Middle class to its very core, Radio Four’s Today programme seldom misses a chance to extoll the virtues of organic farming or growing your own food. This morning was no exception, with some chap going on about the joys of owning an allotment in this week’s sunny spring weather.
Don’t ask me exactly what he said. I wasn’t really listening. Horticulture bores me to tears, and the only bit of gardening news I have ever found remotely exciting was when the Blue Peter Garden got vandalised back in 1983.
I can, however, reveal why there are so many news items devoted to allotments these days. Which is, that unlike me, most fellow journalists seem to be obsessed with them.
Part of this, I think, is the usual metropolitan fascination with “real work” – the same urge that drives people in Islington to become stonemasons, urban goatherds, and the like. But the other driving factor seems to be a Titmarsh-esque drive to combine gardening and media careers.
The Today programme’s own John Humphrys, for example, used to have a have a horticultural venture in Carmarthenshire, and is an unofficial ambassador for the Soil Association. Valentine Low, a former colleague of mine on the Evening Standard, got an entire book out of his allotment, called One Man and His Dig: Adventures of an Allotment Novice
And only last week, a friend who is a top political correspondent invited the missus and our kids up to see her new allotment in south London, for which she has been on the waiting list for ages (presumably behind various BBC executives, Observer section editors, Today Programme producers etc).
She has a charming little patch of well-tended land, and it was a delight to sit in (if not work on). What I did found surprising, though, was the allotment blog that she writes. I’d expected it be along the lines of “funky urbanite tries hand at horticulture”, full of anecdotes about encounters with grizzled Percy Thrower-types, and petty rules regarding who uses the water barrels.
Instead, it was actually about gardening, packed with tips about when to plant lettuce seedlings, and the importance of using razor hoes when weeding “alliums” (onions & garlic)
Still, one shouldn’t really take the p— out of allotment holders. In fact, one does so at one’s peril, as I discovered years ago during my days on the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, when one day a colleague was asked by the news editor to cover the Allotments sub-comittee hearing at Cleethorpes Council.
Even by the standards of the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, where covering the Cleethorpes Under-14’s Dance Festival counted as a showbiz gig, this sounded something of a Mickey Mouse assignment. But when my colleague let out a snigger, the news editor glowered.
“Don’t ever, ever, f—- with allotment holders, lad,” he told him, his voice dropping to a deadly serious whisper. “They take it all very, very seriously. You need to do so, too. You get the slightest thing wrong in covering that meeting, and we’ll never hear the end of it”.
He was right. You could write about all manner of scandals in Grimsby, and never hear a word of feedback from the readers. But the moment one touched on any controversy relating to allotments – especially allotment closures – the newsdesk would be flooded with heated calls (this was in the days before email).
You can see how seriously they take it all by the numbers of scandals there are about allotment holders sabotaging each others’ efforts. Tales of prize-winning marrows being wrecked or stolen are legion, and were one to ever cover such a story in Grimsby, one would be expected to treat it with the gravity of the Watergate break-in.
True, Grimsby allotment holders were of the “old school” variety, with barely a BBC commissioning chief among them. But, either way, I guess it shows that even though we British see ourselves as a nation of amateurs, there is nothing like a spot of gardening to bring out the ruthless, professional attack dog.
It’s probably why John Humphrys likes it.