Digging for victory - but not on my patch

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The Independent Online
A RAINBOW stretches from earth to heaven and back again. Or rather, from Peckham to Brixton, passing over Herne Hill half-way. Underfoot, there's some radicchio that's survived November's frosty onslaught, a lone clump of alfalfa for green manure and the tiny, impoverished blackcurrant bush now budding proudly for the distant spring.

Down in the valley, among a haze of trees, the spires of Dulwich College rise to give an impression, in south London redbrick, of King's College from the banks of the Cam. A lone magpie flits into the wildwood that dives down to the Thameslink track rumbling behind the hillside allotments. One for sorrow.

Earlier this year, my second on the plot, the commitments of life usurped the growing of beans, cabbages, radishes and the magnetic charm of no-digging. My bio-energy sagged. Quick to take a hint, subterranean phalanxes of couch grass and convolvulus mined robotically on. Perhaps, if the ground were not infested with these weeds, I could revive the allotment next year. Fantasy; after a day at the office, this rod of land is a back-breaker.

I shall miss the peace of the place. But I suddenly felt anger, not that my gleaming hoe, fork and spade had been houdinied out of the locked tool chest in my lengthy absence, but the thought that, in Leeds, the city council is urging the unemployed to grow their own vegetables on derelict but fertile allotments. No doubt these jobseekers will be encouraged to wear Land Girl corduroy, buy their boots from army surplus, and study the BBC's The Wartime Kitchen and Garden series to hit the right note.

So, what is wrong with encouraging the unemployed to dig for victory, as the city council wishes? Will it not allow them to eat more healthily and live more cheaply? Sure. Fresh air is good for you. Greenfly are rich in protein. Well, several things are wrong. A plot is not a living. Allotments are not part of the economy, they are a reasonably ancient part of the texture of our towns and cities. But they feature only as haphazardly embroidered jewels, places of contemplation, escape. They are not places of subsistence. You couldn't keep chickens here.

For me, young and horizontally mobile, keeping an allotment was a meditative fix. I wanted more from it than sunburn and organic carrots, although it gave me both. For the retired people growing their cabbages, kale and chrysanths, being an allotment holder is a dignified choice - a hobby and a money-saver. Their gentle manners transform the city with transplanted village warmth, whether from Essex or Jamaica. We all say hello to each other, advise, and accept the odd rebuke. We belong. And chew the fat.

Below the hillside of plots spread the rich acres of Dulwich and Herne Hill. Millions and millions of pounds' worth of pure, unrealised capital. Bright commuter trains passing between. Oh to be an unemployed king right here, to survey all this. And to belong to none of it. Not the retired club. Not the horizontally mobile, nor the young families nor the welly fetishists, composters, nor the vistas of warmly nested opulence.

So, maybe a career boost for prospective employees of garden centres? Not so, your local nursery is even now installing software that will tell you which radish, and when to prune your roses. Anyway, you won't be working at a gardening centre, or anywhere, but sowing potatoes, knowing you'll be able to eat in September. Terrific. There is a world war on; those waging it demand that workers accept diminishing wages for dwindling jobs. Behind every economic miracle, a shanty town.

After the undernourished unemployed have grown-their-own in urban allotment shanties, perhaps we can all join in. That way we can manage on lower wages and help Britain keep up properly with the Philippines and Taiwan. If some jobseekers find vitamins and solace down the lotty, then good. But, ultimately, they will not be digging for victory in Leeds. More like defeat. The allotment gates, sadly, have shut behind me. But I have swapped peace and bindweed for a job.

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