I was never much of a gardener as a child, despite the evidence of the muddied wellingtons and the working-man’s size mug of tea in this photograph. I grew up in large, half-renovated houses with rambling gardens, and my mother made preserves and bottled fruit with the passion of anyone who’d lived through the war and couldn’t bear to see good food go to waste. I remember the two of us crying our eyes out one afternoon as she forced horseradish root through the mincer; as far as tear ducts are concerned, no onion in the world comes within wailing distance of raw, minced horseradish. In the house outside which this photograph was taken, we had an attic filled with apples from our orchard, the floor a carpet of gold and russet, the scent so heady with sweetness and incipient rot you had to steady yourself or fall. But I don’t remember actually gardening.
It wasn’t until I went to my final primary school, a two-roomed village school in Staffordshire, that I had to dirty my hands. The children in the top class, all ten of us, each had a strip of land, the size of two double beds pushed head to head, to grow things in. I don’t recall much guidance being given; there was something oddly counter-cultural about the freedom we seem to have been allowed, although my fellow pupils generally plumped for the standard crops of carrot and onion and lettuce, most of which were stripped overnight by rabbits, to cries of grief from the girls. Some boys grew potatoes, one or two of the girls may have slipped the odd pansy in among the parsnips. I, and I blush even now to recall this, planted rows of gladioli. I think I may have met with some resistance from Mrs Fletcher, the headmistress, but my father – to his credit – backed me up and my gladioli stood proud among the entirely utilitarian produce of my schoolmates.
Which brings me to Kay Sexton’s Minding My Peas and Cucumbers, subtitled, as you see here, Quirky Tales of Allotment Life. I can’t think of anyone better suited to write this book than Kay. Her gardening skills are as evident as, well, my gladioli, and she’s more than qualified in the quirky stakes as a quick glance at the first chapter, which opens in a French nudist camp, will confirm. I should declare an interest here. Although Kay and I have never met, we’ve been aware of each other for some years now, initially as members of a novel-writing workshop on Zoetrope, where she proved enormously helpful, more recently as fellow-tillers in the larger allotments of the blogosphere. Kay has reviewed and interviewed me three times, to my genuine gratification, and I’ve been looking forward to having the chance to review her back. So here goes.
This book is a delight, giving pleasure in so many ways. In two or three pages, taken at random, it provides information about the importance of winter digging, psychological observation about love (though I think a new lover may also be a project) and sheer poetry (…parsnips…as heavy as elephant tusks but sweet-smelling and draped with whiskery roots like an Oriental grandfather’s beard…), not to speak of a recipe that would make the most vegetable-averse think twice (about kale!). What Kay brings to the book is not just a substantial hands-on knowledge to the business of allotment-holding – and obtaining, probably the greater struggle – but a novelist’s sense of what makes people interesting and, finally, human. It’s a truism that all small worlds are microcosms, but if a microcosm is really going to tell us about more than just itself, it needs to be filtered through the attention of someone who’s alert not only to what’s typical but also to what isn’t. Kay’s tales are quirky in their attention to what’s genuinely quirky in the world, and quirkiness can be funny, touching, tragic, charming, just like this book. Behind the attractive, slightly retro cover, along with information on how to grow asparagus and rotate crops and conceal water butts, not to speak of some very appetising recipes, there’s a sense of a world, as vital and unpredictable as parsnips (which aren’t just poetic – you’ll see what I mean when you read the book). And the title isn’t just clever, either. The book is certainly about growing food, but it’s also about the etiquette of social relations and the importance of respecting others; like a hybrid of Montaigne and Monty Don.
PS I hate gladioli, and can’t imagine why I wanted them. I now have a lemon tree which, like this book, wonderfully combines the beautiful with the useful.