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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

"Minding my Peas and Cucumbers" Book Review

Around Christmas time I was unexpectedly given a book entitled "Minding my Peas and Cucumbers" by Kay Sexton, quirky tales of allotment life. Given my love of my allotment and everything I do with the stuff I grow, it was a thoughtful and touching gift. I put the book on my coffee table and have read it, a little at a time, over the past few weeks. It is a light book with short chapters so it is easy to dip into to and not so gripping that you accidentally stay up all night to find out what happens at the end.

Having said that, I did also find the book weirdly unsettling. The book follows Kay (a real person) as she spends 19 years on an allotment waiting list. Desperate to grow her own food, she spends that time doing holiday cover for other allotment holders, or "co-working" with others and eventually agrees to take on the unwanted role of committee secretary in order to work the committee plot. She is even tasked with digging over and improving plots before passing them on to the next person the waiting list. I can't help but think that largely she is exploited by people just wanting unpleasant and heavy work to be done.

As much as I love allotment life, there are some aspects of it that I really dislike and this book seems to highlight them all! I don't like the whole concept of waiting lists and it is a shame that people who want to work a piece of land can have to wait so long to do so. I don't like the monthly inspections to ensure your plot is up to scratch and the warning letters and evictions that can follow. When you have put in all that hard work, the feeling that you are only renting the space and that you can be thrown off at the whim of some bureaucrat who has no understanding of seasons or how to work a piece of ground is really unsettling.

Reading this book has made me wonder if I have just been lucky with my allotment experience. We didn't have a waiting list 19 years ago when we took on our first plot so I have spent my time consisting working the same plot all that time and felt as if it were "ours", within the context of it being rented and having to follow (sometimes odd) rules. Kay, on the other hand, has moved from place to place, working allotments she knew were not hers and others that were "nearly" hers. I admire her dedication and persistence but it gives the book a sad feeling and not one that would encourage someone keen to get an allotment to put their name on a waiting list.

She talks too of some of the battles faced by anyone running an allotment plot - pests, weather, weeds, politics. It would be wrong to suggest that it is an easy thing that requires very little effort but, again, if I were reading this book as someone thinking about getting started I think I would hang up my trowel and walk away without attempting it. Maybe the fact that I knew nothing about growing fruit and vegetables when I started was in fact a good thing because no one and no book had put me off. So, to put the record straight, it is something you have to dedicate time to but, like with so many other hobbies, if it is something you love you don't notice and certainly don't resent the time. Time spent growing is like therapy.

It is hard to pinpoint this book and I have certainly never read anything like it before. It flits about with no apparent order, sharing moments from her allotment experience. There are characters I can identify with and some of the anecdotes raise a smile or a sympathetic nod. And towards the middle of a box she introduces a "story-line" that runs until the end and you can't help but be intrigued how that will turn out. She also chucks in some helpful growing tips and a recipe here and there so it is almost a handbook.

In my final assessment of this book I would say, it makes a nice coffee table book and would actually work well as a waiting room book where someone could dip in and read a chapter without committing themselves to the whole book or the lifestyle. If you have an allotment already then it can be read for comparison and amusement but beware of that unsettling reminder about the precarious nature of renting an allotment. If you are thinking about starting out then please don't in any way take this book as a guide to what allotmenting is necessarily like or you will never get started!

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