For a moment, as those figures scampered around a double-decker bus in Beijing, like actors in an over-ambitious fringe event at the Edinburgh festival, there was a glimpse of the image which Britain could present to the world in four years’ time. After the faintly fascistic, massed-ranked displays of 2008, London will have the chance to offer their polar opposite: a glorious, shambolic individuality.
It will be a tough sell. Getting thousands of gymnasts and dancers to make a transcendent, superhuman spectacle is incomparably easier than celebrating the individual and the eccentric but frankly, if Britain, the natural home of peculiarity, is unable to do it, then no one can.
So, in retrospect, it was a bad start to the great adventure of the London Olympics when, last year, the organisers put the squeeze on that great symbol of individuality and co-operation, the allotment. Plot-holders at the Manor Gardens allotments in Hackney Wick were told that their gardens were inappropriate to the Olympic vision and furthermore that they represented a security risk. Come 2012, the worry seemed to be, members of al-Qa’ida might be lurking in the blackcurrant bushes.
Now, too late for the Manor Gardens allotmenteers, there seems to have been a change of heart. Rosie Boycott, who next month takes up the grandly named post of Chair of London Food in the Boris Johnson administration, has just revealed her first task. “I plan to green every single space in London I can, every roof I can, creating vegetable gardens, filling empty spaces.”
Allotments, suddenly, are no longer a joke; part of a dying heritage; a place for old boys smoking pipes outside sheds, like Uncle Mort in Peter Tinniswood’s unforgettable sitcom I Didn’t Know You Cared. Belatedly, it has been been recognised that, at the most basic level, they provide much-needed organic, healthy food; an escape from the tyranny of the supermarket. Beyond that, more importantly, they offer the chance to ordinary people from any background to express themselves through growing things.
The great anarchist writer Colin Ward, who with David Crouch wrote The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture, saw these small, odd plots cultivated in cities, town and villages as a reaction to the world in which we find ourselves. Talking in a filmed interview in 2003 with the author and documentary-maker Roger Deakin, Ward suggested that “to municipally-minded people, as opposed to poets and artists, the allotment is a sort of grubby, unproperly organised thing full of wretched shacks and sheds of tin. … But in a country like this, where everything is buttoned up and decided for people, it is the one place for people’s self-expression.”
After reading Ward and Crouch’s book in the late-1980s, Deakin, who himself went on to write two highly influential books, Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain, and Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, directed a TV documentary about allotments called The Ballad of the Ten Rod Plot. Broadcast in 1992, the film is more than an extraordinarily moving piece of social history: it turns out to be as relevant today as ever.
There is more than vegetables and fruit growing in allotments, according to Ward and Deakin. They are a way for those living in built-up surroundings to enjoy the therapeutic value of wildness. Away from Arts Council grants, festivals and busy government initiatives, they are a form of natural creative expression. Each plot may be individual, but together they cultivate an unforced communality, involving people from widely differing backgrounds. They are places where it is permitted – required even – for men to tend and nurture without fear of ridicule.
Allotments are fundamentally democratic and that, as a small news item from last week reminded us, can represent a threat to the privileged. The Earl of Arran, who owns thousands of acres across the country, has decided that the half an acre leased for allotments for the past 130 years in High Roding, Essex, might one day in the future be a useful site for development. Facing opposition, this unpleasant-sounding man expressed the loathing of the powerful for allotmenteers. “I want to get rid of these people and get rid of them I will,” he said.
Putting profit and self-interest before the rights of the individual, the Earl of Arran is behaving rather like the Chinese government before their Olympic games. To people like him, allotments are a nuisance. That, precisely, is why they are so important and need defending.