IN PRAISE OF BOB
One of the joys of allotment gardening is that it forces miserable, anti-social old sods like me to emerge from their shell and connect with other miserable, anti-social old sods. The fruits of this reluctant intercourse, I’ve discovered, is a wealth of wisdom and practical advice, not to mention free plants and, as the seasons roll by, some firm friendships. Sometimes – for a coy and quivering veggie-virgin like me – one of them might become a kind of mentor and a role model.
Such a one, for me, is Bob – Bob Wheel. We have so much in common, Bob and I – we’re both short, old and ugly with bad backs, although Bob, despite his shortness, is built like an outside convenience of brick construction with hands like JCB shovels. He always wears a cap or woolly hat with faded camouflage fatigues and his slow, thoughtful conversation is punctuated by repeated attempts to light an inch of bedraggled roll-up dangling from his lips. He speaks a dialect of Hastings more ancient than Basque, and our early encounters were fraught with a number of communication hiccups. Opening up about his life, he told me he had once been an ‘odd carrier’. What on earth, I wondered, is an ‘odd carrier’? Someone, presumably, who works in close conjunction with an even carrier. I twigged when he added, ‘Some o’ them odds weighed over a hundredweight. Buggered my back.’ On another occasion he advised me to improve my land in winter by digging in a bit of ‘arse shit’. While I was wondering what other kind of shit there is (apart from the obvious) he added, ‘or kay shit’.
His allotment is a joy to behold – the soil rich and dark and fine, his veg obscenely robust and plentiful, his paths fitted with black matting covered in woodchips and not a weed in sight. And where I have but one composter, this cheeky bastard has five. On seeing his plot, I instantly lost all desire to become as great a writer as Marques or as great a painter as Picasso, my one aspiration being to make my allotment look like Bob’s.
I felt so flattered that he took me under him wing – probably because he felt sorry for me – offering me boxes of plants that he’d raised at home as well as copious quantities of veg that I hadn’t dared to attempt – like sweetcorn and beetroot. That first summer, truth be told, we ate almost as much of Bob’s produce as my own. It was in June, however, that he showed his true colours. Since I can’t use a strimmer because of my back, I have to rely on hand weeding, and things got out of control, the couch and nettles and hogweed on my paths and borders were running wild to a point that I was being threatened with THE LETTER. The Letter – or the formal notification from the Parish Council to give it it’s full title – is the one thing (apart from pigeons, caterpillars, clubroot, slugs and blackfly) that strikes dread into the heart of every allotmenteer, the formal warning to shape up or ship out, basically. I went into denial, hiding my head in the sand but, after a few days away in Dorset, I wandered over to my allotment dreading what ravages nature might have wrought, only to find that the weeds had all been strimmed and raked away. I knew the phantom strimmer had to be Bob and when I challenged him about it, he told me to fuck off, which confirmed me in my suspicions.
Imagine my concern then when my guardian angel, who’d practically lived on his allotment over the summer, suddenly disappeared with the swallows in autumn. Of course, there’s obviously less to do on a plot in winter than in summer, so people do tend to disappear. What concerned me, though, was that Bob had left his leeks, beans and sweetcorn unharvested, his beanpole trellis had collapsed into a heap and weeds were reclaiming his perfect tilth. It seemed so out of character to allow this to happen and, since he’s the same vintage as me, I was terrified he might have fallen ill or even – I hardly dared think it – returned to the great compost heap from whence we all came. I asked round the town to try to find out what had happened to him but since he lives in Ore – a world away – the news was scant. Someone claimed to have seen him drunk outside the Carlisle pub in Hastings but I knew that couldn’t be Bob – it wasn’t his style.
Then, one gloomy afternoon in early March, I was bent over my digging when I heard the words, ‘You’re doing that wrong, you old fucker,’ and looked up to see a beaming Bob – large as life and twice as ugly – standing outside my gate. I felt so relieved to see him and deeply touched to be greeted in such an affectionate way. I was sure Sir Michael McCauley-Smith CBE – another allotment neighbour who uses his plot as a place to smoke cigars in peace – had never been called an ‘old fucker’ in his life – at least, not like that.
Bob flung open the gate and lumbered over, scooped up and handful of soil in his JCB shovel hand and held it up to his nose. ‘It smells good,’ he proclaimed, chucking it back on the bed, ‘You’ve done well, Pete.’ I needed no greater accolade than that.
I didn’t ask him what had happened to him over the winter and he didn’t tell me. All that mattered was that he was alive and well and back on his land.
I’m afraid this blogpost hasn’t dispensed any useful horticultural wisdom but hey, you can get all you need of that from Monty Don, when he isn't gazing adoringly in the mirror. The only message is to value one’s fellow allotment-holders and not be a miserable old sod.
A peaceful, rural scene or a candidate for THE LETTER?