‘Read this bril­liant book... and weep’

Painful mem­oir of a child­hood in care raises so many ques­tions

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Al­lan Jenk­ins HarperCollins, £14.99 Re­view by Cate Devine

AL­LAN Jenk­ins be­lieves in mir­a­cles. “I think I al­most am one,” he writes. Given the con­tent of this painful mem­oir, it’s hard to dis­agree. It starts out as an homage to Dud­ley Drab­ble, the 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, is “sat­u­rated in emo­tional mem­o­ries”. It’s where he now nur­tures help­less young plants from seed, as when he was small and needed some­one to care for him; he 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 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 all this cre­ates, 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 de­scend 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 six­ties, 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.

Gar­dener Al­lan Jenk­ins sows so­lace along with veg­eta­bles in his al­lot­ment Her­ald file pic­ture

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