Tuesday 13 March 2012

The secret history of allotments

Why have allotments become so trendy? Where did the idea come from that everyone could have a plot of land to grow their own food?

Allotments are part of the zeitgeist, so these are important questions. Yet most histories of the allotments movement are brief online lists of parliamentary acts, and they don’t tell the half of it.

So I wanted to bring the story alive, from Jesse Collings and ‘Three Acres and a Cow’ to Dig for Victory, and the campaign of direct action that led to the same thing in the First World War – and some very strange byways of twentieth century politics, the long lost radical tradition of Back to the Land, which came so near and yet so far from changing the nation completely.

The Back to the Land tradition stretches right back to Hesiod and Virgil, but it has a particular resonance in England, especially south east England where it became an underground cultural critique of industrialism.

The heart of the tradition is a scepticism about generally accepted truths – especially those truths embraced by those who rule us. From that idea derives all the rest – the antipathy towards money as a measure of progress, the scepticism towards conventional luxuries and rewards. A return to the simplicity of natural things as the basis for progress. A melancholic sense of a natural, balanced past that needs to be rebuilt, rather than a utopian joy at a radical future that is being invented afresh.

This was clearly not a Protestant tradition: it refused to demonise nature as the Protestants tended to do. Nor was it really a socialist tradition, except in the most basic sense: it is a non-utopian future based on small scale land ownership, co-operation and common land – and the freedom to grow food. Nor is it really Conservative: the tradition seeks to overturn those who run the world.

On the other hand, the Back to the Land tradition seems to have involved people declaring allegiance to nearly every possible political tradition: Radicals (William Cobbett), Tories (John Ruskin, or so he said), Socialists (William Morris), Liberals (Hilaire Belloc, to start with, and Jesse Collings), Greens (Fritz Schumacher), even Blackshirts (Henry Williamson).

These are mostly literary or artistic figures whose politics has been dismissed as maverick or peculiar because the establishment preferred to pretend that they represent no coherent political tradition.

Actually, they do, but those who prefer us to conform – to package us more efficiently – don’t like it at all. What fascinates me is whether the extraordinary revival of allotments means that the old radical tradition is creeping back.

That is why I wrote a short e-book as a history of the allotments movement. You can download onto PCs as well as e-book readers. It’s called On the Eighth Day, God Created Allotments (Endeavour Press).

Let me know what you think!

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