John McKenna reviews Joy Larkcom's new book

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  • Joy Larkcom

“For me, 1978 was the Year of the Pumpkin”.

Only Joy Larkcom could write a sentence like that. It is both such an unselfconscious statement, and such a focused one, that it shows the traits of this legendary gardener-writer. Mrs Larkcom will be completely absorbed in her subject, so much so that whilst other things did no doubt happen in 1978, they weren't as important as the Pumpkins.

In that little sentence we can see how you become a legendary figure, which Joy Larkcom is. You want to be a great grower? Be absored. You want to be an authority? Be absorbed. You want to be a writer? Be absorbed. There isn't any other way, if you want to blaze a trail, and Mrs Larkcom's books have blazed a trail over the last thirty years.

“Oriental vegetables, and the determination to write about them, dominated the decade and led to two research trips, to China and Japan in 1985 and to the USA and Canada in 1987”, she writes, and her working life has been a series of passions as she auto-didactically chases her subject wherever it leads her. Astonishingly, her work as she recounts it in Just Vegetating: A Memoir is all done on a shoestring, arranging commissions here and there, arranging talks to pay for her travels.

It is worth noting that Mrs Larkcom was doing important work, most especially during the “most memorable year of our lives was August 1976 to August 1977, which we spent travelling in Europe, in a van and caravan, studying vegetable growing and collecting the seeds of old varieties”. This sort of work, in a decent society, would earn recompense from the public purse and respect from the authorities in the shape of a Damehood, but we don't have that sort of society. No matter: what counts in this world is that we have Joy Larkcom's wonderful books and her wonderful voice, unselfconscious and focused, the voice which is to gardening what Myrtle Allen's is to food. “Just Vegetating” is one more wonderful book.

Just Vegetating: A Memoir by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln (stg£18.99)