Our polythene tunnel of love; In The Sticks

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The Independent Culture
DO YOU know that bit in the film Witness, where the Amish do their stuff with a few truckloads of timber and in three minutes erect something the size of the average sports hall? Well, Harrison Ford eat your heart out, you don't need to be in Outback America with a bunch of teetotal guys with black hats to raise a barn. We did it at the weekend, in Roz and Josh's orchard, and there wasn't a member of a religious sect in sight.

True, strictly speaking it wasn't exactly a barn - it was a 40ft polytunnel. So there wasn't a great defining moment when the straining bared muscles of young men caused the hand- crafted wooden frames to leap up against the blue sky. No. The raising part consisted of three clothed blokes stapling a giant see-through bin bag over a frame of metal hoops. But emotionally it's the same as a barn.

Round here, nobody except doctors and retired criminals has a predictable income. You might combine a bit of chicken-rearing with the authorship of soft porn, a spot of Chinese medicine with organic pork rearing, a little light broadcasting with a trade in early potatoes. Almost everybody has some sort of financial dependency on what they do with the plot outside their back door, even if it's only to take the weight out of the grocery bills. In this culture, the polytunnel looms large: you may have land; you may have three terriers on a bit of baler twine; you may even have raised vegetable beds and an old pick-up on blocks in the nettles, but until you have a polytunnel, you ain't nobody.

With a polytunnel you are not just messing about with an embarrassing August glut of runner beans, or marrows that could compete in the Lunchbox Of The Universe contest. You can grow things out of season for real money: strawberries in wet Aprils, lettuce in greasy Novembers. You are able to defy the seasons, and very probably the Inland Revenue. The Drugs Squad, too, if you site your tunnel carefully.

But Josh and Roz's polytunnel was destined for greater things than dope and strawberries from the start. Roz wasn't really that keen; it was Josh who had plans to grow plants with names that sounded like Aztec deities or Apache sexual techniques: Kamatsuna, Koranji and Chilacote. The sort of crops that must be rolled between virgins' thighs at dawn to separate their chaff from seed; that can only be harvested by bare-breasted Amazons at full moon. They are going to be the foods of the future - The Next Big Thing, like sun-dried tomatoes or All Saints baggie jeans. This polytunnel was to be the centre of a quiet revolution, that Josh had been fantasising about for more than a year. Especially the Amazons and virgins part.

But when the tunnel was actually raised, plans were knocked a little off course.

The thing is, Roz discovered that it's really rather nice inside a polytunnel. It's not just another damp spot for voracious plant life to take over. There's lots of space for furniture improvised from last year's hay bales and half the contents of a bankrupt rug shop on the Fulham Road. Not so hot as a greenhouse, but sheltered enough to turn an indifferent June Sunday into sitting-about sort of weather. And the polythene makes the view blurry - it's a bit like being encased in a huge Monet close-up.

Within an hour, the tunnel was hosting it's first social event - a gathering of artists (part-time furniture dealers), musicians (part-time turkey producers), broadcasters (part-time market gardeners) and a lot of terriers (full-time dogs). All disporting themselves on the Persian carpet-covered hay, and eating strawberries, grown in someone else's polytunnel, from a huge communal bowl. "Fabric," Roz said. "You could line it with swathes of velvet and have the most gorgeous winter parties."

"With the right lighting it could be a lovely gallery," said the painters.

"Terrific place for a gig!" said the musicians. "Josh," said Roz. "You'll just have to put up another one. I need this one for cultural pursuits."

I think this polytunnel could be about to add yet another dimension to the rich tapestry of our little rural lives.

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