Prolific Vauxhall author (17 books) and Vauxhall Society member Michael Leapman talks about the republication of his first book, One Man and His Plot, how it grew out of his Brixton allotment and how, 37 years on, allotment, book and author are still going strong.
How I never lost the plot
Vauxhall author Michael Leapman on how the first of his many books, One Man and His Plot, grew out of a Brixton allotment and is proving no has-bean
The aloe, or agave, is a spectacular but temperamental plant that deigns to flower at intervals that can range between ten and 30 years. The same is true of One Man and His Plot, the book I wrote in 1976 about my Brixton allotment. It has just blossomed for the second time, published as a print-on-demand volume by Faber Finds, who specialise in that kind of thing. It can also be downloaded on to a Kindle reading device.
It was the first book I ever wrote. A man of settled habits, I still toil at the same allotment, and indeed have been writing about it off and on ever since. But it all came about largely by accident, as a spin-off from my day job at the time, which was to edit the Diary column in The Times.
In those days the Diary was not what would be recognised today as a gossip column, principally because the paper’s editor was averse to gossip. It was instead a mixture of quirky items, including some where I would take an unconventional approach to topics in the news.
In the winter of 1973/4 the combination of a strike by coal miners and a sharp increase in the price of oil provoked a widespread sense of impending doom. Factories went on a three-day week and power cuts meant that we shopped by candlelight. Panic buying set in as rumours circulated that supplies of almost everything were running out. Many concluded that the only way to provide for their families was to ensure a self-generated food supply. By the spring the press was reporting a rush for allotments, and waiting lists began to swell.
I decided to dig deeper into the story by applying for a plot – even though my and my wife’s horticultural skills were already being tested to the limit by grappling with the narrow garden behind our Vauxhall terraced house. I made phone calls to local authorities, British Rail and less likely allotment-granting bodies, always with the same response. “You must be joking,” was the gist of it. As I was about to give up, someone mentioned that Thames Water owned allotments at the back of Brixton waterworks, a couple of miles from of where we live. Their response was more positive; and the following March a letter arrived telling me that I could become the tenant of plot 13a so long as I could stump up the rent – then running at 35p a year.
Grim prison, picturesque windmill
At the waterworks we were led to a patch so overgrown that we could not tell where it ended and the adjoining path – equally overgrown – began. It was in a powerfully atmospheric location: the grim roof-line of Brixton prison a few hundred yards to the south and, to the east, the picturesque Brixton windmill, recently restored. An elderly man on a nearby plot confided that mine had not been worked for ten years, because the former owner had become too obese to dig. He also expressed scepticism about our staying power. He had seen young folk like us arrive brimful of enthusiasm, only to disappear after a few weeks, unwilling to commit the necessary time and effort. Our determination to defy the man’s prediction is a principal reason why we still cultivate the plot 36 years later, albeit at a much higher rent.
When I started writing in The Times Diary about our first fumbling efforts to acquire green fingers, I was inundated with letters offering advice about how to proceed and what to sow, some readers even enclosing seeds. Not only was the allotment producing fare for our dinner table – however modest at first – but it was providing entertainment for readers; a kind of horticultural soap opera, an everyday story of incompetent urban sod-turners, with a cast of real-life characters including the impeccable “ace cultivator” on the neighbouring plot.
For two growing seasons I published regular breezy updates on our battles with nature and our interaction with fellow toilers. I could tell it had become a cult when a publisher invited me to turn the Diary items into a full-blown horticultural saga. One reviewer of One Man and His Plot suggested that I had become “the belle-lettriste of the vegetable garden”. If you want a copy, the easiest way to get one is through Amazon.
Faber and Faber (16 Jun 2011)