There’s a great line in the third film of the Lord of the Rings. Faramir has caught Frodo and Sam sneaking round the Rangers’ sacred pool. As he interrogates them, he’s partly amused by the two hobbits, and partly suspicious. He asks Sam, “Are you his bodyguard?” “No,” says Sam, indignant. “I’m his gardener.”
Gardening is good work. It’s solid graft. Digging, weeding, planting, pruning – backbreaking work my Dad calls it. He doesn’t mean the clipping away of leaves to turn a bush into a squirrel, or growing things for their colours, or creating artworks and water features – but the ‘dirty hands’ season-by-season work of growing vegetables. And, I believe, it allows the men of my family to talk to each other, and to relate to other men.
As a family, we’re all keen on books and words – my Dad and his six brothers and sisters were all teachers – and we all (in our own ways) love crosswords, quizzes and discussing fiction, whether books, plays or TV. But we’re not so great at using words to express emotions to each other.
Another element of our family dynamic is that we came from strong working class backgrounds, but we’re now middle-class – at least by income and education, if not by accent or location.
Easier to spend some time together – whether it’s in the garden or in the workingmen’s club, talking about football or plans for the growing season.
Vegetable-growing is increasingly popular across the social classes, sexes and ages, but traditionally in the North of England, it was working men who looked after the ‘allotment’ – a plot of land about 15 x 40 yards that you rent from your local council for a pittance – the price of a pint of beer or a bet.
Its rhythms and lore fitted the seasons like religious festivals – you have to get at least your first row of seed potatoes in by Good Friday. Some allotment-holders focused on growing monster leeks for shows in church halls or workingmen’s clubs, for others it was a place to avoid the family, to smoke your pipe, to burn things or to lean on the fence and talk about horse-racing.
My Dad got an allotment when I was about 10. It was the muddy patch that no-one wanted, but he dug a spring at the far end to drain the land and suddenly it was the most popular part because it was the one where you could fill your watering can.
He’d drag my brothers and me over to help him, giving us painstaking instructions about what to pull up and what to leave growing. He was – and still is – meticulous about health and safety: never leave a rake face up; always put a plastic bottle on every garden cane so no-one could get their eye poked out; be careful with that spade, hoe, fork, trowel, spit, knife or dibber.
Often I hated the prospect of going there, but many times I loved it afterwards. You felt you’d done a day’s work, and you’d helped your Dad. And at the end of it, there was something to eat, but that wasn’t always the point.
I remember researching how to grow carrots: how to prepare the soil and sift it finely (’tilth’), so the tubers would stretch into the soft earth and taper away to infinity. Dad let me choose the variety of carrot that I wanted from the catalogue and I got one called Majestic, or Emperor, or Golden Triumph, or something like that. My enthusiasm went so far as to see me through preparing the plot and planting the seeds. And then I lost interest and the carrots were probably eaten by pests or left to choke in the weeds. Or maybe Dad looked after them in my absence.
The best bit was getting the chance to dig up some spuds.
You put the fork in the earth about a boot-length back from the potato plant. You dug it in vertically and leaned back on the handle and the creamy blobs popped up between the teeth of the fork (‘tines’). You turned them out to the side and searched through the remaining earth for smaller ones or those that grow lower. Those you miss are called ‘volunteers’. They pop up next year unwanted in the middle of the cabbages.
My Dad was an English teacher so at the time he was showing us how the garden works, he’d quote some of the poems of Seamus Heaney. ‘Digging’, Heaney’s first great poem, sums up the pride in the labour and the joy of passing it down the generations:
‘By God the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.”
Heaney is about my Dad’s age – early 70s – but while he grew up on a farm in Ireland, Dad’s father had already moved to England to work in the steelworks in Consett, County Durham, our very own dirty old town.
My Granda was a big man – nearly joined the Irish police, if it hadn’t been for the family’s republican sensibilities. He worked for more than 25 years at the steelworks in Consett as an unskilled labourer. For many of those years he worked on the blast furnace – the hottest and toughest of jobs. He had an allotment and grew vegetables to eat or to sell. My Dad’s elder brothers would be sent out round the streets with spare cabbages and turnips, knocking at doors, and offering the specimens at different prices depending on their size.
I remember Dad describing to us how people would hire Granda to cut their fields with a scythe. He was renowned for this skill he’d brought from rural Ireland and would caress his way across a field of grass leaving neatly-felled stalks fallen in place behind him. Dad would go with him to the field as a six-year-old to collect the grass, but spent his time chasing frogs. But he once described to me how he’d watched his father sharpen the scythe, and what a piece of artistry that part of the job was. That’s our family’s ‘Toner’s Bog’ moment.
But I’m getting too sentimental. Granda usually agreed to do the scything after a few pints and in the cold light of day regretted giving up his free time. The scythe meanwhile lived – blade up – propped against the side of the air-raid shelter, in the vain hope that the neighbours’ cats who regular used the place as a toilet would fall on it or jump on it by mistake.
In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time in the allotment with my Dad. I’m happy just to dig and let him get on with planting. But he always insists that I put in a few rows of seeds whenever I’ve turned a sufficient amount of soil over.
The allotment has a few fruit trees now, as well as the ubiquitous garden shed and greenhouse, and pots, trays, hose, string and bits of wood. I’ve hoped that one day one of us brothers will inherit it.
I’m writing this while on holiday from my job in London as a press officer for an international development charity. I’d planned this to be a week up North in the allotment with my Dad. The season is late starting again, so it would have been a chance to get the greenhouse cleared out and to put in the first few rows of potatoes.
But Dad was diagnosed yesterday with lung cancer, so my week is now focused around hospital visits for tests. I’m hoping that we’ll get a chance to visit the allotment together soon, but someone said to me recently that gardens are not good for people who know they’re dying, because it makes them distressed that they won’t see the season out.