"Have you noticed how women are now branching out into realms of society that were once considered the sole domain of the man? I am not referring to the political, electoral, educational, employment, sexual and social advancement that the law has enacted and enshrined over the past century that confers equality of access and status between the sexes, but a much more important aspect in the hearts of men. Women are now touching bases and are entering those manly places that were once the exclusive sanctums of masculinity personified.
Once, a gentrified man was able to visit his Private Club to get away from the responsibilities of domesticity. Even the working man had his Working Man's Club to go to escape the presence and attention seeking behaviour of children and wives. The sporty types also had their 'all male' Golf Clubs. After the women had secured equality in all things with their menfolk, a Martian observing from outer space would have assumed that they'd broken through every glass ceiling and burned every bra there was and that was the battle of the sexes well and truly won. How wrong and presumptuous such an observation would have been to make!
When I was a boy during the early post-war years of the 1950s, many men and women who had been persuaded between 1939 and 1945 to 'grow for England' had uprooted their manicured lawns and flower beds and exchanged them for fruit and vegetables to supplement the family table during times of want and food shortage. After the war, many men found that they no longer had the exclusivity of their garden to retire to for a bit of peace and quiet, so gradually over the next decade, they developed new havens to escape the screams of children and the chattering of wives often half a mile away. These places were called 'allotments'; small plots of land that became the established domain of a man and upon whose earth, no woman's foot ever trod.
The first such plot of land I ever saw belonged to my maternal grandfather, William Fanning in Ireland; fifty yards away from the house in which he lived and the one where I was born in November 1942. William Fanning, who was affectionately called Willie by his wife and the people of Portlaw had an eventful early life as an Irish rebel who was 'on the run' in the I.R.A. after the Easter Uprising of 1916 in Dublin. He managed to escape the British soldiers and before he was twenty-five years old he discovered he had a dodgy heart. His running days being over, he found himself no longer being able to escape the clutches of young Mary Lanning nor the consequences of the child she was carrying (my mother), whom he subsequently married. The couple set up home in the village of Portlaw, County Waterford and parented seven surviving children of whom my mother was the oldest.
My grandfather was a handsome man who was highly popular in the village. After developing a dodgy heart condition, being unable to hold down a conventional job, he became the man in Portlaw who mended the damaged bicycles and repaired their punctures. He performed this work in a shed that he built and occupied in his backyard, between 9.00 am daily and 4.00 pm. At first, all seemed to go well and granddad enjoyed the fact that he could work within yards from his wife in the event of him ever getting a heart attack as my grandmother could see him at work in his shed through her kitchen window as she cleaned and made copious amounts of soda bread that I loved. One thing soon led to another, and grandmother no longer remained satisfied to have her husband in constant sight; she needed to inform him when his meals were ready and she also desired to talk with him whenever she wanted to. Granddad Fanning was a kind of mad inventor, the Heath Robinson of Portlaw who could turn his hand to anything.( Heath Robinson was the unsung hero of British eccentricity and innovation).
Initially, my granddad designed a sort of jungle-type telephone aided by two tin cans, a long piece of string and a bicycle bell. The string stretched from his work shed to grandma's kitchen via her small kitchen window. Each end of the string was placed through a hole in the base of the tin can. In granddad's shed was a bell from a bicycle that rang whenever grandmother pulled her end of the string tight to inform her husband she had something to say. The couple would then manage to speak somehow through the tin cans. I thought this invention to be nothing less than sheer magic, but granddad soon started to realise that although his wife had something she wanted to say to him, he didn't always like what it was that was said, as she usually pestered him and reminded him about other work she wanted doing and which he hadn't got around to.
Having broken the peace of his work shed that he once enjoyed, most of his hours were gradually increased in his lengthy back garden where he grew his home production of potatoes and cabbages all year round. Granddad liked being in his allotment more than his work shed in the backyard where grandma was able to see him 24/7. Eventually, grandma, who'd never previously entered the gate of the allotment started visiting to complain to her husband about this or that. My granddad's response was to build himself another shed, an impregnable fortress that she or no other woman would ever be able to enter. The lock on the door of the shed was substantial and it had two bolts on its inside and was made wholly soundproof. After he had completed his bicycle repairs for the day, granddad would make a hasty retreat to his allotment shed with two flasks of strong sugared tea, a packet of Woodbines and a bottle of porter. If grandmother tried to get his attention in the allotment shed by banging on the door, he always pleaded ignorance saying that he'd never heard her. There was only one key to the allotment shed that he wore around his neck twenty-four hours a day. The key was on a string with some little bells on that would chime whenever it moved, just in case grandma tried to relieve him of it when he was fast asleep.
Granddad was one of the early allotment holders who had managed to find a quiet haven away from the chattering clatter of his dear wife. I came to England at the age of four/five years and my father started work as a miner. He would often tell me about the harsh conditions of the pit. These stories fascinated me and eventually became the background for one of my most favourite books that I was to go on and write in my fiftieth year of life.
When I was a boy, many miners who worked below ground for most of the week and who never saw the sunlight until the arrival of Saturday would spend most of the weekend in their gardens or garden sheds. Those lucky ones who were fortunate enough to have an allotment used to spend many a peaceful hour there in the certain knowledge that their manly peace would not be interrupted by the clatter of a house full of children, the constant drone of domestic drivel in the background and household chores waiting to be done.
I still recall my father telling me that 'a man's shed is just that.....a man's shed. It is his castle and the garden that surrounds it is the moat that no woman shall ever be allowed to cross.'
Well..... being a lad at the time, I could clearly understand this common-sense view and sympathise with such natural male feelings. My grandfather was a very wise Irish man who used to frequently remind his drinking pals in the pub whenever referring to the fairer sex, 'Be very careful my friend, Give them an inch and they'll want a yard. Let them know what you earn weekly and they'll expect you to hand your weekly wage packet over unopened every week.... why, I wouldn't put it past them to ask for pocket money next and then where will we all be? They'll expect the vote next!'
It was partly my memories of my grandfather's sheds along with my father's mining background and his love of the garden that led me to write one of the books I most enjoyed writing, 'Tales from the Allotment'. While dad never had an allotment but would have dearly loved one, when I married Sheila, an allotment nearby came as part of her dowry. At first, it was a nice place to visit in between our busy social life, but since I developed a terminal blood cancer six years ago, it has become a refuge and haven for me. Having no effective immune system with which to fend off infections, being in the company of more than two people at once can be highly dangerous for me. Any cold they have in my presence will result in me catching immediate pneumonia and risk dying as a consequence.
For the first five years of my terminal illness, I was confined to a mixture of hospital, bed and house for nine months out of each year. It is only the past year that I have experienced my best ever year, since contracting my cancer, and that is largely due to my daily visits to the allotment with Sheila. Being at the allotment effectively swaps the infectious presence of human beings for the non-infectious contact of birds, flowers and vegetables, plus the sight of the occasional squirrel, a frog and a rat.
Where I do distinctly differ from my father and grandfather, however, is that my wife Sheila attends 'our allotment' with me and I am so pleased that she does. Our allotment has become an ongoing project that we both love. Being less able to use both hands and feet today, Sheila willingly does the bulk of the labouring while I point her in the right direction and teach her what knowledge I have about plants, gardening, laying pathways and working out pleasant designing features Over the past six months, Sheila has become so skilled at many gardening crafts that we have almost completed the paving over of the lawn area of the allotment as a safety factor to prevent the likelihood of me accidentally falling. Merely falling can reawaken my resting cancer which is presently in hibernation.
Ah........the joys of progress. My father and grandfather would turn in their graves if they knew that I'd not only allowed my wife into my garden/allotment shed but that I actually invited her and gave her her own key to the shed so that she may enter it when I am not about!"
Love and peace Bill xxx