ROBERT AND MARGARET, my PhD supervisor, and his wife, became my close friends during the execution of my doctorate and for many years afterwards. I had the feeling that they were not as keen as some about Britain joining what we now call the European Union (‘EU’). Today, the 31st of December 2020 at 11 pm, the UK will leave it. Thinking about this reminded me of my old, now sadly deceased, friends and how joining Europe almost wrecked one of their dietary habits.
Robert was an extremely keen and energetic gardener. His home had extensive grounds. Looking after these kept him blissfully busy. The tennis court was separated from the conservatory by a large lawn surrounded by bushes. This was the ornamental garden. It contained one or two benches and a table where tea could be enjoyed in hot weather. A path led from this into an even larger kitchen garden that was lined on one side by a series of long low huts, known as the ‘goat sheds’. Although they did not contain any goats, they were filled to the brim with … well… maybe many people might have called it ‘junk’. My friends would have disagreed with this assessment.
At one end of these sheds, Robert, who was a first-class handy man as well as a brilliant scientist, kept a wide selection of tools. There were few repairs in and around his home for which Robert lacked the skills to perform competently. Once plastic piping became widely available, he carried out many successful plumbing repairs. More than once he said to me with great seriousness that it was senseless teaching children Latin or Greek; they should be taught something useful like plumbing. Amongst these tools, there was also a hand operated mill that he used to grind flour, which he used to bake his own bread.
Almost whenever I arrived at his home, I would find Robert somewhere in the garden. Often, he was hunched over a bed of seedlings, weeding. Sometimes, he would be looking after his crop of potato plants which grew in a field accessed by way of the path between the goat sheds and the stables. He liked this patch of ground because it bordered the large meadow where his horse, Hobo, grazed. This horse enjoyed company and used to stand by the fence close to where Robert was toiling. Robert valued Hobo’s company as well as that of his Burmese cat, which followed him around the garden.
Beyond the goat sheds and separated from them by a pathway were two adjoining stables. One was occupied occasionally by the family’s pet horse; and the other was filled with the contents of a long-lost friend’s flat. Amongst the various plots for growing fruit and vegetables, there was a spacious elegant Victorian glasshouse. A rusty wide-bore pipe ran around the walls that made up the rectangular base of this. This pipe had once been connected by underground pipes to the house, which was about 70 yards away. In its heyday, the piping in the glasshouse had been part of the house’s central heating system circuit and served to keep the plants warm in winter. By the time that my friends had bought their home, it had been disconnected.
Robert grew a variety of edible plants in the greenhouse. The lettuce he grew there was some of the best that I have ever eaten. Freshly picked, it was so tasty that it required neither salad dressing nor salt nor any other additive. It was grown from seed of a strain of lettuce called ‘Continuity’.
When the UK joined the European Economic Community (‘EEC’) in 1973, something of which I doubt my friends fully approved, the days of Continuity were numbered. Amongst the many regulations that the EEC planned to impose on its members was the banning of the sale of some kinds of seeds including those of Continuity breed of lettuce. This annoyed Robert and Margaret, and it became yet one more reason for them to disapprove of joining the EEC. Not one to be defeated by authority, Robert made sure that he let some of his lettuce plants flower and he collected their seeds in anticipation of the ban. For long after the seeds were no longer on sale, Robert and Margaret and others who ate with them were able to enjoy Continuity lettuce.
Although many people, including my friends Robert and Margaret, benefitted greatly from joining the EEC, later the EU, their disquiet about European judgement about what they could grow in their own gardens was not entirely misplaced. For, over the years, what began as a primarily economic union gradually assumed an overarching political role. We wait with bated breath to see whether leaving the EU will allow Britain to truly ‘regain control’, as Boris Johnson hopes, or, as many people fear, to degenerate into an insignificant archipelago lying off the west coast of Europe.