A cunning plot unfolds

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Lindy Hardcastle advocates a novel approach to allotment gardening. Most teachers are frustrated writers. English teachers in particular, and those who teach small children, are convinced that they could be another D H Lawrence or Allan Ahlberg - if only they had the time.

There are certain essential requirements that no aspiring author should be without: a thesaurus, a word processor, a rich imagination, and an agent. But the most important asset is a good plot. About 5 yards by 20 on rich, fertile loam is ideal. Yes, what every writer really needs is an allotment.

I'm a fairly typical working woman, with a full-time job, a gaggle of teenage children, a small school to govern and a wide circle of family and friends who treat me as an agony aunt and restaurateur. Plenty of material but no time to write. Certainly no time to think. If my family see me sitting down staring into space, they assume I am ill.

The noise level can be pretty ferocious at times, what with adolescent hilarity, several stereo systems, televisions and next door's motor mower. Swigging down a couple of paracetamol, I reflect that they are only really effective when taken with the advice on the bottle - "Keep out of the reach of children".

This is where the allotment comes in. A garden simply will not do. They can still call you to the phone from there, or loaf about in a deckchair telling you about their A-levels, or how much more tolerant and understanding their friends' parents seem to be.

That well-known literary figure, the Little Red Hen, understood how to achieve solitude.

"I'm going to the allotment for a couple of hours," I hear myself shout. "I've had a trailer of manure delivered and I've got a spare fork. Anyone want to come?" Once there, you give your hands something useful to do and let your mind go into free fall. Take a couple of characters for a story with you and let them sort out their problems while you work.

The silence is wonderful. It's so quiet you can almost hear the rasping tongues of the snails as they eat your lettuces. There are other allotmenteers about of course, but they are separated from you by rows of turnips and shallots so that a cheery wave and a comment on the likelihood of rain will do. They're all busy on their novels too and don't want to be disturbed. Tolstoy's original working title was War and Peas. Not a lot of people know that.

Over the years, a certain camaraderie develops, and we find ourselves exchanging tips on when to prune blackcurrant bushes, how to combat carrot fly and whether it's better to send a covering letter or let the article speak for itself. Bartering is a useful sideline. A fellow gardener who also goes fishing will trade me rainbow trout for rhubarb or a constructive criticism of his latest chapter.

As well as providing a peaceful interlude for creative thought, the allotment offers ample opportunities for working off frustration and anger. When a favourite story has been returned for the 27th time, it's time to tackle the bed of nettles that's crept in from the plot that belongs to the free-range poet next door. Slash them down with shears, then dig up the roots and jump on them. Old manuscripts and rejection slips make excellent kindling material for those autumn bonfires.

The real benefits of alfresco composition show themselves when I return home. With the next article, story or chapter already written in my head, I can lay claim to the computer, secure in the knowledge that the steady clatter of keys will deter competition from the other family members. But pause for more than a moment, and a head will appear round the door.

"Are you still using that? Only I've got some English homework to do." (The universe to save from alien invasion, more likely.) Summertime is idyllic, of course, but an allotment can function as a convincing alibi all year round. Come the Christmas holidays, tell them you've got to dig it over - again. For this activity don't forget a blanket, a Thermos flask and a shed.

So if you want to be a successful writer, contact your local council without delay. Roll your sleeves up and be prepared to get your hands dirty. No one ever said creativity was going to be easy, and you may never get rich. But at least you won't starve.

Lindy Hardcastle lives in Leicester

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