Allotments: a plot against modern society?

The fad for growing your own food is not radical – it’s a retreat from the attempt to change the world.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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About nine years ago, my partner applied for a plot at our local allotments in south-east London. Given the fact that demand for local-authority allotments seems to be greatly outstripping supply, she was told she might have to wait three years. Instead, she got a call just a few months later. There had been a crackdown on untended plots by the allotment committee and a half-sized plot had become free.

So, one damp Sunday in February 2003, the two of us plus two friends went down to have a bash at turning the soil over. First, the soil was very obviously soaking wet and therefore heavy. Secondly, it seemed to be about 90 per cent clay. We would have had more joy taking up pottery with that soil than growing food. After a couple of hours of backbreaking toil, we’d managed to roughly turn over about a quarter of it. Clearly, this grow-your-own malarkey was hard work, especially when you’re completely clueless about what you’re doing.

Eventually, thanks to the generosity of our fellow allotment holders, we had a couple of rows of spuds in and a couple of rows of broad beans. Progress was slow, but the weather improved, as did the soil thanks to digging a lot of manure and compost into it.

Then the council had to repair some water pipes at the cemetery next door, which also supplied water to the allotments. They just forgot to switch on the water to the allotments afterwards, so we had three weeks with next-to-no water and blazing sunshine. While my working hours were pretty flexible, which meant I could get up to the allotments most days to water the plants, my partner’s job meant she couldn’t take her turn very often.

So I was spending a chunk of my time every day watering plants on an allotment that I didn’t ask for, then spending more time at the weekends (when we weren’t away) digging up more clay and watching black fly eat the green beans despite our best efforts.

All this effort produced about a pound and a half of small potatoes and some bean-shaped food for flies. Admittedly, they were really very nice potatoes, because there is something unique about eating something that’s just been ripped from the ground. Sadly, or maybe not so sadly, that was it for allotments and me as we then moved out of London for a while and had to give the plot up.

In those few months when I worked that allotment I learned a few things.

Firstly, I learned that growing your own food is a lot harder than buying it from a supermarket. I feel very confident that even if we had stuck with it and developed the skills and experience to make the plot more productive, it would be far less time-consuming to work extra hours at the job I knew well and pay for my food from the supermarket than to spend it with a fork in my hand on that plot. There’s only one situation in which growing your own makes economic sense in the UK, as far as I can see, and that’s when you’re retired or unemployed and you don’t or can’t get a wage for your labour. Then growing your own might make more sense, though you’d still need to fork out (as it were) for tools, seeds, compost and so on.

Secondly, eating your own produce is very satisfying. You’ve managed to master nature, to bend it to your will or at least exploit its workings in a creative fashion, after which you can delude yourself that you’ve obtained a ‘free’ dinner.

Thirdly, the allotment was a pretty decent community, with people willing to help each other out, especially the newbies like us. I really hadn’t thought about allotments very much before I had one, but there are clearly an awful lot of people who enjoy gardening and growing their own food.

Fourthly, the social anthropology of the allotment was fascinating. There seemed to be basically two tribes. On the one hand, there were the Arthur Fowlers (after the old EastEnders character), the middle-aged working-class people who’d been there for a long time. The Arthur Fowlers were by no means all male or white, but they did it as a hobby, as a way of relaxing and getting out of the house. Running an allotment for them wasn’t remotely political.

On the other hand, there were the Greenies, who were mostly female and were growing their own as part of an ethical, eco-friendly lifestyle. They’d be composting every scrap of kitchen waste they had and they would kick up merry hell if anyone else tried to use a chemical weedkiller on the site or use a rotavator to dig up the soil (even though, with that clay soil, we really, really could have done with someone doing that for us).

As a result, there were a few tensions between the Arthur Fowlers and the Greenies about how things should be done.

I have to agree with the Arthur Fowlers: I don’t think there’s anything radical about growing your own food. It might be fun, if you like that kind of thing, but I think that to the extent that there has been a turn towards growing your own, it’s a conservative trend. For all its many failings, capitalist society has created a vast division of labour that has made producing many things, including food, very much more efficient than it was in the past. That has freed up millions of people to do other kinds of work while giving us cheaper food with greater security of supply. In the 1930s, people in the UK spent about 30 per cent of their income on food; now it’s about 10 per cent, while food shortages are pretty much unheard of. Why would we want to go back to subsistence farming?

As it happens, growing your own is no more than a gesture. The reality is that people who grow their own are still dependent on the market for much, if not most, of what they eat. It also feels like a retreat, a response to the apparent impossibility of political change and a sense that the world is going pear-shaped. To grow your own is to hunker down in a manner that says I don’t need the rest of you. I’ll grow my own food, make my own clothes, and so on. There may have been a TV comedy, The Good Life, inspired by self-sufficiency, but it seems more like a fantasy, a piece of shit-shovelling role play rather than a serious alternative way of life.

More positively, and perhaps in slight contradiction to what I’ve just said, growing your own also becomes a way of being part of a community. In that, it is not alone. Many people are rightly dissatisfied when the only basis on which they interact with other people is through work, a quick hello to the neighbours and chatting at the school gate if you’ve got kids. Hence the rise of all sorts of weird and wonderful social clubs, from knitting circles to book clubs. The things that would have created a sense of community in the past, like the church, the Women’s Institute, the trade union or the local Labour or Conservative club, are nothing like the force they used to be in society.

Tending an allotment can be an enjoyable pastime, a creative challenge. But pretending that it represents some kind of basis for radical political change or that there is something particularly rewarding about communing with nature seems bizarre.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here. He will speaking at the Manchester Salon event ‘Crafts and gardening: the new frontiers of radicalism?’ tonight. For more information, visit the Manchester Salon website.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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