On allotments, a coronation, and over-engineered solutions to simple problems
What with work and our burgeoning allotment mania there has been precious little time for writing, hence why this post, which I started back in the summer, has taken so long to be posted here. I started it around the time of the king’s coronation and then, as is so often the case, became distracted and completely forgot about it.
I suppose it might, just MIGHT be possible that I could give even less of a shit about the anointing of a new king, but I sincerely doubt it. In fact, the best I could muster in terms of a positive response would be a microscopically small nod of reluctant gratitude in the direction of the additional bank holiday.
Over the years I seen a number of articles bemoaning the lack of UK national holidays, some of them accompanied by handy graphics visualising just how bad we have it compared with our European neighbours. Partly out of genuine curiosity but mostly out of boredom I Googled it to see if the claims were true and discovered that in the UK we have between 8-10 formalised national holidays, difference the product of whether you find yourself in Wales, England, or Scotland.
Casting a quizzical eye down the list of other countries and their corresponding bank holidays, it would appear that those that have torn themselves away from the devastating grip of colonialism have rather more, and for good reason, as do those with a busy schedule of religious festivals followed by those weary populations who previously lived a strained patriotic existence under various dictatorships. Even I, a lifelong agnostic, paused to reflect on the 35 days of national holidays, much of them religious in nature, enjoyed by the people of Napal. Perhaps it also says something about our national character that we struggle to break double digits in this regard, whereas Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, India, Iran, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka all enjoy multiples pushing well into the twenties, the one European outlier being Liechtenstein with 20-22. European nations generally hover around the 12-14 mark, with only Mexico (8) and Taiwan (9) sharing the bottom tier of the runner’s up table with the United Kingdom. When you factor in that the UK also includes Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in this lacklustre total, the UK list looks depressingly ungenerous. For the sake of balance, I did notice that some of the Nepalese festival days appeared rather overly prescriptive, with strict rules of adherence that you might suspect would take some of the fun out it, but this is pure speculation on my part. For instance, the clipped summary accompanying a description of the holy holiday of Laxmi Puja, which is enthusiastically celebrated on November 7th each year, includes the oddly specific yet enticing reminder that ‘In the morning cows are worshipped, and during the evening Laxmi Goddess of wealth is worshipped.’ I don’t know why this tickled me as much as it did, but I spent an enjoyable few moments picturing a sincere national moment of cow appreciation and what a wonderfully surreal job it must be to organise and promote such events at scale.
If there was ever an exception to the UK’s poor bank holiday showing then it would have to be May 2023, which despite including the excruciating spectacle of watching a nation reshuffling its parasitic monarchy did at least produce two additional bank holiday weekends, giving millions of people a brief yet tantalising glimpse at a four-day working week. Even if I personally would not, under any circumstances, choose to spend my time watching a seventy-year-old billionaire parade around in a silly hat encrusted with looted diamonds, I took consolation in the fact that I could invest this precious time in our beloved and recently acquired allotment.
Amongst the top priority allotment tasks for the final bank holiday was digging over what remained of the larger of the two plots. Since taking over from the former tenant of forty years we had spent many delightful weekends clearing and then turning over the ground in an attempt to keep pace with the planting and growing season. Thanks to an unexpected heatwave the ground, that only a week before had been a boggy boot-sucking quagmire, had been baked to an impenetrable concrete-like crust. Quite how this had happened and so quickly was the subject of much exasperated discussion around the communal tap as we waited patiently fill our watering cans. Ted, an ethereal fellow in his late eighties whose willowy build always seems lost in the cavernous interior of his oversized jacket spoke of how much the seasons have changed since his childhood when he would dig potatoes for this father. A few of us, sceptics and believers, stood around talking about climate change, while others lamented at how the dramatic shifts in temperatures and rainfall had decimated treasured crops. It was difficult not to feel alarmed.
Trying to dig under those conditions was exhausting, but we were determined to get through it so that there was time to plant out the latest batch of seedlings. Time and again the fork rebounded from the earth with an energy sapping metallic thrum that sent nerve jangling electric shocks through already aching limbs. Under such conditions success, it must be said, was a distant oasis in a vast and unyielding desert. What made matters more challenging still was that after a determined spell spent thwacking away at the upper mantle of the planet, it was then utterly spirit crushing to stand-up and discover just how little progress your efforts had bought you. After a period of recovery sat in one of our two deckchairs I would take another Sisyphean run at it, my fork recoiling more often than not as I staggered about breathlessly punctuating the air with violent epithets. The only technique that seemed to work even a little bit was to focus all of my power, and I use that word with a certain amount of artistic license, on a single beer-mat sized patch of ground using only a single prong of the fork. This required a lot of exaggerated waggling of the fork and excessive swearing, but did at least expose the less impenetrable ground beneath, and it is by such modest milestones that victory was secured. Even this was not without its drawbacks, since any area that had seen even moderate footfall was doubly compacted, and of course our plot is replete - one might say brimming - with golf ball sized stones that will instantly stop a fork in its path with a momentum-sapping finality.
For a long time I assumed that our neighbouring allotment keepers, tired of hauling buckets of stones to their own long-established stone pile, had satisfied themselves instead by simply throwing them onto our plot, as there was no other reasonable explanation for a how plot that had been dutifully maintained for over forty years could be so comprehensively cobbled in this fashion. This unfair suspicion was easily dispelled however, when upon closer inspection of neighbouring plots I realised that ours was far from unique in this regard, with many sharing the same quarry-like characteristics, some of which including handsome winding pathways constructed from the thousands of assorted stones plucked from between the tines of bent forks or shaken out of boots.
Worse was that only weeks before I had been seduced by the so called ‘no dig’ method of soil management, the core principle of which was that vegetable growers could forgo such ordeals by simply allowing Nature to do her thing. All one needed to do, or so I was informed, was skim off the worst of the weeds with a hoe prior to planting, and then stand back while the friendly soil bacteria and industrious worms do all the heavy lifting as part of their subterranean comings-and-goings. The problem with this approach is that at some point you need to get plants into the soil, which was why I could be found sweating and swearing in such wildly offensive quantities, seeing as many of our favourite root vegetables like to plunge their feet deep into the ground unencumbered by soil that could otherwise deflect a bullet. Skimming off the weeds just wouldn’t cut it, hence the need to at least agitate the top layer. Earlier that day Chris, our closest neighbour and allotment mentor, had showed us the stunted remains of what he once hoped would become carrots. “They just couldn’t get deep into the ground,” he explained, each orange nubbin reduced to pitifully radish-ensue proportions despite their deceptively bushy tops. And Chris, it must be said, is one of the most dedicated allotment keepers in our quadrant, who most days can be found on his hands and knees carefully loosening soil around his pampered vegetables and pinching out weeds, none of which seemed to bode well for weekend allotment keepers like us.
The other big job that I tackled was erecting a fruit cage, during which I was reliably informed from multiple sources that ‘erecting’ is indeed the correct term for no other reason that it affords seemingly limitless opportunities for onlookers to make the same four or five jokes. “Well, if you need any help getting it up, John has a pill for that!” being a typical example, with John responding from behind a trellis of runner beans, “he’s welcome to them if can work out where my wife keeps hiding them!” We spent an entire morning reworking that material. All of this reminded me of being an apprentice back in the 90s, the older men teasing and mocking to see if I could be trusted to keep the skit going, offering up my fragile Ego as fair game, just as it has been for millennia I'm sure.
Dysfunctional erections aside, I quite enjoy projects like this and was perfectly – and I mean that in a literal sense – happy to be making a productive mess with my saw and battery drill. Chris had been reminding us pretty much from day one that we needed to net our inherited fruit buses or risk birds gorging themselves at our expense. With the first budding berries starting to appear I decided that not only did I need to get a move on but would invest in something rather more substantial than is strictly necessary, in other words something that will last. The timber had been delivered the week before to our home address, or at least it would have been had the driver not dropped it in a neighbour’s driveway, completely blocking it and inviting my confused neighbour to enquire, quite reasonably, why I hadn't asked the company to delivery my own address. I like to use a local and endearingly eccentric woodyard for my timber needs, which I was surprised to learn had recently launched a website with an online ordering system. This is a welcome improvement on their telephone sales system, otherwise known as Fence Panel Frank, who immediately melts into a confused and confounded mess any time you try to order anything that isn’t a fence panel or intimately connected to the manufacture of the same. I would occasionally order hardwood for furniture projects and the second my order started to deviate away from the familiar fence panel territory Frank would interrupt with a crestfallen, “this sounds like an Andy order,” and you’d hear the sound of a receiver being placed on a worktop followed by snippets of a shouted conversation across a loud machine shop as Frank called on his boss to intervene. Occasionally Frank would become so hopelessly lost he would put the phone down and then moments later absentmindedly just hang up, forcing you call back and repeat the entire routine, so the online system is a definite improvement.
Having now built the fruit cage, the size and robust construction easily dwarfs everything else in the vancinity, promoting neighbourly queries about what kind of plants would require such Guantanamo measures of security.I don’t mind the teasing, as over-engineering solutions to simple problems is something of a family trademark. Back when he was moonlighting as a general builder, reluctant plasterer and occasional glazier, my dad would often devise what he thought would be a money-saving DIY alternative to buying branded equipment, the costly hiring of specialist equipment being a particular source of frustration. As a toolmaker he had ready access to the necessary machines and quantities of box steel needed to fashion his contraptions, many of which could be found wintering in the workshop at the bottom of the garden. These he would weld together with ever increasing levels of needless complexity, adding intricate homemade hinges and fiddly locking mechanisms replete with razor sharp edges and rasping textures that allowed the entire thing to be packed down flat in the back of his 1960s Bedford van for ease of transport.
On one memorable occasion he beckoned me out to the workshop to show me what amounted to a mini knockdown scaffold tower mounted on a set of lockable trolley wheels that would, or so he claimed, allow the two us to plaster sections of ceiling and then by simply loosening a few wingnuts here and there would be able to glide the entire rig over to the next section. It was, or so he promised, a time saver, and quite possibly the start of lucrative new business venture. In such moments dad was all but possessed by the spirit of Del Boy Trotter, convinced that this latest innovation would soon be the no. 1 best seller at builder’s merchants world-wide, and well it might have been had it not weighed as much as a Ford Escort when fully assembled and near-lethal in ways that continually caught us by surprise. I remember well his bubbling enthusiasm when, on its inaugural outing on a weekend plastering job, he instructed me, with a certain amount of unnecessary theatricality, to start bringing the Mobile Plastering Unit into the house.
Our van was tiny, a former meals-on-wheels Bedford that had a distinctly Matchbox toy quality that was hard to take entirely seriously, meaning we had to disassemble larger sections of the MPU into what amounted to a vast Meccano set just to get in in the back of the van. Refusing to spend a penny more than necessary on components, he had reused countless bolts of varying sizes, meaning nothing was a standard fitting and explained why we had spent the previous evening colour coding everything with electrical tape. Unlike your typical Ikea build we had as many as forty or fifty different components essentially doing the same job, which in practical terms means you had to match each bolt to the correct hole, and with most of these being different lengths and diameters it was easy to make a mistake, which we did, and repeatedly. Having carted everything inside we laid it out on the floor and started the long – painfully long - process of synching it together according to dad’s handwritten instructions. It hardly needs to be said but we ran into problems from the outset, compounded by the fact that the little pieces of coloured tape we had used to pair components together had peeled away while being gently jostled on the ride over courtesy of the Bedford's heavily overloaded suspension. “I told you we should have painted the heads instead of using the tape!” dad raged, more at himself than me, perhaps once again regretting his crippling cheapness when it came to DIY engineering projects.
As we pushed on into what felt like the second hour of assembly, the houseowner popped her head around the door with another tray of teas, visibly confused and perhaps a little concerned that the man she had hired seemed so woefully unfamiliar with his own tools. At any rate, both dad and I agreed that the underpinning concept was fine but would benefit from some post-production refinements before taking it to market.
With no other option but to push on we did eventually succeed to assemble the frame and attach the thick plywood top. When jointed together this too was massive, in a way that seemed to surprise even my father, to an extent that you wouldn’t have thought possible when decanting it into the house from the van. It almost filled the room, which as it turned out wasn’t even that large to begin with and would have been easily manageable with just a couple of upturned milk crates as was the usual approach. What gave it an almost foreboding sense grandeur wasn’t so much the total surface area, which was ample in the extreme, but all the additional extras and reinforcements that had been added. It was robust in a way that only my father could have envisioned. You could have landed a Chinook helicopter on this thing with hardly a rivet moving out of place. I wasn’t the only person to notice this, and on a subsequent return visit the homeowner felt compelled to remind us, or rather remind me since dad was lying underneath the platform tightening something with a ratchet, that she only needed the ceiling replastering. I tried to explain that this was a new system we were trialling, one designed and built by my father, but she didn't look entirely convinced.
Despite its obvious shortcomings I remember feeling immensely proud of the old fella, and there’s no denying that he had succeeded in creating something perfectly capable of making the backbreaking, neck straining torment of plastering just that little bit easier, which was something to celebrate if nothing else. Some plasters use stilts, but dad had a terrible fear of heights and therefore hated the idea, so the MPU was created very much with his needs and phobias in mind. The job itself was easy enough and we finished with time to spare. I think dad was more interested to see how the MPU fared under real-world test conditions than anything else and seemed happy enough with the result. Throughout the day he had taken full advantage of every opportunity to extol the virtues of the MPU, and of course I had enthusiastically agreed with every honeyed sentence of self-congratulation. Indeed, it would have been unkind not to, and I would have never been so bold as to point out that we could have, and indeed had on many previous occasions achieved the same result with a few scaffold boards stretched between our trusty milkcrates, which had the added benefit of taking only minutes to assemble and disassemble. Sensing this same conclusion dad had chosen instead to focus on the health and safety aspects of his invention.
“You see, one of the many benefits of this system is that you can take a blind backwards step fully confident that you won’t go plunging off the edge.”
“Well, unless you’re close to the edge of the platform., and we’ll need do something about all the sharp edges,” I added, “this one still hasn’t stopped bleeding,” I said, holding up a bandaged hand. “To say nothing of the hernias.”
There was another moment of negative triumph when we needed to move the rig the half-metre needed to reach the last wall, which was, or so he boasted, one of the principle selling points. Bobbing down to loosen the wheels dad gestured to me to do the same on my side, which I did. Bracing ourselves we then, with surprising and satisfactory ease, began to shunt it towards the far wall. Unfortunately, the trolley wheels had other ideas, each bucking under the weight and heading off in contradictory directions causing the MPU to buck and veer off unexpectedly, gouging a small but easily discernible divot in both the wall and dad’s shin. Minutes later, while trying to square it up, it did the same thing again, this time nearly swiping a radiator off the wall. It was in such moments that my father would become the embodiment impotent, self-reflected frustrated rage.
The ceiling plastered and wall repaired we began the laborious process of disassembly. At some point dad cut himself fairly spectacularly on one of the sharp edges and, his patience now exhausted, we abandoned all pretence of organising the components back into their little bags with their coloured flags and all but threw it into the van. Refusing to be defeated I know he took it out on several other jobs, but eventually it was moved into a rarely disturbed dusty corner of the workshop where it would remain for the next decade. Towards the end of its life it must have made its way to the scrapyard or suffered the indignity of being cannibalised for another project because I couldn’t find it the last time I thought to look, although I did find one of the accessories – an elevated mount for holding a plaster’s hawk - that he must have developed in the interceding years, suggesting that he returned to the idea on at least one occasion. There was also a much smaller version of the MPU that did see considerable action, which was similar in design to platforms I have since seen for sale in various DIY stores although these were notably constructed from lightweight aluminium to prevent the inevitable hernias that were a hallmark of my dad’s inventions. I’m convinced that foremost amongst the core principles that defined his work was that everything should be made to last for well into the next century and perhaps some way beyond that, and therefore only the heaviest, most unyielding of materials were selected, which is a longwinded way of saying that my efforts at the allotment would have met with his firm approval.