Frank's out to ruin my plot: The trouble with allotments is the committee that runs them, says Magnus Mills

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Indy Lifestyle Online
At the top of a wooded hill in south London is a piece of land measuring 121 square yards, or 'four rods'. I rent it for pounds 14.75 a year. I can stand on it, jump up and down on it, even cultivate it. Allotments are supposed to be cultivated, so that is what I do. Some of my happiest hours are spent 'up the allotment'.

Anyone who has an allotment will know that allotment-holders are divided into two groups. There are those with tidy allotments and those with scruffy ones. The tidy ones have neat rectangular plots, carefully built boxes, sheds and compost bins, and few weeds. The scruffy ones have weeds, unkempt edges, and stacks of unused timber which the tidy people would like to get their hands on (to build more boxes etc).

I think I fall into the tidy category: I have got two compost bins, a box and a hut. But recently I thought I was going to be thrust into the scruffy category. For some reason, although my plot is rectangular, it is not as rectangular as everybody else's; and it lies in the opposite direction to all the others, sideways on.

So, while the others are all laid out in a grid criss-crossed with paths, mine lies across a path and encroaches into the neighbouring plot which, as a result, is a narrow rectangle. The overall pattern is thus spoilt. It is not my fault: this is how they were laid out when I took the plot over a few years ago. It also so happens that three plots next to mine are unoccupied. One of them is overgrown with brambles. So even though my own plot is tidy, the general area appears scruffy. And it is the scruffy parts that attract the attention of the allotments society committee.

The other day I was digging my plot when I became aware that Frank, the allotments society secretary, was standing looking at me. Or rather, at my plot. Frank is a classic example of Preoccupied Man. He always looks preoccupied. And he is of the tidy contingent. He smiled. This immediately made me feel uneasy. 'Hello, Frank,' I said chirpily, 'got any takers for the vacant plots?'

He hesitated: 'Well . . . we're thinking of realigning the plots just here first.'

My heart sank. My plot was to be carved up, annexed, truncated. This would mean losing part of my cultivated soil and getting some weed-infected 'virgin territory' in return. I thought of all the work I had done, all the couch grass I had cleared, all that digging, blood, sweat and tears wasted. It made my back hurt just thinking about it. I was a non-aligned nation state under siege from the imperialists. I straightened up and faced him.

'Oh yes?' I said. We looked at each other. Neither of us blinked. He knew as well as I did the full implications of his decision. He had the full weight of the committee behind him. All I had was a steady eye and a spade. After a long moment Frank said, 'I'll have another think about it,' and he wandered off.

I went and had a chat with the woman who has a plot on the other side of the brambles. I mentioned that I thought there was a fox living among them because the other evening I had spotted one lurking nearby. 'How nice,' she said, 'Do you think we should leave some food out for him?'

Of course not, I told her. It would make the fox lazy and encourage the rats. 'Oh yes. I've heard about the rats,' she said. We all had. This was another of Frank's preoccupations. Some rats had appeared at the allotments lately and Frank, mindful of the health risk, had taken action. He had put up a notice warning us of the problem and asking us not to be too complacent. We should not leave anything behind that would tempt the rats, and we should turn over our compost heaps regularly so nesting was not encouraged. Finally we were told that the committee would take steps to have the rats killed. This all made good sense to me. But my neighbour did not agree. 'The poor things,' she said, 'they can't help being rats.'

I looked at her little girl playing merrily nearby. There were rat holes at the corner of her plot. I said nothing. Then she had a thought: 'Do you think the fox will catch the rats?'

'No,' I replied, 'but the feral cats will: they're all over the place.' Then I added, 'The fox will probably concentrate on killing the squirrels and rabbits.'

'Poor things]' she exclaimed again. I looked at the sorry state of her bean frame, which had been attacked by assorted rodents. I did not say anything else.

I left her to her digging. When I got back to my plot, Frank was there again. 'Here it comes,' I thought, expecting the worst. But Frank is a reasonable man, a diplomat even. 'All that work you've done; you won't really want to start again, will you?' he said. 'I'll tell you what: we'll realign the paths and these other plots in line with yours.'

'Oh, right, thanks,' I said, relieved. He went away again, still looking preoccupied, yet somehow lighter. I carried on digging until dusk, and then I hid my spade. I have been hiding my spade ever since most of us had our tool boxes cleared out by thieves. I lost my fork, hoe, hammer, saw and gloves. They left my spade (nice of them). Some of us suspect the car-boot fraternity. Others blame the recession. Either way it is another worry for Frank, along with the vandalism.

I headed home on my bike. On the way out, I passed Frank working on his plot. ' 'Night, Frank,' I called. He did not hear me. He was too preoccupied.

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