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Keep this under your hat


Jeannie's plot is her Great Escape. She comes to it for "head space." "It's my sanctuary," she confides.

Some people would do anything to escape from gardening. Jeannie and most of the rest of our crowd escape to it. As they say in Yorkshire: "Nay, there's nowt so queer as folk."

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What is Jeannie escaping from? Broadly speaking, it seems to be people she knows too well. She drops hints about her ... impossible family.

I listen. But I do not pry. I have to think about the reputation of journalists (though I have admitted my job to only two or three plotters who have directly asked).

Plotters chat, of course. And not just about crucial matters such as taming blackberries rampant, or when to lime which parts of your patch, or how a sprinkling of salt does wonders for the sweet flavor of cooked beetroot. They also, when they choose, chat revealingly about themselves. Sometimes they even feel free to tell you things because they know the allotments are the only place they will encounter you.

It is similar to people on a train journey who know they will never meet anywhere else. They can, (and, I find, surprisingly often do) unburden themselves of their entire life history, their deepest hopes, fiercest convictions, loves, and hates. Or they can (as plotter Robin puts it about his determination not to get involved in allotment politics) "just keep their heads down" and avoid talk.

At the end of my first plotting year, I have a growing appreciation of the unwritten understanding among allotmenteers of everyone's right to privacy. We work together but apart, compartmented fellow-travelers. There is definitely a community spirit - whatever opinionated differences may surface among this unlikely concatenation of individualists - but it is kept within bounds.

Is this, I wonder, because we live in Scotland, in Britain, in the Northern Hemisphere? Is our keep-yourself-to-yourself a geographical inheritance?

As a journalist, I have a vested interest in breaking down reticence. If unashamed curiosity is proverbially not conducive to feline longevity, to writing and writers it is bread and butter. I believe, however, I am slowly learning more intriguing things about my plotter pals by the gentle art of virtual non-inquiry than I could by barging in with tape recorder blazing.

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What sort of things have I found out? How about the name of Robin's sheepdog? This amiable beast behaves so politely toward plants and freshly raked soil that I am thinking of asking him to give our dog, Muff (who doesn't), lessons. His name, Robin informed me a week ago, is "Sweepie."

"Did you say 'Sweet Pea'?" A truck bombed past, so I thought I might have misheard.

"Sweepie," said Robin louder. " 'Sweet pea' is my Internet password."

Now that was news. I had not taken Robin for a Netty type. He looks as if brother earth were his lifelong, native element. But now it turns out - as he sweeps impressively off into realms of down-loading, hard drives, Web sites, and Windows quite beyond my ken - that he is a computer buff.

Which is all wrong, of course. Plotters, caricaturally speaking, are supposed to be primevally green and untechnological. Conversant with chard but at odds with the age.

I had also assumed that Red's only contribution to global warming was the sweat of his brow as he prepared his carrot and onion bed. I had him down as a total friend of the earth. He walks a good mile to his plot every morning.

Then one day he rolled up in his Ford....

* A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

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