It starts in June, my journal of the year of digging. The timing was important to me. I wanted warmth and light, green growth, new life as I started to unearth my own. My memoir would be the story of an old man growing food and flowers in honour of the old man who took him in as a child. My book would be dedicated to Dudley, my foster father, the man who taught me to grow, gave me a pocket sized piece of garden and a packet of seed. There would be new potatoes like we dug for Lilian, my foster mum, half a hour before lunch. There would be blackberries we gathered through our Devon lanes. There would be peas that tasted like safety. There would be loving memories.
And they are there in abundance like beans in Plot 29, named after the London allotment I share. There are stories of newts and foxes, the wild things that live on site. There’s seed relentlessly gathered from around the world and the colourful food it grows into: burgundy amaranth, red shiso, bulls-blood beetroot; yellow, green and blue French beans. There are marigolds like my brother Christopher grew. And always nasturtiums like the ones from the seed Dudley gave me.
Plot 29 is a chronicle of growth and gratitude, a connection with nature and nurture. I learned to love through seed, I say, much as other kids had kittens and teddy bears. They were mine the flowers the seeds became. To look after. To love.
Gardening for me is therapy. Plot 29 is where my heart slows, my mind stills, my anxieties slip away. And I needed it in this year of the records, the box of my history that arrived in the post. Words written in children’s homes and case conferences about what to do with “two little boys”. Here are hundred of pages of records written before a child’s right to know. Unguarded comments from Dudley, my Santa Claus man, about his plans to send my brother back. Christopher is a disappointment, he writes, we are from poor material. It is as though he has been sold wrongly labelled seed, his off-the-shelf family.
I was in this box I unearthed my brother who died five years ago now. He was my missing link. The picture on the book’s cover is our first day in our new home with our new mum and dad. Christopher’s clothes are comically big, bought for someone his age. That is me on the right. I am squeezing his hand, holding on to him. .
Without knowing it we were being divided like small plants, one to a good spot in the sun, the other to the compost bin. We couldn’t survive it Christopher and I. We were too different, chalk and cheese. He became a boxer in the army, I was an early-flowering hippie who later became an editor at the Observer in London.
We grew apart. We led different lives. Until a phone call from the police five years ago. The cop told me Chris was in hospital. He was very sick. I must go to see him soon. So we finally hugged and cried in the cancer ward and talked about our childhood days in Devon. We declared undying love while he was dying.
Gardening saved me from anxiety and guilt that year and beyond, more effective than analysis. I still grow peas and potatoes and nasturtiums in memory of our childhood in the garden before it all went wrong. And yes, of course, I still grow his marigolds.
Words by Allan Jenkins
Plot 29 is Out Now. Order your copy here .
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