Allan Jenkins is the award-winning editor of Observer Food Monthly. He was previously editor of the Observer Magazine, food and drink editor on the Independent newspaper and once lived in an experimental eco-community on Anglesey, growing organic food on the edge of the Irish Sea. He is the co-author of Fish, the J. Sheekey cookbook, and lives in north-west London.
‘When I am disturbed, even angry, gardening has been a therapy. When I don’t want to talk I turn to plot 29, or to a wilder piece of land by a northern sea. There, among seeds and trees, my breathing slows; my heart rate too. My anxieties slip away.’
As a young boy in 1960s Plymouth, Allan Jenkins and his brother, Christopher, were rescued from their care home, fostered by an elderly couple. There, the brothers started to grow flowers in their riverside cottage. They found a new life with their new mum and dad.
Yet as he grows older, Allan feels unsatisfied with the unanswered questions about his past. His foster parents were never quite able to provide the family the brothers needed, but the solace he finds in tending a small London allotment echoes the childhood moments when he grew nasturtiums from seed.
Over the course of a year, Allan digs deeper in to his past, seeking to learn more about his absent parents. Examining the truths and untruths that he’d been told, he discovers the secrets to why the two boys were in care. What emerges is a vivid portrait of the violence and neglect that lay at the heart of his family.
A beautifully written, haunting memoir, Plot 29 is a meditation on seeds and siblings. Plot 29 is a meditation on seeds and siblings. Yet it’s also a celebration of the joy to be found in sharing flowers and food with someone you love.
Tell us of your journey as a writer
I came to writing late, I have been a professional copy editor of other peoples’ work for more than 30 years (editor of national newspaper magazines for near 20) and have loved the collaborative aspect of this. For the past few years though I have also been travelling and writing, increasingly confident in my voice. This is a story of course I was born to write and I was the only one who could.
How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?
To bring heart and feeling to my work. It was when I realised my voice isn’t like anyone else’s that I discovered my self-expression. A heady place to be.
Why did you decide to write a memoir? And were you tempted to fictionalise parts of your story?
Not sure I did decide to write this memoir as such, I was writing a journal with personal stuff added in: an old man growing food and flowers because a kindly old man once showed him how as a child. But my dead brother Christopher’s voice edged him out, demanded to be heard. A freedom of information request for care records changed the direction. And a chance discovery in Barnardos office shaded the narrative. I did though “honour’ each stage and made myself as open as possible to the shifting sands of the story. I was not tempted at all to fictionalise though some (few) names were changed to protect the guilty.
You said in a Guardian article that gardening is your therapy. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
It is a place to go to grow, a beautiful semi-wild space but also sometimes, somewhere I can go to try to avoid overspill into my family life. It brings me peace, a non-verbal acceptance. I am good at it. Things grow for me. It is also inherently about nurturing small helpless infant things (of course)… and it comes with flavour, food and colour.
How important have books been in your life? What is the one book you wish you had written?
When I was lost and had not much hope of making a life, I read, addictively, avidly, twentieth century American mostly: Hammett, Brautigan, Wolfe, Kesey, Roth, Bellow, even Mailer. I am not sure I wish I had written it, but the greatest writer I have worked with (and they include Amis, Barnes and Mamet) was Rian Malan, whose My Traitor’s Heart is still my benchmark.
What advice do you have for would be memoirists/writers?
Write. Write. Write. Anything. Find your voice and stay true to it if you can.
When you were growing up, did you have a mentor/role model? What motivated you?
My foster father gave me a home and safety, I will always owe him that and am aware of the debt I owe (though more clear-eyed now about the downside). Motivation? I wanted my brother and me to be happy, though later I also wanted to escape the claustrophobia of small village life.
Has becoming successful made a difference and has this affected your self belief/self worth?
I think it mostly affects the way people sometimes treat you. I came to journalism late (I was already well into my 30s) and had an ambition to work for a good paper if possible, to be part of a community, like a doctor, teacher or nurse. I was 45 when I became an editor (ancient, like the Queen mum), so “success” came very late though I have always I think had self-belief even when there wasn’t much evidence it was shared. None of it come close to meeting my wife in a late night cinema but close perhaps was finding out I can write, not sentences like Roth, or books like Malan, but like me.
How does it feel now that people regard you as a role model, especially care leavers?
I am not sure this is the case. I was born lucky (or at least luckier than my brother) and am acutely aware that my luck isn’t widely shared among people brought up in care.
Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?
Huckleberry Finn is hard to beat. Though I have a weakness too for Long John Silver.
Plot 29 is published by Harper Collins
Follow Allan on Twitter: @allanjenkins21