeping white couch grass rhizomes especially)....
Winnie and Simon on Plot 14 (photo: Sue Hall, Winnie's mum)

....laying permanent paths, cutting out and pegging down porous weed control fabric, making temporary paths by moving around stacks of the industrial-grade carpet tiles I picked up for free during a garden clearance for Handsworth Helping Hands. Making separate beds accessible. The plot is just over 200 square meters, but with the shed and paths only half of that area is now working soil.
Potatoes planted in a bed dug over and over, weeded; new topsoil and compost raked in; all easily worked from surrounding paths

I love it. I do. I really do. But this is not a 'working man's' allotment from which i can proudly feed my family - the ideal of small holdings - urban green spaces whose legislative protection grows weaker by the year. Mine is a hobby plot - a word I dislike; a fact I accept, as a man seven generations from the land. My family have been townspeople, even when enjoying life in the country, since my ancestor Samuel Lees in Oldham became an iron master, then cotton mill owner, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. True my stepfather could work the ground, handle stock, and grow vegetables in large numbers while my grandmother, Bar, abandoned metropolitan life to start the dairy farm where I was born in March 1942 and spent a lot of my childhood - an idyllic place I first heard described, when I was in my teens, as 'a hobby farm - by my stepfather.
Mill End: Simon on Gypsy, Bar on the haywain
I can't say I'd rather my allotment wasn't just a hobby. That's silly. I don't quite know what I was thinking. I suppose I think of it more as an experiment; a test even.
January 2007 - a picture in The Birmingham Evening Mail "When will the company who bought this green space in Birmingham and built on a third of it lay out the allotments that were part of planning gain deal agreed with Birmingham City Council?"
A hobby is 'a regular activity done for pleasure during one's leisure time'. Campaigning ten years to stop the Victoria Jubilee Allotments from being built over and, after that busy time - lobbying, writing, filming, speaking - getting the opportunity to work this plot, has hardly been a leisured activity. I've never been that keen about dividing activities into ones that are leisure, and one's that aren't. I've a distaste for how that distinction defines 'work'.
Starting on Plot 14 in 2010

I want Plot 14 - one Lin and I chose when the Victoria Jubilee Allotments opened in June 2010 - to prosper. I want it fecund, thriving - a source of pride and good food, I want to agree with the advice that an allotment should be enjoyable.
I've invested money on help, on topsoil, on compost, striving to get the ground closer to how I think it needs to be, and all the time I'm learning, with help from other plot-holders far better than me at growing their own - especially my friends Ziggi with her plot in north London and Vanley with his on the Victoria Jubilee, just a few yards away.
Winter sown broad beans with a sprinkle of potash to rake in
I'm going to make this work. But I'm reminded of Douglas Adam's remark "Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss" or Winston Churchill saying 'success involves persevering from one failure to the next', The gardening guide books I read aren't helpful. They begin at a point I'm still striving to reach. They hardly mention soil filled with rubbish, as well as stones, nor do they seem to give much attention to the emotions aroused by the depredations of slugs, onion fly, pigeons, snails (with their exquisite shells I find impossible to crush), and human pilferers - the ones that stole my garlic last year! How I do not envy new plot holders as inexperienced as I, trying to get vegetables to grow on adjoining plots that are like mine was four and half years ago, perhaps worse.
Stones continue to come out of the soil at every dig....

....but they never appear in the books
...and this worthy tutor teaches me more or less nothing about how to dig my plot

I emailed Clive Birch, BDAC, for advice:
Dear Clive.  Happy New Year 2015.  I hope you're well. I've a favour to ask. Since 2010 I have struggled to get my allotment working. You’d not expect less when I’ve invested so much in getting it in the first place. My favour is also a question. We have by all accounts rather uneven topsoil on the VJA. I know that allotments officers on the council were hesitant about accepting the new plots from Persimmon under the S106A of 2004 because the land was not adequately prepared by the developer. Those of us pressing to get the allotments up and running pressed the council to let people start gardening. A minority of plot holders are doing pretty well but all I’ve spoken to admit they’ve had to do a lot of work getting the soil manageable and productive. It is full of stones, bricks, and other debris, as well as chunks of clay with - in some places - ground heavily compressed by building plant machinery. A lot of us have invested in manure, compost and extra topsoil. I would - now that I am beginning to feel more in control - be so grateful for someone coming to look at the soil on my plot to give me an assessment and tell me the best way to continue improving it. All the guide books speak of adding nutrients and getting a balance between acid and alkali, but I’m in the dark as to the starting point on soil composition. It would be great if someone with much more experience and knowledge than I could drop over and give my plot soil an assessment and diagnosis with suggestions as to the what would now be the best treatment to get healthy crops. Would this be possible? Best wishes Simon 
Simon. An experienced allotment holder visited your site and had a good look round, concentrating on the soil structure. Some plots were thriving, some were struggling and some were vacant and overgrown - the overgrown plots obviously were able to support plant life! You can test the acidity of soil [test kits available at DIY/ Nursery] - often the only balance used is lime for the brassicas. The answer to improving the plot - clear rough debris - stones etc [stones can be buried to provide drainage] Clay - working in compost - leaf mould is one of best ways - over wintering will help here. Adding as much rotted compost/manure is great. Leave on surface for a while then dig in [note some crops do not like fresh manure!] You could import topsoil but beware it could include weeds etc even Japanese knot weed! Perseverance is needed. Hope this helps. Best wishes, Clive
So really there's almost nothing in that I don't know, except for the hint about brassicas and the use of stones for drainage. Yet I'm grateful for the confirmation. The depth of my ignorance shared with Lin had me putting my seed potatoes under our bed to chit.
"They need the dark" Lin insisted, so under our bed they went.

I checked this up in books and on the internet
"No Linda! They need light not dark!"
Since the only chitting spuds we'd ever seen were the ones that start sprouting in the veg cupboard in the kitchen we'd assumed that darkness was needed. Out came the spuds from under the bed. Now I have them laid out in the conservatory.
A potato from the kitchen cupboard
Seven months ago the plot looked lovely - the greenery of mid-summer covering a multitude of sins. How will it look this summer? Much depends on what i do in the next few weeks.
June 2014

***** ***** *****
That other plot...
"We didn't reach an agreement. It was never on the cards that we would"
Yanis Varoufakis meets Wolfgang Schäuble in Berlin. The first 10 minutes of the clip has journalists and camera-folk preparing to see and hear statements. Then 'the curtain rises'. There they are, by god! Varoufakis has earned a concession before the conversation began. Greece is talking through Varoufakis to the Finance Minister of Germany - not to the Troika who Tsipras told his voters would not be the new Greek government's first port of call after the election. At 23.25 the German turns with courtesy to the Greek who with the journalists has been listening to the most sober and grave re-iteration from Schäuble for the European Project, an address not really to beloved and beleaguered Greece but to a far wider and more fragmented and unreliable audience across our continent.
Aristeidis Metallinos, Ano Korakiana's laic sculptor, depicts the EEC (EOK) as a broody chimaera
In my head there plays as background to this press statement I hear music - the 'Song for the Unification of Europe' composed by Zbigniew Preisner, sung in Greek by Elżbieta Towarnicka - an abridged version of 1 Corinthians:13, from the soundtrack of Krzysztof Kieślowski film 'Bleu'. Varoufakis is also in government but he speaks eloquently, poetically, to the people of Germany; pleads to them for their support in fighting the threat of fascism in Greece. I feel I am watching two statesmen at work; two men who know their trade.

I had an exchange with Richard Pine a few days ago. He wrote in The Irish Times
Tsipras appears to be naively idealistic, innocent, ingenuous and transparent, but he needs to be secretive, cunning and dishonest to succeed in the minefield he has created. As Maurice Manning once said of Garret FitzGerald, it is difficult to trust someone who pours a glass of wine without reading the label on the bottle. Tsipras wants to do the impossible, but if he is to succeed as a political leader he must learn the art of the possible and acquire the killer instinct.
So Richard suggests Tsipras must imitate the Greek hero Odysseus - famous for escaping terrible dangers more through cunning than face-to-face combat. My email:
Richard. I recall writing this in a paper published in the 90s about political skill in civil servants and politicians.....The constant negotiation of this moral minefield is part of life and certainly part of government. An additional layer of complexity is added to these circumstances by the fact that in families, as indeed in government, many people recognise the presence of these dynamics and may actually impart “in confidence”, something intended to be passed on. A process of negotiation is occurring where one person appears to be trusting another to risk being untrustworthy. The novelist Iain McEwan describes public figures who move around in this moral maze by navigating the complicated channels that run between truth and lying: 'with sure instincts while retaining a large measure of dignity. Only occasionally, as a consequence of tactical error, was it necessary to lie significantly, or tell an important truth. Mostly it was sure-footed scampering between the two extremes. Wasn’t the interior life much the same?’  (McEwan 1988:182)....McEwan captures the moral nimbleness that accompanies grown-up behaviour - public and private - where corruption and probity are proximate rather than polar and, where rules are at best casuitical; maintaining integrity requires wit.  What I struck me about Iain McEwan’s words is that self-query 'Wasn’t the interior life much the same?’  My tolerance of politicians about whom you are much more judgemental (I think) is that politics - certainly the politics of government - is that it’s so like my internal life and I suggest I’m not alone in that. Best, Simon 
Richard: You mean you lie to yourself and let not your right hand know....? 
Simon: That’s what Iain McEwan is suggesting. I care about the environment and do many things that harm it. I shop at supermarkets while praising the survival of small shops. I think lascivious thoughts about other women. The list of my moral inconsistencies is endless and I don’t let them worry me or lessen my expressions of concern about the sins of my fellows.
My interior life is a parliament of debate with every now and then a rare internal argument from which the whips are withdrawn and I have a vote in which I must truly interrogate my conscience - but most of the time I’m bladerunning ‘the complicated channels that run between truth and lying”.
I think you have so hit the spot when saying how Tspiras must be. The killer instinct etc. Do you think he has it? Could he grow into it? Is his partner going to help? Peristera Batziaka. ‘Tough cookie”? This is riveting. S 
R: I don't have that problem/advantage. I never argue or debate with myself. I am conscience-free when I wake, and the same when I go to sleep. Thanks for the Batziaka article - interesting that "peristera" means "pigeon" or "turtle-dove". R 
S: 'Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.' Matt 10:16 "I never argue or debate with myself. I am conscience-free when I wake, and the same when I go to sleep”. People will make pilgrimages to seek your advice - the sage of Perithia. You make me think of that other writer Nikos Kazantzakis “I hope nothing. I fear nothing. I am free. This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realise of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”  S
Draw me a picture....

In other words just 10.6% of the €254 billion funds 'state operating needs'

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Simon Baddeley