Archive for April, 2017

“Who’s going to be the first in the audience to ask a question?”

Marvellously high temperatures here this weekend (around the twenty Celsius mark: compared to April averages of 13 C) had us up on site: dismantling the old fruit cage around the Ben Lomond blackcurrant bushes – or what is left of them – , final rough digging of the last twelve or so spits of plot land in preparation for sowing/planting out, tidying up the raised beds which hold our strawberry plants and enjoying cups of shed-made tea. Coming back home today, Sunday, it is usual to listen to BBC Gardener’s Question Time, but today, rather than a programme answering questions it was a look-back at highlights type of show. Very interesting and anecdotal. But at the close was a “trailer” for the on-line recording of the first-ever Gardener’s World programme. Since this year celebrates the seventieth anniversary of the show (which was originally titled How Does Your garden Grow: A Gardener’s Question Time and was a spin-off of the World War Two Dig for Victory campaign) the BBC are being very inventive in showcasing the history. 

I challenged myself to listen to that 9th April, 1947 broadcast. Why not? I could imagine myself as a gardening version of Dr Who ( a long-time time-travelling hero (sometimes anti-hero of the BBC currently played by Peter Capaldi). Thinking this I wondered how the language of gardening, the culture of horticulture, so to speak, might have changed – and how does Dr Who cope with all of the linguistic changes as he travels from Metebelius III to Shakespearian England, never mind comprehend the technology (and, more importantly, what has not yet been discovered/invented).

Over to one of the marvels of the twenty first century: the internet! BBC on-line, indeed; no TARDIS required. The advertised, unedited episode was chaired by Bob Stead and was recorded at the Broadoak Hotel, Ashton-Under-Lyne and featured a panel of Bolton Park Superintendent Tom Clark, he marvellously named gardeners Fred Loads and Bill Sowerbutts, and Manchester University’s Dr E. W. Sansome. An audience of local gardeners put questions to the panel much as they still do today. The panellists represented, as they do today, a wide range of expertise and did not always agree on their answers. Indeed, the show seemed interestingly, refreshingly ill-rehearsed and the beginnings of banter were obvious, if a little stiff.  Given that food rationing was still in place – two years after the end of World War Two – indeed had even seen the compulsory reduction in the amount of milk allotted per person, that beer was one shilling and four pence a pint (about 6p in today’s money), petrol was two shillings and 2 pence (the approximate equivalent of eleven of our decimal pennies) and a Mars bar cost five pence (or 2 of our 2017 pence)  the programme provided a fascinating insight into the problems facing amateur gardeners of the time. 

Questions included: how to combat red spider mite, how best to pollinate tomatoes, and uses for soot. It was notable that the oldest questioner was eighty, the youngest was sixteen and that all were allotment holders, including women, who were quite happy to challenge and joke about stereotypes … … and the dated references: one guy asking telling how he had tried to deal with red spider mite that blighted his carnations: “ … I tried nicotine, Derris and DDT … naptha treatment cleared out all the red spider mite … and all of the carnations!” DDT!? My brain was screaming as I listened (knowing retrospectively that the stuff was probably responsible for a number of species becoming all but extinct (especially raptors as it persisted in the food chain). While familiar with he chemicals from stories (Agatha Christie) and historical non-fiction I smiled at the move away from them. I also reminded myself that an Edwardian gardener would have been using lead and perhaps arsenic in the garden.

How to ensure apples didn’t suffer from early dropping from the trees ? One of the “experts” said, bluntly that “the best way to keep apples on the trees was to make sure young boys stayed in their houses!”. Which raised a laugh from the audience and reminded me of traditional “scrumping” raids of my own. 

There was, as could be expected in straitened times, tremendous support for composting; one of the panel responding that “you would never get the corporations (councils) to take garden waste.”

Having listened to the recording I was hooked, wondering about the context of the show, about what else was going on in April, 1947. I was fascinated to pick up the following, most of which, forgive me, have little or nothing to do with gardening:

*1947 was the year our current queen, Elizabeth II married Prince Philip;

* One of the worst winters on record was followed by floods in the Spring and the hottest summer in 300 years

*one in ten train services cut

*Britain lost the jewel in its imperial crown as India gained independence on 15 August 1947

* Coal industry nationalised and the first atomic reactor opened at Harwell, Oxfordshire

* Divorces hit 60,000, ten times pre-war figures, as hasty war-time marriages were dissolved

* At the same time there was a baby boom, with 20.5 births per thousand people, a fifth up on 1939

* Newspapers were restricted to four page issues; making me wonder at the percentage of news as opposed to advertising.

Meanwhile, up at the allotment we had the sad news that “Ken” has passed away. While he has not had a plot for many years now, Ken was a great gardener, always interested in what we were trying, ready with advice and always had some fine conversation. I remember well when he asked us about where we had been on holiday one year as we  were particularly sun-bronzed. “Kenya,” we replied (a super holiday taking in the Masai Mara, a dawn take-off balloon flight and so many game drives, including one at night: oh the glorious Milky Way skies!).

“I was in Kenya,” he told us, “with the army. Bit of trouble back in them days (what became known as the Mau-Mau uprising here). “While we were there we spent some time by a river. There was a film being made at the time. Saw this bald chap in the water. Thought we recognised him. Victor Mature it was. Himself and in person: bald as a coot! Yet in his films … “ he had to pause to ask if we actually knew who Victor Mature was, “he always had this head of thick, dark black hair. A wig, that’s what it was. He was bald, plain bald!”

Image result for victor mature images

He also told us of how shocked he was, when being addressed – and supposedly inspired – by a top officer – was asked where he was from.

“Staffordshire!” he said, “I he said it proudly, like you know. The colonel seemed to take a moment, like he’d never heard of Staffordshire. Then “really,” says he “and what does your father do?”

“He’s a miner sir, said I. He looked at me again, Then shook his head and said  “I’m sorry lad, like my dad being a miner was something to be ashamed of!”

Rest in Peace Ken.

Maybe it’s just me: but there’s something about having an allotment that links you to history: all of the people and lives that have been “on the plot” before – and, hopefully those that will follow.

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