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A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Allan Jenkins, Author of Plot 29

Posted on 7th April 2017 by Martha Greengrass

"I found peace in the allotment and I found understanding. In quiet, I find what I feel."

As a child, Allan Jenkins was raised in children’s homes and foster care. In his moving memoir, Plot 29, he interweaves his journey to find the truth about his own family history with a chronicle of a year on the allotment. In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, he discusses family, memory and the solace he finds in gardening.

Photo: Plot 29

'Gardening and writing', Robin Lane Fox writes, 'are intertwined like a tree-stem clasped by ivy'. For Allan Jenkins, journalist, editor and gardener, the two are not so much intertwined as grafted; formed from a life that both rich and fractured.  The result is Plot 29: part-memoir, part-garden journal and, at the same time, something distinctly, organically new.

The book’s starting point is a patch of an allotment in North London, owned by Jenkins' friend Mary Wood, that he gardens biodynamically in collaboration with her and fellow gardener, Howard Sooley. Mary and Howard appear through the book along with other members of Jenkins 'allotment family'; they are shadowy, warm figures but they are on the periphery of this book which belongs definitively to Jenkins and his lost, rediscovered and remembered history. Plot 29 truly begins not on the allotment, but with a memory; the gift to a child of marigold and nasturtium seeds and with the words, 'I learned, I think, to love from seed'. It sets the tone for what is, above all else, a love-letter - to the restorative and rejuvenating power of plot 29, his own little crop of land, but most of all to his brother, Christopher, to whom the book is dedicated.

It is early spring when Jenkins and I speak and plot 29 is almost empty, waiting for warmth enough in the soil to house the seeds that he exchanges with friends; seeds that hail from France, Italy and other more Mediterranean climates. "There are some beautiful, old red Treviso chicories that I won't crop; I'll just let them flower. There are broad beans growing there are some spring salads coming, there's some rocket coming, some beetroot. I've put up wigwams, one of which is for beans which I sewed last Saturday and one I will leave for sweet peas, right at the gate, so when you walk in you'll be walking through this incredible, sweet, English summer fragrance."

Jenkins gardening ethos is implicitly faithful to the land’s own innate properties and the promise of seed. He will only ever plant from seed and always directly into the soil. "I still marvel at seed" he says, "I buy seed because it has hope. I think it’s a gently, trusting, warm, seasonal thing to do. I’m not trying to impose my will on the land; I’m trying to help the land to grow and to find a space where things want to grow." It's this understanding, this faith in the natural rhythms of gardening, that Jenkins applies to his own writing too and which lends Plot 29 its own very distinct cadence and momentum. He wrote it early in the day, rising to start between 4.30 and 5am, five or six times a week, only twice making any notes for the following day's passages.

"What you have is trust", he says, "when you plant a seed you have trust that if you do things well and you water it and you care for it and you keep it warm and you nurture it, then something may grow from it. I trusted the book. It had its own life and I honoured it, I think. I don’t see it as a sad book; I think it’s moving and I think it’s emotional but I think it’s honest and it’s redemptive. I’m fairly precise and although the language is emotional, there’s a precision to it, it’s a very honest piece of work."

It’s Jenkin’s courage to let the story speak for itself, without trying to artificially cast the balance of light and dark elements, that lets the truth of his own story develop. The result is inevitably far from the straight-forward chronology of a memoir. Plot 29 instead offers-up fleeting and fractured windows of memory, a gradual piecing together of the past that, in time, creates a vivid picture through feeling as much as fact. It’s a sobering and moving testament to the endurance of love and the limitations and frustrations of memory. He describes the book as an attempt to "catch the memories as they went through my fingers like mercury", revisiting memories "like a worn-out VHS tape" that he watches and re-watches; his only record of a past nobody else can now remember with and for him. 

"Memory is reinforced by family", he says, "and if you don’t have family, if you don’t have that loving circle of brothers, sisters, friends, mum and dad, who say 'remember when..., remember when..., remember when...' and have all those photographs, your memory is, of its nature, fractured. I hold on to them dearly. I think I literally mine for memories"

It is this process of excavation which overtook the book's original intent, as Jenkins' own life became overtaken by his search for his buried family history. Raised in children's homes and foster care, his childhood was changed when he and Christopher were adopted by an elderly couple, Lillian and Dudley Drabble. Their home on the banks of the river in rural Devon offered the promise of reprieve, of a real family and it’s where Jenkins first nurtured his love of seed through those cherished nasturtiums and marigolds. Yet this was not to be an idyllic 'happy ending'. From the outset the adoption divided the two brothers, with the Drabbles choosing to give Allan a new name, their name. He became, for a time, Peter Drabble, whilst Christopher remained Christopher Jenkins. It’s an event that marked them, from the outset, for very different futures. Naming a child is a gift, a first gift and Jenkins is adamant that, "it shouldn’t have been Christopher’s decision… and, conversely, you take something away when you take that name away".

It's a fault line that has left Jenkins with no small measure of what he terms survivor’s guilt: "I was honestly born luckier than Christopher, it’s that simple." It's a feeling that was only reinforced by Jenkins decision, part-way through the book’s creation, to receive a freedom of information request about his own early life. It arrived in what he refers to as the "toxic box" and contained both a deeply troubled and disturbing past and the first clues to the mystery of his hidden family history.

"It can be incredibly tough", he says. "It’s very powerful, the written word… The first letter in the box was the letter from the care home that says 'he, in his turn, is very fond of his brother Christopher and behaves towards him as an older brother instead of the younger… He hates to see his brother hurt.'" 

This is followed, gradually, by a series of revelations, a litany of neglect that could easily have drowned-out every other aspect of the book. What rescues it is Jenkin's own overriding and innate care, gentleness and kindness: for the memories he unearths, the people he knows and recalls to life and the consistent, consoling presence of the garden that provides him with both structure and solace. Behind everything lies the latticework of the allotment's steady and reassuring seasonal progress; from the book’s beginning in the midst of June, through the winter months to the blessed reward of another summer. "I knew", he says, "that I would start the book in June. I knew it immediately. There had to be life and new growth and tenderness and tender plants, if I'd started it in January it would have been desolate. I knew it would, like a year, become dark, wintry and autumnal but it would come back with new life and that would be my framework. There had to be hope in it."

More than just hope, there is a real, visceral, joy to be had in this book too; much of which comes from Jenkins peculiarly keen and sensual perception of the world around him. Marmalade can conjure home, shrimps give a Proustian mainline to a child's pure delight in 'sun and sand and sea… a briny sweetness' and there is always the crisp, fresh taste of peas, straight from the garden. Peas, he says, "taste of safety; they taste of love, of someone taking care and wanting you to be happy".

Larkin, himself a gardener, wrote, 'greenness is a kind of grief' and there is much of the same understanding layered in every passage of Plot 29; a poet’s blend of loss and sweetness. Jenkins understands the extent to which we understand and express emotion through tangible engagement with our environment. It’s an emotional acuity filtered through contact with living growing things, giving expression to something that goes beyond language to pure feeling.

"It’s non-verbal. I think you can talk through things and it’s powerful and useful and interesting but with me, at least, what happens is that I retreat… Truthfully, you unearth memories; a lot of the words we use are literally excavation. It's connected to a simpler, more primal idea of what it is to be a person. In the book I talk about being deep down in the foundations of who I am and I think I was, I was digging for it. I realised I found peace in the allotment and I found understanding. In quiet, I find what I feel."

There’s an almost unbearable tenderness in this book; tenderness for the people Jenkins unearths from the past and for a boy who is variously Allan and Alan and Peter. A child who 'cries rather easily' and who, amidst fear, uncertainty and deprivation, 'is overjoyed is he can give a present… Generally wild flowers'.  Plot 29 is, perhaps, the truest expression of a child’s generosity of spirit, a generosity that Jenkins seems never to have a lost. It is gift for an imperfect family: "for an elderly couple who gave a boy a chance, for a mother who could have been better" and, most of all, "for a boy who died". It is a gift for a reader as well.

Jenkins tells me that the original cover for Plot 29 was going to reflect those first, magical, nasturtiums. Instead, looking out from the cover, a reader sees two young boys, smiling, newly, neatly dressed and clinging to each other. "Everything in the book is in that photograph. I'm looking at Christopher, my big brother, and I’m holding his hand and I’m squeezing it and I’m looking at him with love. I’m willing everything to be ok. I’m still willing everything to be ok. It’s what I do".

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