Shrug by Phil Thomas


Image by Futurilla licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

As part of our series of responses to ‘Brexit’ and the election of President Trump, Phil Thomas offers an allegory from the allotment.

I try and make it down to the allotment every weekend from spring until the ground freezes. Sometimes I go and stand there after work besides. I might drive dazedly, park, struggle with the padlock, take a fork out of the shed, balance it against my boot and grin, not remembering what needed doing. So what?! You answer the demands of this place, perpetually growing.

What draws you is your own insignificance. The sense of service is addictive, and keeps me sane. I am an ape, forever picking fleas out of the fur of my beloveds, or weeds out of the soil in a futile bid for control. When I’ve turned my back all manner of invisible things knit together to make new stuff. It’s not personal.

With my Allotment Committee Chairman hat on I ask “Sam, do you want us to say something?”

“No, no, please, no, I’d rather we all just forget about it –I have forgotten. It’s fine Eric. Please. No fuss.”

He has had this kind of conversation before no doubt, but we, the Committee are appalled: “Do you have any idea who did it?” His shoulders trace a question mark, whilst all the muscles in his face clutch his tongue.

Well, I have an idea who did.

Samuel is one of our most active non-committee members. He came here yesterday morning and found his entire plot dead, every plant emaciated – Roundup doesn’t deliberate. He came here from Mauritius when he was 10 years old. Sam’s retiring soon, is an executive something in the city. I can’t remember exactly what because we always talk about gardening.

I have learned a lot from him, not only in our chats, but just by noticing what he does. Undulating espaliered apple trees, and a weakness for flowers with faces formed of twisted petals repeated in patterns. Sam’s plot [was] ingenious, an engineer’s reverie, with zig zagging guttering and a wicked sense for how junk can be shaped into planters, or radiators into terraces. He’s had success with many different varieties I’ve never tried to grow before. We share seeds.

Sam gives my granddaughter unlabelled cuttings to carry away in yoghurt pots, she spills the soil all over the car. Too teasing for his own good, he leans on Tony and Sue’s fence and warns they’re putting those tomatoes in far too late “you won’t get anything from them now.” Busybodywhoaskedhisopinionanyway?

But we all do this. Giving unsolicited advice, usually in the form of ill omen is part of the culture of the allotment. We also all lay tired wooden planking down across the soil to spread our weight and keep the earth tilled. He’s bright as anything, I tried to get him to join the committee, Sam screwed his face “I am not interested in your committee politics, no offence.” Thinkshe’stoogoodforus, murmurs the green.

At our AGM Sara complained that our allotment membership doesn’t reflect the local community. Not everyone thinks this is a problem. It’s not that there’s no diversity on the plot, we have several Italian gentlemen who claim to have been here since The War. We’re not xenophobic people. Some argue that the current make-up of the plot simply demonstrates that young, and black people aren’t keen on growing vegetables. It’s going to be hard to change the membership because the waiting list has been full up and closed for years. When someone dies a neighbour normally takes over the plot temporarily (“just for now, it’s what Ray would have wanted”), and then permanently (“it’s better its being used than to risk someone new having a go and not taking care of it”). Some of the most selfless neighbours have built up empires of soil.

We have a good committee now though, we are trying to change. It will take time.

What breaks my heart about this affair is that a fellow gardener did it. Someone who knew that the poison would get into the soil and take up residence. It’s not just that the current crop is ruined, but the nutrients and microbes are stripped out of the earth. Nothing can grow in it now.

*                                                          *                                                                      *

The above might read like a painfully earnest fable about Brexit, so I want to point out that this story is based on an incident that happened on a friend’s allotment in the run up to the referendum.

Phil Thomas is an academic, artist and writer based in London. She is currently writing up her PhD in Visual Sociology at Goldsmiths College, London, which is on the politics of representations of crime and criminality. Her research methodology includes writing fiction and making films. Her website is


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