My review of Allan Jenkins' memoir Plot 29, first published in The Herald Arts Magazine.
It starts out as an homage to Dudley Drabble, the older foster father who with his wife Lilian rescued Jenkins and his older brother Christopher from a “feral” children’s home in Plymouth when they were five and six years old in the 1950s, and gave the author - the editor of Observer Food Monthly - his lifelong love of gardening. Indeed Plot 29, his beloved north London allotment (pictured above), is “saturated in emotional memories”. It’s where he now nurtures helpless young plants from seed like when he was small and needed someone to care for him; sows solace along with sorrel.
The story quickly evolves, however, into something altogether more visceral as the author searches for what happened to him and his brother in the first (and later) years of their lives. Heartbreak and guilt are hinted at early as he mentions how he tried - and feels he failed - to guard Christopher (“the broken, the untouchable unlovable, the one nobody wanted”) from predators.
Prompted by his brother’s recent death “from a cancer-causing trauma etched too deep for me to reach”, the adult journalist uses a Freedom of Information request to get his care records from Barnardo’s and when he gets them it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. But he needs to know, driven by an inherent longing for “a face that could be connected to me”. This is a boy who, put up for adoption at four weeks old and handed to Barnardo’s at three months, had three different Christian names and an exhausting tally of surnames. His unmarried mother would now be described as having a “chaotic” lifestyle, but in the parlance of 1950s care reports was said to be “of weak character and morals”. She had several children by different fathers yet only Allan and Christopher were given away. Described in care reports as extremely close, they were continually separated by the authorities before being reunited by the Drabbles – at least for a while.
Written over one year in a direct style that to this reader suggests suppressed anger, the melancholy that mists this memoir is sometimes hard to endure. Sorrow permeates the pages as thoroughly as his favoured biodynamic mix soaks the soil. Describing each month’s gardening activity, often in such meticulous detail as to suggest obsession, he seems to lean on his allotment like a crutch as he learns the truth about his past. It’s at Plot 29 that flash-back memories start to come; where he has time to reflect on each fresh bombshell.
There is evidence of neglect, cruelty and violence which point to abject failures in the child welfare system of the 1950s and 60s. Why, for example, did Christopher need a hernia operation at age three, and how did he himself come into contact with scabies, impetigo, herpes, and become touched by TB and rickets while in care?
Even if he does try to lift the mood, there’s clearly no escape from the emotional turmoil, and the author returns to therapy.
Yet what a compelling read. By dint of juxtaposing time-scales and locations (Jenkins has two – no, three – other gardens), he succeeds in taking the reader with him on his journey, even if it can confuse and distress. There’s just one photograph of the young brothers with Lilian, presumably taken by Dudley, when they are newly arrived in Devon. The absence of illustrations only adds potency to the words.
Every so often, though, they stray into bathos: chef Ferran Adrian’s peas at El Bulli, then the world’s best restaurant, provide a Proustian moment and prompt the author, now in his 60s, to cry at the memory they evoke of picking peas with his new mum, aged six; and reading the lyrics of Lonnie Donegan’s version of Nobody’s Child, heartlessly recommended by his maddeningly evasive uncle during his search, is simply excruciating.
Religious language is scattered throughout. He talks of “this cross we carry”, and finding “epiphany” at the plot. He and his siblings are “the cursed brood” of an unloving mother; he imagines that the burning of his mother’s hand allegedly threatened by one of her lovers “is what hell would feel like for the damned and the unrepentant”.
Jenkins’ story raises many questions, not least that of whether it’s possible to transcend one’s past. After his own agony, is redemption possible? Read this brilliant book, and weep.
· Plot 29 is published by HarperCollins on March 23, 2017, priced at £14.99.
This review was first published in The Herald.