Digging for Resilience

By Penny Rivlin

This week the Cultural Values of Digging team held a meeting to discuss the primary emergent themes arising from work conducted on three of our four case studies.  We have been reviewing academic literature and relevant policy documents that engages with ‘digging’ across different scales and registers.  In addition, we have conducted close textual analyses of a range of different social media platforms that are used by diversely situated actors associated with our case studies.  This evidence, and our preliminary observations were condensed into three richly detailed case study reports, which provided the spur for our discussion at the meeting.

We have identified a broad range of primary themes and sub-themes specific to each case study; however our present objective is oriented towards identification of central themes that cross-cut the different cases. Although our case studies operate at different social scales and mobilize a range of social actors, organizations and historical resources associated with digging, we were interested in the affinities between, and suggestions of shared cultural values that traverse the data generated from social media networks. We will be pursuing some of these thematics in future blogposts; for now, I want to comment on the notion of resilience in relation to digging.

Only one of our case studies – The Big Dig – explicitly harnessed the concept of resilience; its articulation was more nuanced in the others, which I will explore in later posts.  In our analysis of featured gardens on the Big Dig website, and of the social media platforms of a community allotment in Greater Manchester, we noticed that several differently situated volunteers drew on a discourse of resilience to explain their individual motivations for, and collective experiences of digging in an organized community garden project. Diggers’ referred to the ways in which enactments of digging contribute to embodied resilience: ‘getting fitter’, ‘being in the fresh air’, ‘eating good food that you’ve grown’, ‘getting outside’, ‘hanging out at the allotment at the weekend’. These narratives suggest that digging serves as an antidote to our (increasing) consumption of indoor activities and technologies.  But there is also evidence of putative desires for community resilience in conditions of uncertainty and austerity: ‘we’re becoming stronger as a community’; ‘we don’t know what we’re facing, let’s pull together to build a community hub’ (on the site); ‘it’s about working together as a community, helping each other’; ‘we’ve grown free food for our community- brilliant!’. Here, digging serves as an edifice upon which cultural values of sharing, caring and civic participation can be built and consolidated.

The embodied resilience(s) of digging might therefore counteract the sedentary, technologized, potentially alienating aspects of everyday life, bringing forth shared cultural values for communal connections and community bonding.


Digging as ‘Abundance’

By Penny Rivlin

Next week the Cultural Values of Digging team will be meeting to finalize our research interviewing schedule, and in particular, to clarify and polish our case study Topic Guides. As planned, we will then be in a position to enter the social ‘field’; collecting evidence of the emergence (or indeed the absence, or consolidation) of the cultural values of digging in the North West of England.

In preparation, we have been researching our case studies in relation to the existing literature; to activity on social media sites; and to self-representations of digging through different media (e.g. self-produced/narrated films; auto- and self-directed photography; usage of historical resources for contemporary agendas).  Through a close reading of these texts and resources, we have identified a number of interrelated – and competing – themes that will inform our approach to the construction of the interview guides, and our conceptual framework for the cultural values of digging. In the past few days, we have observed a recurrent theme across the case studies of the wartime gardeners and The Big Dig organized garden projects – that of abundance.

There is a wealth of literature that engages with digging across a range of socio-cultural, historical, environmental, ecological, radical-political and utilitarian scales and registers; however, the notion of digging as abundance is comparatively unexplored. Given its rehearsal in two of our case studies, it seems that abundance – considered (at least) as an effect of, if not a spur to the formation of cultural values of digging – might warrant attention. For example, whilst the wartime gardeners often frame their digging and food related activities through a lens of (eco)austerity, their publication of a swathe of lush, elegantly photographed images of gluts of homegrown fruit and vegetables speak more resoundingly of abundance than of austerity. Likewise, their images of cooking-in-action showcase the fruits of their labour as transformed into abundant preserves, pickles, chutneys, and canned food (the latter practiced as a ‘wartime’ experiment to reduced reliance on the freezer) as a means of extending this moment of post-summer harvest abundance into the less fertile months ahead.

Abundance is also articulated on the Facebook pages of an urban community allotment in the Greater Manchester area. In just less than two years, this community of volunteer diggers’ transformed a quarter acre of unused ‘waste’ land from head-high brambles into a verdant patch of richly productive land that supplies its members with an extensive range of organic foods. Volunteers regularly post images of harvested organic food on their Facebook pages, repeatedly labeling the images as, quite simply, ‘Abundance’. Moreover, this community regularly shares their abundant produce with non-volunteer residents of their local community: ‘feeding the community – it’s what we’re all about’. As such, digging emerges as a node through which abundance can be realized in ordinary, everyday settings in austere times; both in terms of the production and consumption of good food, and as enriched social ‘giving’ relationships at the level of the local.

Digging for Victory

By Peter Jackson

As part of our current project on ‘The cultural values of digging’, we’ve noticed a recent resurgence of interest in C H Middleton’s popular war-time books and radio broadcasts (“In Your Garden”), part of a wave of war-time nostalgia that is encapsulated in phrases like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ and ‘Make Do and Mend’.  Through simple advice and easy-to-follow instructions, Middleton encouraged people to become more self-sufficient at a critical time when less than one-third of the nation’s food supply was grown in Britain.

We’ve also been following Andrew and Carol Oldham’s attempt to recreate a war-time garden, as described on their website (http://lifeonpigrow.blogspot.co.uk). Turning back the clock to 1943, the Oldhams make a direct connection between war-time austerity and the current economic downturn, suggesting that growing our own fruit and vegetables will improve the nation’s health and promote a more sustainable lifestyle.  While there has been a lot of media interest in their war-time garden, including coverage in The Guardian, the Oldhams are not alone.  Moving to France in 2004, Trevor Hunt set about following C H Middleton’s monthly gardening advice, blogging about his experience at http://wartimegardening.co.uk/. Nor is all of this war-time nostalgia food-related – we’ve also noticed a Dig for Victory clothing store (http://digforvictoryclothing.com/) and numerous other commercial ventures that use this powerful metaphor.

Middleton’s radio broadcasts reached an audience of 3.5 million, supporting the Government’s mission of supplying ‘fresh food for the family’ through a system of universal ‘orderly cropping’.  It seems, though, that the actual physical labour required to deliver this objective was initially overlooked by the Ministry of Agriculture, its advice on ‘How to Dig’ not being issued until 1941 as No.20 in a series of 26 leaflets.  More ‘visceral learning’ may have been required (which was the subject of a previous blog on this site).

Growing Communities with The Big Dig

By Penny Rivlin

This week, the team have been engaging with a nationwide digging initiative, The Big Dig, that aimed to promote and foster urban-based community digging projects.  A year long-funded project, launched in September 2012, The Big Dig was supported by funding from the Social Action Fund (managed by the Social Investment Business on behalf of the Cabinet Office), and was coordinated nationally by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming.  Funding for The Big Dig was prompted and facilitated by the Giving White Paper (see its one-year evaluation, HM Government, 2012) – an initiative that seeks to address social challenges through ‘giving’. Predicated on the assumption ‘that people want to live in better-connected communities in which more people are working together for the common good’ the White Paper aims to ‘broaden the culture of giving’, such that giving acquires the status of an embedded ‘social norm’ for present and future generations (ibid: 5).  Situated in this institutional context, The Big Dig differs from our other case studies in terms of its close connections with national modes of governance/policy.

Although participating Big Dig cities and towns are directed by different partnership NGO bodies, they are united by an underlying ethos oriented to community-building (as evidenced in The Big Dig strapline ‘growing food together’), and inclusivity.  This premise is based on encouraging and engaging a target of 10,000 volunteers, and, crucially, people ‘from deprived areas who do not traditionally volunteer’ (see http://www.bigdig.org.uk/aim/). In this sense, The Big Dig’s community growing projects aim to respond to and ameliorate wider issues of social disenfranchisement.

The Big Dig has established projects in 27 UK cities and towns. Volunteers receive training in a wide repertoire of food growing and associated skills, ranging from rudimentary to more advanced growing; organic gardening; cooking; permaculture; bee-keeping; green woodworking; food and resource waste reduction, as well as other strategies for instituting environmentally sustainable everyday practices.  Through these modalities of self and community empowerment, The Big Dig seeks to provide access to fresh, seasonal, local and healthy food – in turn fostering sustainable community bonds, sustainable selves and local networks of ‘pride’ that work to ‘reduce anti-social behaviour’ (http://www.bigdig.org.uk/aim/). Moreover, many Big Dig communities have employed various social media platforms as a means of communicating digging activities, ostensibly sharing their ideas, failures and successes with local and national members and visitors. Thus, like the wartime gardeners and the Wigan Diggers, Big Dig volunteers contribute to the construction of ‘virtual’, as well as local-embodied communities of diggers.

In line with our focus on digging cultures in the North West of England, we shall be examining the specificities of digging cultures and practices in a Big Dig gardening site in Greater Manchester.  We will be exploring the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of the emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in relation to the key themes of the Cultural Values of Digging project. In addition to our consideration of the Big Dig in relation to its own aims and objective, we will be thinking about The Big Dig as a response to processes of individualization and self-responsibilization, and as evidence of an emergent ‘structure of feeling’ (Williams, 1977) for citizen-led action that is oriented to a qualitatively different experience of the social-environment nexus.


The Big Dig (no date) [online] Available at: http://www.bigdig.org.uk/. Accessed 7 October 2013.

HM Government (2012) Giving White Paper: One Year On. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/78916/17541-WP-Update-Version-2.pdf Accessed 7 October 2013.

Williams, R. (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nostalgic Re-visionings with the Wartime Gardeners

By Penny Rivlin

This week the team have been examining recent injunctions to ‘dig for victory’ across a range of cultural sites. The revival of the WWII Ministry of Agriculture campaign slogan and its associated prescriptives for food self-sufficiency and self-reliance is gaining increasing cultural purchase in the present conjuncture of economic and environmental crisis – what has been termed ‘eco-austerity’ in academic discourse (see Bramall, 2012).  Growing your own food in the wartime period was presented by government as a rational instrumental response to food and resource scarcity; a means through which ordinary British citizens could make a difference on the domestic Home Front. The ‘Dig for Victory’ initiative therefore invoked a sense of collectivity, nationalism and a morally charged ethic of ‘good’ care-based citizenship.

As several scholars have observed (Ginn, 2012; Bramall, 2011; Hinton and Redclift, 2009), a dominant discursive framework through which eco-austerity can be articulated is through recourse to the Home Front period and its austerity-driven aftermath. The cultural turn towards thrift-based domestic practices and food self-sufficiency is communicated across a range of lifestyle registers, wherein digging, make-do-and-mending and recycling/re-use are presented as a solution to environmental and economic precarity. Examples include the re-publication of a raft of Home Front advice manuals such as Digging for Victory (Middleton, 2008); Eating for Victory (Norman, 2007), and the British Home Front Pocket Book (Lavery, 2010).  On lifestyle TV, cookery programmes have linked wartime austerity narratives and iconography to a pro-environmental, eco-communitarian agenda. For example, in the River Cottage series (Channel 4, 2008), images and slogans from ‘Dig for Victory’ are revived to promote chef and eco-preneur Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s national grow your own ‘Landshare’ project (see http://www.landshare.net/). In this sense, nostalgic re-visionings are imbued with transformative potential – here, in addressing issues of social disenfranchisement and land scarcity.

This context informs our approach to the ways in which the revival and re-use of the ‘lessons’ of history, and the cultural values which attend heritage discourses of digging are mobilized, (re)articulated and practiced in the present.  ‘Dig for Victory’ brings together issues of national identity, citizenship, cultural memory, ruralist ideologies, community building and civic participation; as such it represents a significant resource for emulation and mediation.

In line with the project’s examination of mediations and practices of digging at the level of the individual (as well as at institutional and community collective levels; see my post on The Wigan Diggers, and future posts on the Big Dig), we are currently analyzing the ways in which the cultural values of heritage digging are articulated and disseminated by a family living in the North West of England. Explicitly invoking past injunctions to ‘Dig for Victory’, this family of three extensively employs a range of social media platforms to chart and share their experiences of digging a wartime garden from scratch. Closely following the digging advice and prescriptions of the popular wartime gardener and radio broadcaster, Mr C.H. Middleton (2008 [1942]), the family are conducting what might fruitfully be termed a ‘green living experiment’ (Marres, 2009) which conjoins their embodied experiences of wartime digging as a way of life(style) with a contemporary engagement with digital media. Noting on their Facebook page that they want to ‘get more people growing their own’, the wartime gardeners are calling on all heterogeneous communities of present, and potential, diggers to engage with their own garden, window box, allotment space or backyard pots, and to share their diverse stories of food growing – even if this is expressed only at the level of fantasy.  As such, the family rehearse some of the central tenets of lifestyle TV programming in particular, and online lifestyle media in general in their democratizing address and appeal to social inclusivity and (digital) community building through the conduit of digging.

Our case study of the wartime gardeners involves close analysis of their use of various social media platforms, examining their choice and uses of these media and the content therein. We have identified the ways in which the wartime gardeners deploy the discursive strategies of ‘nostalgi-zation’, ‘family-ization’ (Rivlin, 2013), retro-austerity chic and democratization in their self-representations and embodied digging practices. As well, we aim to conduct in-depth, face-to-face interviews with the wartime gardeners as a means of accessing their accounts of the cultural values of digging that are unmediated by digital engagement. I will be discussing our progress with the wartime gardeners in more detail in regular future posts; please do check back!


Bramall, R. (2012) ‘Popular culture and anti-austerity protest’, Journal of European Popular Culture, 3(1): 9-22.

Bramall, R (2011) “Dig for Victory!’ Anti-consumerism, austerity, and new historical subjectivities’, Subjectivity, 4(1): 68-86.

Ginn, F. (2012) ‘Dig for Victory!’ New histories of wartime gardening in Britain’, Journal of Historical Geography, 38: 294-305.

Hinton, E. and Redclift, M. (2009) ‘Austerity and sufficiency: The changing politics of sustainable consumption’, Environment, Politics and Development Working Paper Series, Paper 17, Department of Geography, Kings College, London [Online] Available at: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/geography/research/epd/HIntonRedcliftWP17.pdf Accessed 27 September 2013.

Lavery, B. (2010) The British Home Front Pocket-Book, 1940-1942. London: Anova Books.

Marres, N. (2009) ‘Testing powers of engagement:  Green living experiments, the ontological turn and the undoability of involvement’, European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1): 117-133.

Middleton, C.H. (2008) Digging for Victory: Wartime Gardening with Mr. Middleton. London: Aurum Press.

Norman, J. (2007) Eating for Victory: Healthy Home Front Cooking on War Rations. Reproductions of Official Second World War Instruction Leaflets. London: Micheal O’Mara Books.

Rivlin, P. (2013) Domesticating Environmentalism? Gender, Class and Everyday Practices in the Home, Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Leeds, July.

Digging-up local histories: The Wigan Diggers’ Festival

By Penny Rivlin

In line with the primary objectives of the project, we are thinking about the different ways in which digging as heritage is mobilized in the present moment in the UK.  We are exploring the connections between the symbolic and embodied/community enactments of digging as forms of civic participation at both the grassroots local level, and the ways in which these politics of digging are expressed and disseminated across social media platforms. In conditions of land and resource scarcity, neoliberal individualism and self-responsibilization, we are asking what kinds of cultural values are invoked through the appropriation of heritage cultures and politics, and the transformative possibilities – as well as the tensions and ambivalences – of digging for heterogeneous UK citizens and communities.

In the past few weeks the Cultural Values of Digging team have been digging up local histories through participant observation at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival in Wigan, North Manchester on Saturday, 7th September.  The first Diggers’ festival, in September, 2011, attended by Farida, involved a small-scale collective of ‘heritage diggers’ and supporters who marched through Wigan to Mesnes Field – an open land site subject to proposed development.  The central motif of the festival was to commemorate and celebrate the radical political agency of Wigan born Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76), leader of the 17th century Diggers movement, and it is worth pausing for a moment to consider Winstanley’s legacy.

Also known as the ‘True Levellers’, the Diggers constituted a community of what Winstanley termed ‘the common people of England’: a poor, property-less majority increasingly dispossessed of common or ‘waste’ land due to enclosures (a process now framed as privatization).  As John Gurney (2013) observes, Winstanley’s overarching aim focused on the ‘establishment of community’ via the sharing of the commons as a route to social equality and freedom.  Winstanley’s discursive conjunction of community and commons is exemplified in his radical call that:

[the] earth must be set free from intanglements of Lords and Landlords, and that it shall become a common Treasury to all, as it was first made and given to the sonnes of men (1649, cited in Gurney, 2013: 47).

In 1649, Winstanley and his supporters mobilized to action by digging in to an area of common land at George Hill (now St George’s Hill) in Surrey. Establishing a small commune, the Diggers’ cultivation of the land and their lived experience of Winstanley’s ethos – ‘working together and eating together’ – faced considerable, often violent opposition, resulting in their eventual eviction after just eighteen months. It is in this historical context that the Wigan Diggers’ Festival march to Mesnes Field can be situated.  Accompanied by local photographers, the Diggers’ performed a symbolic re-enactment of the 17th century Diggers’ occupation of the commons.  Wearing wide-brimmed cloth hats and performing public recitals of extracts from Winstanley’s writings, the Wigan Diggers’ dug in to the common ‘Treasury’ of Mesnes Field.

The subsequent festivals’ of 2011/12 have significantly expanded in response to growing local interest and sponsorship, local authority support, and an online presence (http://wigandiggersfestival.org/). However, the festival’s practice of drawing on history as heritage as a means of addressing issues of land ownership and usage and other conditions of resource scarcity in the present moment of austerity remains central to its organization and dissemination. As one of the festival organisers, Stephen Hall asserts, the primary aim of the festival is to ‘remind people of the significance of Winstanley and the Diggers and his relevance to present day politics … we want to encourage a re-born sense of community spirit amongst ordinary people everywhere’ (quoted in Hyland, 2012).  There are clear resonances here with Crouch and Parker’s (2003: 396) observation that contemporary uses of history as heritage work to ‘undermine current structures and practices and promote alternatives’.  From the perspective of the project, the festival presents interesting challenges to current structures and practices. First, through its re-visioning the 17th century diggers act of re-claiming the commons via a symbolic performance of digging, the festival harnesses digging as heritage as a political tool. Second, in capturing the re-enactment on film for dissemination on the festival website, it harnesses the transformative potential of a digital ‘commons’ to access a wider community.

Following their attendance at the recent Festival, Erinma and Andy have shared their observations and Festival stories with the rest of the team, which generated a rich and fruitful discussion.  Based on their insights; our engagement with the Gerrard Winstanley and 17th century diggers focused literature; and our content analysis of the Wigan Diggers’/Festival digital platforms, we are in the process of finalizing the methodological routes through which a range of heritage-oriented voices can be accessed and documented.  Erinma and Andy will be sharing their insights as Festival observers in future posts – please check back!


Crouch, D. and Parker, G. (2003) ‘Digging-up’ Utopia? Space, practice and land use heritage, Geoforum, 34(3): 395-408.

Gurney, J. (2013) Gerrard Winstanley: The Diggers Life and Legacy. London: Pluto Press.

Hyland, B. (2012) Wigan stakes its claim to be the home of Socialism, The Northerner Blog, The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/the-northerner/2012/aug/31/unite-labour. Accessed 22/09/2013.

The Wigan Diggers Festival (no date) http://wigandiggersfestival.org/). Accessed 22/09/2013.

‘Visceral learning’ and allotments

By Peter Jackson

I’ve just read a PhD thesis which explores the idea of ‘visceral learning’ in the context of a study of two allotments in rural Somerset.  The author, Rebecca Sandover (a geographer from Exeter University), argues that there is too much emphasis in academia on the cognitive processes of ‘knowing’ and not enough on the embodied processes of ‘doing’.

Rebecca explores this idea through a study of growing practices on the two allotments including an ‘auto-ethnography’ of her own experiences of growing fruit and veg on her own allotment in Somerton.  It’s here that she advances the concept of ‘visceral learning’, focusing on the feelings and embodied knowledge that are evoked through her sensory engagement with the plot (clearing the ground, digging, planting, growing, weeding, harvesting, cooking and eating).  She also got local school children involved in a community ‘cook-in’, preparing and cooking produce that had been grown on the site.  While most of the children enjoyed the experience, some were less tolerant of holey carrots and some were squeamish about eating squash.

The study encourages us to pay more attention to these visceral feelings (reminding us that ‘visceral’ refers literally to the gut).  What is it about particular tastes and textures that provoke such strong feelings of desire or disgust?  Do foods that are grown and cooked with a personal investment of time and love actually taste better than those that come from more distant and disembodied sources?

The thesis left me wondering whether this kind of visceral learning – gained by sharing practical tips among growers, being outdoors in the wind and rain, battling the weeds and slugs, and sharing a successful harvest with friends and neighbours – might yield a different understanding of the cultural values of digging than the kind of ‘armchair’ knowledge that we might get from more conventional approaches.