It’s the pride of the borough. No, not the football team! They pawned the family silver and upped sticks for Milton Keynes. The fennel! The vegetable heart of London!
Barry Witt holds up a whitish-purple bulb. Its spidery roots are still caked with crumbs of wet earth. Four upright trunks protrude like chimney stacks. Two of these have sprouted delicate lilac fronds that resemble dyed, ostrich-feather boas from a burlesque show. The fennel looks like an internal organ harvested from the abdominal cavity of an alien being.
“Feel the weight of it. Five minutes ago that was still in the ground.”
The bulb has an inner heaviness – a dense singularity, out of proportion to its size.
“The South London Agricultural Show won’t let me enter anything I grow here. Why? Because this whole area is on the site of a plague pit from the 1300s. The biggest in London – thousands of bodies! Every year I send them my entry form and my registration fee. Every year they send the cheque back, stapled to the same letter. It’s all nonsense. I had a man come down here from Reading University, with all his scientific soil-testing gubbins, to give it the once over. He said it was fine. Perfectly okay to grow vegetables on. Perfectly okay to eat them. But they’ve got it in their heads that it’s bad. They won’t listen, will they?”
He huffs and he puffs.
“The allotment – big one, innit? I don’t rent it. The land belonged to my great-grandfather. I’m always getting phone calls from people wanting to buy it off me. God knows where they get my number from. I told the last girl that called: ‘I know you’re reading from a script.’ She denied it, but I get the same call from her lot every week and they always say exactly the same thing. I said to her: ‘You’re wasted working in a call centre. You should be treading the boards with The Royal Shakespeare Company!’ I’ve got seventeen letters from the council warning me about possible soil contamination from the 14th century. I’ve got them telling me that it’s not a suitable location to be growing vegetables and I could be prosecuted by the European courts. Do you know what I think? They want the land. Why? They probably want to build flats on it. We’ve got enough flats already. People have been growing carrots here since the time of William the Conqueror. I bleeding well give them short shrift, I can tell you!”
Outside the shed, in the corner of Barry’s plot, there is something that looks a bit like a wooden footstool: a thick plank joined to a pair of flared legs.
“It’s like something that was dredged up with the Mary Rose,” is Barry’s frank assessment. The worm-eaten timbers are riddled with tiny boreholes. The rusted nails holding the wobbling legs in place are bent over in their sockets, which have been enlarged by age and the prolonged activity of burrowing insects.
The stool was carved a century ago by a local carpenter called Harry Young. In its prime it was used by stable boys at a nearby mews to assist riders in mounting their horses. The mews is gone now, knocked down at the end of the 1940s to make way for a parade of shops. This, in turn, was demolished in 2001 to provide space for flats. History has forgotten Harry Young and the girl he married, whom he referred to as his sweetheart right up until the day he died.
Barry places the fennel bulb on top of the rickety stool. He has a short-bladed knife that is more rust than metal. The wooden handle is a stretched ovoid that fits loosely around a thin, corroded metal core. The blade is an unusual shape, like a flickering flame – the kind of cutting edge that can have been designed only to achieve some obscure purpose: to prune a particular species of rose, perhaps. Or, maybe, it’s a fennel-cutting knife. Despite the dull coating of rust it slices clean through the bulb. Barry holds up both halves, revealing the glistening cross-section inside – a peculiar, whitish-purple configuration of interlocking layers.
“Do you see that? Cut open a hundred bulbs, between the dimples on either side, and it’s always the same pattern. A miracle of nature, absolutely identical in every way. It looks a bit like a maze, dunnit? That’s what they call it: the Fennel Maze of Wimbledon.”
Barry is wrong about it being a maze. A maze is something that you get lost in. What the cross-section reveals is a labyrinth. A meandering pathway symbolising the twists and turns of a difficult journey towards a worthwhile goal.
Martin Young doesn’t know how to break the adult-content filter on his parents’ internet connection. He’s tried everything: birthdays, the dates of wedding anniversaries, his mother’s maiden name, the names of long dead pets and former holiday destinations.
Late one night, after an interminable effort to break the code leaves him mired in a state of semi-aroused despondency, he types into the password field: “Little pig, little pig, let me in”.
A grey dialogue box flashes up on the screen:
Not by the hairs on my chinny-chin-chin.
A few seconds later his web browser opens and redirects him to a Google image search for “piglets”.
Martin attends a highly-rated Catholic school in Wimbledon. The school is resolutely single sex. There are no female teachers. Martin doesn’t know any girls socially. It feels like something is missing from his life, as if part of the teenage experience has been screened-off from him in the hope that he will redirect his attentions elsewhere. It hasn’t worked. He spends hours pacing back and forth along this imaginary dividing wall, searching for a way through.
A few months from now his religious education teacher, Mr Taylor, will project a photographic image depicting a cross-section of a London fennel bulb onto the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, and will correctly identify the winding path formed by the interlocking layers of the vegetable as a labyrinth. Mr Taylor is a devout Catholic who regards this design as evidence of God working through the process of evolution.
The twists and turns in the labyrinth all have names that relate to the Christian pilgrim’s journey towards salvation. With his pointer, Mr Taylor will identify these to the class.
Many of these names were coined by a priest called Father Robert Hendlam, who resided in Wimbledon near to where the school now stands. He wrote them all down in a pamphlet that he published in 1840 titled: How God in his Divine Wisdom Chose to Save the Corrupted City of London through the Miracle of his most Humble Creation.
Hendlam was greatly enthused by the subject of London fennel. In addition to his treatise, he also wrote a poem on the subject and a hymn with an unmemorable melody that made a rare appearance during an edition of Songs of Praise in 1988.
One of the long sweeping bends that forms part of the fennel bulb’s hidden labyrinth is referred to as Clink’s Passage. There are many who erroneously assume that this is a reference to Clink Prison in Southwark. In fact, it originates from the name of the grocer who sold Robert Hendlam his first bulb of London fennel – a man called George Clink.
Hendlam regarded Clink as a living saint. Buried somewhere in the Vatican archives is a letter that he wrote to Pope Gregory XVI recommending the grocer for beatification in recognition of his contribution towards the salvation of the wicked city of London.
The classroom where Martin Young will learn about London fennel and George Clink is infused with the sombre gloom of a church. The battered textbooks that were handed out at the beginning of the academic year are missing their dust jackets. These were removed two decades ago when the books were purchased, and stored in pristine condition in a folder in the headmaster’s filing cabinet. The dark green cloth binding absorbs what little natural light filters into the room through the deep-set windows. The yellowing pages mirror the stale information they contain. By unvoiced consensus the entire class will sink into a torpor, as other classes of boys who have passed this way have done before.
If Father Hendlam were alive today he would grab Martin Young vigorously by the shoulders and shake him from his stupor, not in anger, but in a kind of evangelical fervour. He would drag him before a mural in the nave at St Mary’s that depicts a cross-section of a London fennel bulb, and point out a small section in the labyrinth named “the alleyway of lust”.
“Do you SEE that, boy?” he would bellow. “There’s where you are. Get yourself out of that alleyway, young man. Turn your mind from thoughts of carnal pleasure and set your spirit to its higher purpose. The Lord is calling you, boy!”
Patrick Clink’s toes are wedged into the thin gap between the carpet and the drawers underneath the bed which he has recently vacated, and which is still warmed by his residual body heat. His legs, which are clad in turquoise tracksuit bottoms, are bent into parallel peaks. His arms are crossed diagonally over his bare chest. His upper body rhythmically rises towards the side of the mattress and then drops back down again. This repetitive motion is accompanied by a stifled grunting sound that becomes increasingly laboured as he goes on.
During the penultimate sit-up he suddenly comes over light-headed. His vision is filled with the after-image of his girlfriend as she was the last time he saw her, half an hour ago, freeze-framed in the front door, about to leave for work: a still life from the recent past, superimposed onto the present. The image abruptly turns silver and opaque, like a photo negative. His shoulders crash down onto the thin carpet for the final time. He lies there sweating, staring up at an overlapping pattern of ripples on the artexed ceiling. He blinks rapidly, several times, until the silver blot on his vision shrinks away, like a patch of condensation on a window.
After he is finished with his floor exercises, he staggers to his feet and towels himself off. He grabs a T-shirt from the back of the settee, puts on a pair of trainers, and goes out for a run.
Near to his flat, in Wimbledon Park, there is a piece of community art called The Fennel Maze that dates back to the 1980s. It’s a lozenge-shaped expanse of concrete, slightly bigger than a tennis court, with a meandering channel crudely chiselled into it, as if somebody traced the design in the wet cement with a stick. Sometimes the grooves become clogged with litter or cigarette butts that cause parts of the labyrinth to flood. Occasionally he sees workers from the council jet-hosing it clean of detritus.
As he does most days, Patrick ends his run here. He follows the strange pathway from its fringes all the way to the centre, jogging in restrained pigeon steps, jabbing at the air ahead of him through a cloud of frosted breath, his eyes glazed over, focused on an inner horizon: April 5th at the Hartfield Embassy.
When he reaches the centre of the maze he resists the temptation to bend over in exhaustion. A former P.E. teacher once told him: “Never show any weakness, not even to yourself.”
He bares his teeth at some buildings partly visible behind a distant row of trees.
“I’ll blow your house down, little man.”
The Fennel crop is done for the year. At his allotment, Barry Witt is tending to his strawberries. He hopes to have them ready in time for Wimbledon fortnight.
“I sell them in punnets. They’re much better value than the ones you buy at the All England Club. Sometimes I give them away for free, if people give me a smile and I like the look of them.”
Martin has passed his mock Latin exam. He’s already forgotten half of what he learned. Summer is just around the corner and he’s recently discovered 4chan. The curtain wall that his parents and his school built around him is beginning to crumble and spring leaks. A more vibrant world comes flooding in.
At the Hartfield Embassy, Patrick Clink easily bests his opponent, sending him crashing to the canvas twice before knocking him out in the fifth round. Pumped up with adrenaline, and unable to stand still for more than a few seconds, he stays behind after the crowds have filtered out of the building, and helps to put the folding chairs away.
(Although purple fennel is farmed commercially all over Great Britain, only bulbs grown in designated parts of the capital can be sold as London fennel.)