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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

First the Hate and now the Love!

This blog sometimes feel like it's the hands of Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter. Yesterday there was Hate and today there's love. Make up your mind already!

The love comes courtesy of  Multistory's Black Country Allotment Story. This is a gorgeous publication; part allotment lore, part local history, part nature guide and part photography, it consists of a a series of 9 coloured booklets (a little bit like  A Shimmer of Possibility but in notebook form) that come with a map, a bag of seeds, a DVD and a whole bunch of charm, all packaged together in a specially designed, slightly wonky box - my copy got a bit crushed in the post and I can't quite work out how to put it back together again. .

It's not a photobook as such, but is rather a community publication, a gift from Multistory to the allotment holders of the Black Country. Think of Mark Neville's Port Glasgow, but with fresh air, good will and homegrown vegetables added and you're on the right track.

The Kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the bird for mirth,
One is closer to God in the garden,.
Than anywhere else on earth. 

(From Alison and her Allotment)

The texts in the books come from Susie Parr (her husband is Martin) and they detail different aspects of the allotment. So you get a history of allotments and smallholdings both in the UK and the Black Country. There are booklets dedicated to the seasons and the growing times so it's part handbook. Other booklets look at the weeds, the food and the recipes that are used to cook what is grown. And all the way through are the people who live on the allotments, their foibles, their habits and the food that they grow.

It's a multicultural bunch and we see their portraits in the People section. They pose on their plots growing a variety of produce and wearing a variety of clothes. And slowly as we go through the books, their personalities emerge through stories of how they tend their allotment, how they grow their vegetables and the recipes they use to cook their food.

The Black Country is a special area in the UK. It was heavily industrialised and it's probably best-known as a place that you drive through on the M5 or M6 motorways. Like most views from the motorway, it's not pretty. This boxed set (and the whole Multistory project) puts forward another view. So it comes with maps; maps that detail the placing of allotments in the region, that make places like Wednesbury (a place I only knew as a Motorway exit) start to become lived in and add an altogether different dimension that gets beneath the skin of the place in a very direct and positive way.

Another map shows the flight of a Bee (there's a booklet and DVD which I have yet to watch dedicated to beekeeping) around the area. Here the plants, shrubs and trees the bees feed on take precedence over the roads, the IKEA and the motorway. As they should because it's a bee's eye view of the world.

So Allotment Story is a simple challenging of our expectations and our assumptions. It's a book where the world revolves (as it does in reality) around the growing of food and is shown through the growing of food. It's not a photobook but the pictures are illustrative, affectionate and take you deeper into the psychogeography of the allotment. I especially liked the pictures of carpets on allotments. Flop a carpet over a patch of grass in winter and the grass will die and you have soil you can plant into come spring. But the carpets people use in these allotments are so different to the carpets people use in my bijou Bath allotment. Similarly, the sheds, the vegetables, the weeds are different.

The people, strangely enough, don't seem to be. They may wear different clothes or have different ethnicities but their motivations are the same as anyone anywhere who tends a patch of allotment; it's to get outside and grow something that you can eat or will look beautiful. And you don't get more loving than that.

Buy the box here for £19 in the UK, £24 in Europe and £25 worldwide (prices inc. p&p)


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