Combine minor celebrity author with a book that was clearly written as a television programme tie-in and you get something I am expecting to hate. Yet not only did I enjoy ‘Growing Out of Trouble’, I found something in it to make me turn from the last page to the first and read it a second time.
Why Monty Don ever decided it was his mission to rescue some young offenders (PPOs – Persistent and Priority Offenders) by getting them to run a small holding remains a mystery throughout the book. Although he claims it arose from work on a film he never made, about gardening and health, you have to wonder why he took on the challenge and the debilitating responsibility of working with young people who had experienced such failure and were in such poor shape for work on a farm. Especially when it’s clear that he is already following a punishing schedule of filming for other programmes including Gardener’s World. He didn’t need the money (in fact it cost him money); he didn’t need the hassle and he didn’t need the angst. What he seemed to be driven to do is to prove his thesis, his belief, that:
Most people hunger for honesty and truth. This is where nature …comes up trumps. With its direct and daily contact with the soil, plants and seasons, the garden never lies. In its flowing sinuous shift from weather to weather, season to season and every unfurling stage of its plants, it tells an absolute truth.
As far as Monty is concerned, the experience of growing your own food is liberating and he aims to liberate a small group of (mainly) young drug users from drug abuse and the crime that goes with it. Contact with the soil, outdoor work and eating food you have grown and made yourself, will reconnect young people and set them on a new path. The project was part funded by the West Mercia Probation Service, partly by Monty himself. It ran on a shoe string, without a manager and the fluidity of its organisation, the way in which people work at different levels to keep the whole thing going, is one of the fascinating elements for those who are interested in the “power of just doing stuff”.
The book is a chronicle – a month by month story of what happens in the year during which the TV programme of the same name is shot. It is a very simple structure and not an easy one to handle if you want to keep the reader turning the pages. Basically Monty turns up at the project a number of times per month, tells you how he feels about what happens, how the farm is progressing, what the young people do and say, plus the reactions of various other key characters. But out of those elements comes a tense narrative, a charting of progress, from an empty field to a flourishing farm, from miserable addiction to the hope of a better life, from misunderstanding and misconception to a kind of “family” appreciating, supporting and being realistic about each other.
Romantic it is not. One set of local people completely reject the idea of “junkies” in their countryside, even though the young people are from only a few miles away. The next community is suspicious. The owners of the land Monty leased are infinitely supportive but lose their rag at the young people’s careless behaviour and rejection of their best efforts. The farm manager leaves. The weather turns the field into a mud bath. Amongst the young people there is illness, crime and death. But from the crowd emerge heroes: Rocky, the amazing probation officer, Katie, Andy, Chris, Andres, Paul all struggling to stay on the project and not the least, Monty himself constantly questioning himself, reckoning up his mistakes and being more honest than diplomatic.
It is also funny. The combination of often very innocent “townies” and countryside life creates its own comedy. When the pig gets out, Paul bursts into a meeting shouting, “Someone’s stolen our pig!” and everyone sets off in high dudgeon, to find it wallowing in a ditch. When they decide to make some money by selling mistletoe, Katie wants to collect from places they pass on the road.
"How can it belong to a farmer if it’s growing on a fucking tree! …It’s only branches!"
There are hopeless days, in Monty’s eyes, where the work hasn’t got done; on one such the organic, lovingly prepared lunch of their own pork has been refused, the big treat of hedge laying has been rubbished and someone has kicked off big style, Yet all is rounded and redeemed by carefully written comments in the Daybook,
Today has been really good. Feel good about myself. Have help and learned to do an old fashioned farm fence. Hope to feel as positive as this tomorrow. Andy P
Today has been fair. Had worse. Monty moaned about pig’s gone-he must of loved them. Sorry Monty. Thanks for today. Andy B
If there’s one message you get from this book I hope it will be, don’t judge vulnerable, offending young people by what they do and say. Their stories as given in the book show us where they went wrong – lack of direction, wrong decisions, exploitation and a spiral of addiction and offending. Somewhere inside, as the project proves over and over again, is a responsible, loving individual just waiting for the security and sense of self-worth to be enough for that new person to venture out and stay out. To get clean and stay clean, as they put it themselves. As Monty says,
There is no happy ending, just the best we can do, that will see us through… Governments, large institutions and big business are all ill-equipped to deal with this problem… it comes down to us as individuals. It is after all, our problem. We have to own it and face up to it. It stems from lack of connection, lack of connection, lack of identity. Lack of love.
So I suggest you get hold of ‘Growing Out of Trouble’ – there are plenty of second-hand copies about. Enjoy the read – it is basically heart-warming, challenge without too much bite. But reflect too that if you found it difficult, as I did, to confront the realities of addiction, to stay with the intensity of effort and the many failures, then how hard is it going to be for us to do the same over oil. And what can we learn from this book about how to work on our own addiction?