Magazine article The Spectator

My Secrets Garden

Magazine article The Spectator

My Secrets Garden

Article excerpt

It was those trips to the Balkans that started it. As we hard-core Europhobcs know, one of the main joys of leaving EU Europe is that the food tastes incomparably better wherever the writ of Brussels does not extend. Although the hard-skinned, white-membraned Dutch tomato has already started to colonise the humble Skopje sulad in Bulgaria - agriculture in the bread baskets of Eastern Europe is being comprehensively closed down in preparation for EU membership - there arc still pockets of resistance south of the Danube, particularly in the former Yugoslavia, where a cucumber docs not taste the same as a carrot. There, I consume vegetables with something bordering on obsessiveness - a craving, indeed, which is equalled only by a concomitant dull rage back in England, where the only green beans on sale in mid-summer come from East Africa, and where all vegetables are stale and tasteless. A demanding palate demands exceptional measures, and so I decided to apply for an allotment.

Within a few months of having put my name on the waiting-list, Esther rang from the local association and said a plot was free. An appointment was fixed; it was a bright and crisp November Saturday morning. A short cycle-ride from the rumble of Hammersmith to the suburbs of Stamford Brook, and the payment of a L5 annual rental fee later, I was the proud tenant of a patch of earth the size of a sitting-room and a rather rusty filing cabinet which serves as a tool shed. The previous tenant of the plot had evidently devoted his Sunday-afternoon energies to burying hundreds of plastic bags from the local supermarket, but these were duly exhumed and seeds inserted in their place.

To enter the world of allotments is to enter a secret garden. Unlike some of the scrubbier allotments one occasionally glimpses from the Tube, our garden association is hidden from outside view, tucked behind the gardens of houses on either side. Surrounded by a high fence, this enchanted territory can be entered only after a formidable clanking of the padlock, and the swinging open of a heavy gate. But once inside, the smoke and the grime of London melt away like a bad dream. The gardens, which arc situated on a disused railway track, compose a long and elegant strip of land which winds for a quarter of a mile or so; as you walk down the narrow path, the birds sing more musically and the air smells sweeter than in The Matrix Reloaded outside. Hollyhocks, roses, fruit trees, beans, sweet peas, chard, strawberries and artichokes grow in colourful and charming abundance.

Even the human beings are nicer. In fact, they transmogrify as soon as they push open the gate. The ingrained London rudeness is shed as swiftly as a snake's skin, and instead a mantle of kindness and infinite charity slips effortlessly on to their shoulders. No compliment is too great for everybody else's crop. 'Good morning, good morning,' they will say as they pass. 'How wonderfully your beans arc doing!' - their simple desire to please making them quite blind to the tangle of weeds and the shrivelled snapdragon peas choking to death underneath them. Gardening is to the English what cooking is to the French - a deeply civilised and civilising pursuit which unites the whole population in gentle and loving camaraderie. The earth, you see, does not tell lies.

As Esther led me down to my plot on the first day, we passed an immense pile of horse manure and straw, steaming gently in the cold air. 'I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for free manure,' Esther chatted eagerly, 'and so T rang them up. …

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