Fruit Of The Earth
The wine and wisdom of Eric.
(as shared with Jim Carey, amongst others)
Squall 10, Summer 1995, pg. 28.
To be sitting on an exclusive fairway; watching a play about protesters, performed by protesters at a place symbolic of protest, was certainly something. But to be handed a bell jar full of Eric’s fruit blood wine was truly something else. And there he was with two of them, criss-crossing the St George’s Hill fairway, sharing out the wholesome ferment. One good slug served to wash the taste buds with enthusiasm and fire up the internal stove.
Which vineyard had sired such fruit? And which genius had drawn from it such a wine? I had to ask.
“The raspberries are from me garden, the grapes from me brother’s garden and the blackberries are from me allotment,” explained Eric. “I always like to have some on the go.”
Eric Hickson is a 56 year old father of five from Sutton in Surrey. Despite qualifications as a tiller, plumber and mosaicist, Eric worked for the local water company as a labourer for 21 years before leaving paid employment to concentrate on his allotment. He has spent the last five years immersed in soil, a fact he will testify to with more seed than sound bite, if asked.
“See this organic onion,” he says. “It’s more than 10,000 words.” Eric heard about the Land Is Ours Occupation via a leaflet given to him by his brother.
“I went on the protest to try and represent allotments,” says Eric. “I came down on the first day and slept overnight but the old bag of bones ain’t up to it that much now. My allotment called me back to Sutton for two or three days and then I went back down to Wisley armed with seeds and spuds and other things to put in the ground. I was down every day after that, to work on the allotment.”
The Land Is Ours allotments were a wonder to behold. Eric and others dug, and thoroughly derooted the soil, before planting a variety of herb, vegetable and other plants. Eric’s quiet espousal of the benefits of working with the earth were a forceful reminder of how access to the land is a health requirement.
“I do feel that when you work with earth and start recognising the patterns of seasons and the weather, you start to feel that rhythm in you to some extent and its very, very relaxing. I think that working with the soil is as close as you can get to, literally, your roots as a person.”
Protest actions are not something Eric has taken much part in before, except for the sandwich boards outside the Houses of Parliament that is.
“Well they tried to double the rents on allotments in Sutton. So I made these sandwich boards as my protest against the raise in the allotment rent.
“I got me boards and walked up and down Sutton High Street with them, and then I carried them up by tube and walked up and down outside the Houses of Parliament - Go Green, Grow Green, Eat Green, Be Green, See Green, Touch Green - LIVE - Use them or lose them. Allotments under pressure now.”
Eric also wrote a letter to his local council protesting about the increase in rents and, whilst up in Westminster, delivered a copy of it to his constituency MP, Olga Maitland.
“She did invite me to her surgery, but I don’t think I want her sort of surgery. I’d rather swim with a great white, it would be a more delicate operation.”
Instead, Eric came to the Land Is Ours occupation. “At my age I’m fairly open-minded, I’ve seen a few things. 1 found that once I started to get to know the people at the occupation, I realised they’d been representing me in my absence. I looked around for a practical application and so on the first day, whilst the people were marching across to St George’s Hill as a token, I helped dig the latrines. I had me shovel there so I could make me mark.”
Whilst several occupiers were learning about allotments and seed cultivation from Eric, he in turn was learning about some the wider political issues concerning land.
“What does concern me is the fact that the land is being eroded so fast; from access to it, to working it, and this erosion is accelerating. I fully realised this for the first time when I went down to Wisley. I’ve always felt a bit of an oddball in Sutton but having met these people, I’ve realised that there’s other people who think as I do.”
After 21 years working for the local water company, Eric was sacked for what he calls “speaking straight” and remembers word for word one of the conversations with his employers that preceded his dismissal.
“ I was in an interview with senior management and I commented on the poor money they paid. They said: ‘Oh, I don’t know Eric, its pretty good the way things are right now.’ It was an implied threat to keep quiet or lose my job but of course it was a red rag to a bull, cos I felt like I was reading it as it is, not as the words say.
“So I said: ‘I don’t have to go outside these walls to know that this is a microcosm of what’s happening in this country. And what’s happening is that when it comes to paying my water bill, you want me to pay six months in advance, but when it comes to my wages and the meagre money you give me, I have to wait five weeks before you pay me one month of what you owe me. While my wages have been marking time, the cost of water has outstripped my income by over 50 per cent, on a commodity that I’m helping put out to the public.’
“Well this is senior management I was talking to and they might be alright when they’re loaded for a particular game but when you throw them a curve, its a test of whether there’s a brain in there or not. So, there was two minutes silence: presumably for the dead. They were hoping I’d die and I thought they had. Well I give him his due, the man on £70,000 odd a year, came back with a right snappy answer- after two minutes.
“He said: ‘Well Eric, we have to pay the full amount for our water just the same as you do’
I said: ‘I don’t think its persona non grata, as long as there’s none of the jolly brown stuff on the end of my nose.” He looked at me and said: ‘I’ve just got this job as assistant managing director and do you think I’ve got some of the jolly old brown stuff at the end of my nose?’
“I replied: ‘Well you must have known someone mustn’t you?’
“And he says back: ‘I’ll have you know I worked very hard to get where I am today.’
“To which I said: ‘Do you think I haven’t?’
“They says to me: ‘Why are you so annoyed Eric?’ “I replied: ‘It’s working here for 21 years that’s done it to me.’ and they called me: ‘a cynic’ and I says to them: ‘A cynic is just an optimist whose lived too long.’
“After a few conversations like this, I was out the door. The terrible thing about it is that I was trying to get through to the person behind the facade and having stripped away the facade, the frightening thing is that there’s no one at home. That was a terrible shock to me ‘cos I thought the intelligentsia was running the system while I did the work, but it’s not true. Provided you’re willing to say yes in the right quarters, preferably the hind quarters, then you fit into the part. Presumably that’s why I rose to such dizzy heights as a labourer, when really I’m a qualified craftsman.”
Eric was dismissed from his position as being ‘unsuitable’ and not able to be ‘left on his own to work unless heavily supervised’. The dismissal is the subject of an upcoming industrial tribunal.
“They don’t remember 21 years of working on my own searching for leaks, digging up the highway, dealing with the public, putting it all back together in good order and safe. Twenty one years - and I never once clocked in late. If they’re talking reliability, well I happen to believe in responsibility.”
Eric is now more than happy to be redirecting his sense of responsibility, away from working for what he calls “the fat cats”, and more towards his allotment.
“I first got the allotment to be able to cope without having that job. I’ve always liked the idea of working with the ground and working my own vegetables but I also think we are losing more ground to development. When you’re in a society that you find difficult to come to terms with because of greed or whatever, then you find that the worst aspects of our so called civilised society can take something away from you that you don’t deserve to have taken from you.”
The land protesters occupying the site at Wisley were there to demand that land taken away from public access be recognised and returned. Many modem ills, including poverty and homelessness stem, largely, from the exclusivity of land ownership and from the behind the scenes measures taken to preserve such imbalance. But what many land protesters learned from Eric, were the personal benefits of having contact with the land; of working the earth and feeling it in you.
“We are, I feel, 95% animal and to deny contact with the earth is to be looking for psychotherapy. It’s a time when the body is physically active that the mind unravels problems quite naturally and I feel that is of high therapeutic value. I do feel that if there was more allotments, there would be less people with psychological disorders. It’s also rewarding when you can take something home that you can eat, that isn’t full up with crap.”
Eric’s experience and his willingness to share it placed manure in the potentially sterile soil of sloganeering. And no-one could taste the man’s wine and not marvel at the health potentials of working with the land, rather than against it.
The Land Comes Alive - 'Land Is Ours' occupation of St Georges Hill in Surrey - shovelling land issues back into the political arena. By Jim Carey - Squall 10, Summer 1995, pp. 26-27.