Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Allotment publishing, then and now: this blessed plot, this earth, this realm...

I used to work in a radical bookshop in Nottingham called Mushroom Bookshop. Somehow I'd missed buying Colin Ward and David Crouch's book The Allotment: its landscape and culture when it came out as an expensive Faber hardback before it went out of print. In 1994 I got fed up waiting on the paperback and suggested to Faber that Mushroom buy the rights and that we publish in paper ourselves. This seemed a bit excessive as I only wanted one copy (the internet had not been invented yet) but needs must. Colin - a friend of mine as it happened - and David were keen to see new life breathed into the work. Faber set a reasonable price and, hey presto, I was a publisher of real books under Mushroom's name. I'd previously published pamphlets under various guises, but this was a 311 page book of some import.
It turned out a lot of people had been waiting, and waiting, and we had a steady seller on our hands. It was one of the very few books that came up on searches for allotments and was particularly popular among those new to allotmenting who wanted to know their history. At the time I had two plots myself on the famous Hungerhill site in Nottingham. The book was reviewed, mentioned, referred to, sent to John Prescott when he was in charge of allotments, drawn on for everything anybody else was writing on allotments and bits were lifted without permission or credit by one Sunday newspaper!
In 1995 I left Mushroom and their publications went with me (we'd published a few other books by then) and The Allotment became the book that underwrote the rest of what was now Five Leaves' list. It was not long before Five Leaves became the world's biggest publisher of books on allotments. We became so when we published our second such book, One Woman's Plot by Geraldine Kilbride. It sold out. Indeed, if anyone has a spare copy I'd like one as our file copy here has some missing pages! Then came City Fields, Country Gardens, a collection of allotment essays that first appeared in the Guardian from Michael Hyde.
The book was edited by David Crouch and Martin Stott, with wonderful photos by Martin. We learned that Michael was very ill and brought publication forward. He received copies just in time, in hospital where he presented a copy to his favourite nurse, and though he was far too ill to attend the launch he said a few words down the phone. Michael had kept allotment writing alive during the dark periods and we were proud to have published him. That sold out too.
We added The Art of Allotments by David Crouch and couldn't help but feel a BIG book on allotment art and photography would be a good thing.... but that is for others, because by now allotment publishing was not uncommon and it was time for Five Leaves to move on, our job done on that front. Yet Crouch and Ward kept selling and we kept reprinting it, thinking it was time for that book to leave the stage but still nobody else had written an accessible yet well researched book on allotment history.
Until we met Lesley Acton. It was time to let Crouch and Ward go and, after a decent interval, replace the book. Sure, there are one or two others, but aimed more for a popular market (and we don't do popular) rather than social history. How did we meet Lesley? Not sure, because she normally writes on ceramics but had moved on to allotments and runs
So... on March 14 in Leicester and March 16 in London we launch A Growing Place: a history of the allotment movement by her. You can't order it yet, but will soon.
This history investigates how changing economic, political and cultural conditions have affected the demand for plots. Allotmenting is far from being a benign activity for the poor but a highly politicised issue reflecting debates on land use, good food, planning and, now, "redevelopment". In tracing the ups and downs of the movement and its culture the book discusses whether allotments will continue to survive.
And Five Leaves returns to its roots. In more ways than one.
ps - this blessed plot quote is from Shakespeare's King Richard II

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