Nostalgic Re-visionings: Digging as heritage in Wartime Spirit

By Penny Rivlin

Please cite as: Rivlin, P., 2014, ‘Nostalgic Re-visionings: Digging as heritage in Wartime Spirit’, paper presented at MeCCSA conference, Bournemouth University, 9 January 2014.

In this paper, I explore some of the ways in which injunctions to ‘dig’ are mediated through the heritagization of austerity in relation to the World War II Home Front period. My interest in Home Front history developed during 2008-9 during the fieldwork stages of my doctoral research into the classed, gendered dimensions of domesticating environmentalism (Rivlin, 2013). Focusing on the processes by which middle-class, working-class and green-identified respondents’ negotiated the ethics and labour of ‘greening’ everyday domestic life – especially in relation to state-led policy and recommendations – my research gathered data via solicited diary and in-depth interview methods. At one interview with a green-identified woman, Charley, the connections between digging for self-sufficiency, national heritage, and ‘eco-austerity’ (Bramall, 2013) began to emerge in her narrative of doing domesticity. Like my other green-identified and activist respondents, Charley was a committed and highly competent digger on her allotment – part of ongoing, everyday investments for the reproduction of the sustainable, ethico-political self. At the close of her interview, Charley offered to loan me reproductions of the WWII Ministry of Agriculture pamphlet, Allotment and Garden Guide, and the Ministry of Information booklets Eating for Victory (Norman, 2007a) and Make do and Mend (Norman, 2007b) all of which she had acquired from a heritage-styled shop on eBay. The prescriptions for the mainstream practices of domestic digging and austere domesticity offered up in the Home Front manuals clearly chimed with Charley’s existing anti-consumerist disposition, but crucially, for her, they evidenced an historical moment in which self-sufficiency and resource-savvy consumption was a normative, universally practiced tenet of domestic culture for national benefit. Gesturing to the ideological potency and resilience of the wartime slogans ‘dig for victory’ and ‘make do and mend’, Charley re-articulated their wartime spirit ethos as a solution to current challenges presented by ecological crisis, whereby ‘dig for victory’ is recast as ‘dig for eco-victory’:

Wartime studies like this fascinate me because of the way that the whole of society was recruited to the mission to save resources – you know, to grow your own food year round, and not waste a single scrap, and reuse and recycle everything to help with the war effort – this is exactly what we all need to do now to stop climate change (Charley, green activist, 2008).

By the end of my fieldwork phase, the Home Front pamphlets Charley had loaned me, along with a range of wartime heritage ephemera and lifestyle accessories, were widely available in the UK, with C.H. Middleton’s book Digging for Victory (Middleton, 2008 [1942]) and The British Home Front Pocket Book 1940-1942 (Lavery, 2010) reaching several bookseller’s bestseller lists. Indeed, the circulation of ‘Dig for Victory’ and other cognate slogans from the wartime period has intensified across a range of popular cultural and media contexts in response to the present conjuncture of economic and environmental crisis. For instance, on lifestyle television, UKTV’s Digging for Victory (Reef Television for UKTV Gardens, 2007) showcased the UK’s best kept allotments, and cookery programmes such as Economy Gastronomy (BBC2, 2009) and the River Cottage series (Keo Films for Channel 4, 2008-9) have mobilised the principle of thrift – historically an index of working-class respectability – for culinary distinction.

Documenting the discursivity of dig for victory in this moment of eco-austerity, Rebecca Bramall (2013) draws our attention to the ways in which eco-preneur Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall harnessed the slogan and its iconography in his River Cottage Autumn (2008) series to highlight the issue of lengthening waiting lists for allotment spaces. Demonstrating the ways by which uses of the past can promote progressive political agendas and subject positions in the present, River Cottage Autumn resulted in the Transition movement’s Landshare campaign, wherein landless would-be diggers across the UK are matched with gatekeepers of available land as a solution to problems of land access. Responding to the challenges presented by eco-austerity for local authorities, Landshare’s website promotes community digging as a viable means through which cash-strapped councils can deliver on a range of key emissions and environmental quality targets, as well as community participation objectives. In this sense, as Bramall points out, Landshare presents itself as a ‘worthy successor to the wartime dig for victory campaign’ (2013: 65) in terms of its democratic, inclusive approach to a politics of sustainability, land access and by extension, food security.

As well as its surface democratizing address, a major attraction of the injunction to ‘dig for victory’ lies in its immediacy: as Bramall (2011: 81, n.7) notes, its dominant-hegemonic historicity holds the potential to get people digging in the present because ‘it is already common sense’. A notable example of an attempt at attaching this ‘common sense’ approach to an eco-reformist agenda is evidenced in the eco-campaign Wartime Spirit (EST, 2009) launched in May 2009. Along with two other national eco-domesticity campaigns’ sponsored by the former New Labour government – Act on CO2 (DECC, 2008-10) and Love Food Hate Waste (WRAP, 2007 – present) – Wartime Spirit contributed to the former New Labour government’s pro-environmental agenda aimed at eco-reforming the nation’s homes and lifestyles. I want to highlight the digging-related aspects of Wartime Spirit, before going on to introduce a case study from the Cultural Values of Digging project. As our project blog documents, this case study traces a hetero-nuclear family’s attempts at growing a wartime garden, and of sharing their experiences via a wide range of social media. Our interest in this case study is in the ways in which uses of historical resources provide evidence of heritagized versions of cultural values of digging; and relatedly, how the circulation of such values might contribute towards the mainstreaming of ethico-political subject constitution in the present.

The Wartime Spirit Campaign                                                                                                      Receiving considerable media attention at its launch, Wartime Spirit was a joint project between the Imperial War Museum and a government quango, the Energy Saving Trust (EST, 2009). At the London museum, visitors were invited to explore a re-construction of a 1940s’ ‘ordinary’ house and backyard that showcased home front domestic routines in practice. Reaching a wider audience, images of the house and home front housewifery ‘in action’ were reproduced on the Wartime Spirit website, a selection of which were reproduced across national print and online media.

Heralding ‘frugality as the new frontier’ Wartime Spirit re-casts home front domestic practices and strategies in an attempt to link the ordinary, routine aspects of everyday life to a pro-environmental agenda. Re-asserting national ‘wartime values’ (waste not, want not) and a communitarian ethos (‘we’re in this together’) in relation to eco-austerity, the campaign homepage offers a prescription of media-friendly ‘top ten quick and easy tips’ for domestic reform that represent a rational response to economically and environmentally ‘tough times’. These tips are more comprehensively elaborated in a downloadable advice manual, Wartime Spirit: The Green Barometer (EST, 2009), which, like the original wartime instructional leaflets, is underpinned with a morally-charged thread of resourceful, straightforward domestic adaptation conjoined with thrift.

‘Thrift is the New Thrust’
Illustrated with archive photographs of women and girls engaged in make do and mend sewing projects, and posters from the Ministry of Information’s ‘kitchen front’, austerity and digging propaganda initiatives, the booklet draws on the lessons of history as a means of forging a ‘different’ relationship to the home and the environment. Endorsed via the breezy strapline ‘thrift is the new thrust’, wartime injunctions to ‘make do and mend’, ‘don’t waste water’, ‘dig for victory’, and ‘save kitchen scraps to feed the pigs!’ are re-cast for contemporary times in both the Wartime Spirit: Green Barometer and its top ten easy tips. For example, whilst ‘saving kitchen scraps for the pigs’ appears anachronistic in the present moment – its origin based in wartime backyard animal husbandry – it is re-oriented towards the promotion of home composting for the production of free, ‘nutrient rich soil’ for the nation’s gardens, backyard pots and window boxes. ‘Dig for victory’ is similarly re-worked to accommodate contemporary urban and suburban living, and crucially, our dependencies on supermarket provisioning. Whilst food self-sufficiency is the common sense signifier in the tip ‘dig for victory’, the message concomitantly calls upon consumer sovereignty for the greening of the present food market, extorting the household provisioner to ‘choose locally produced, seasonal fruit and vegetables, or try growing your own in a patch of garden or a window box’. Here, the campaign counters the socially exclusionary tendencies of contemporary mediations of lifestyle in the common sense appeal to ‘dig’ in window boxes, as well as in garden patches and allotments. Neatly side-stepping the politics of land use and access addressed by the parallel Landshare campaign, Wartime Spirit instead promotes digging as a valued resource for lifestyle emulation by utilizing the discourse of land scarcity as a marker of national desire and distinction, benignly stating that ‘demand for allotments are at an all time high’.

Despite its de-radicalization of eco-politics, through these modes of nostalgic re-visioning, Wartime Spirit wrests the notion of frugality from its negative associations with stinginess and insufficiency, since ‘making do’, digging and composting for eco-victory are valorised as good ‘green’ choices anchored in past conceptions and lessons of care-based consumption and citizenship. In this sense, ‘wartime sprit’ etches a progressive, common-sense landscape; frugal revisions to domestic practice – rendered achievable and accessible to all – will ease the practitioner’s experience of recession, at the same time as engendering attachments to low carbon lifestyles.

‘We’re all Pig Rowers at Heart’: Digging with the Wartime Gardeners
Our study of the wartime gardeners can be fruitfully situated in relation to Wartime Spirit, in that their experience of growing, cooking, eating – and indeed, living – according to wartime austere principles is indicative of the emergent attractions of a wartime ethos, and of its relevance for living in times of eco-austerity.

Andrew and Carol Oldham and their young son live 13000 feet above sea level in a rural area of the North West of England. They purchased their 18th century terraced cottage, Pig Row, in 2009, and in 2011 they began cultivating the garden as a food growing/self-sufficiency project. In September 2011, they commenced the cultivation of a ‘wartime garden’ as an experimental project based on wartime Ministry of Agriculture growing plans of 1943, and the prescriptions of the popular wartime gardening writer and broadcaster, Mr C.H. Middleton (2008). At this point, the Oldhams’ launched their Life on Pig Row blog as a means of publicly staging, charting and sharing their wartime garden experiment (

The wartime gardeners are exceptionally active across a range of social media platforms – ranging from their dedicated Life on Pig Row blogsite to a Life on Pig Row Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram and Pinterest. Drawing on their backgrounds in the arts, media, design and literature, they extensively employ visual methods such as auto-photography, producing and archiving a portfolio of richly textured wartime gardening and lifestyle images, often accompanied with wartime gardening stories of success, or conversely, calamity. They also regularly post video and audio content on their Life on Pig Row Youtube channel and on Audioboo, as a primary medium for self-narration and mediation of the Pig Row ethos and practice. More recently, they have disseminated the wartime gardener ethos to a wider (perhaps non-gardening) audience via an update blog for The Guardian (

Across their social media platforms, the wartime gardeners publish imagery and blogposts oriented to growing failures and difficulties; social media encounters in which they invite fellow ‘Pig Rowers’ to bring their own experiential knowledges of digging – wartime or not – into play. This strategy resonates with Marres’ (2009) discussion of online performances of ‘green living experiments’, wherein bloggers plot the doabilty and undoability of green modes of domesticity and everyday life. For instance, the Oldhams’ chart the successes and failures of their attempts to access ‘heritage seeds’, and to institute heritage gardening that adheres to organic growing practices. Suggesting that organic gardening might originate in wartime ‘dig for victory’ practice, the Oldhams’ draw on the lessons of history – here, in their eschewal of herbicides and pesticides – to promote green gardening and year-round food self-sufficiency for the family.

Consistently situating their wartime garden in relation to the greening of lifestyles and economic austerity, the Oldham’s have invested considerable time and labour in re-working and trialing wartime digging advice, not only for the (re)production of the green self and family, but for the benefit of both novice and accomplished green gardeners everywhere. In illustration, Ginns’ (2012) history of wartime gardening highlights the inefficiencies of the Ministry of Agriculture’s sequencing, publication and distribution of its ‘dig for victory’ instructional leaflets – a factor which, through their first two years of victory digging, became evident for the wartime gardeners. For instance, the original leaflet ‘how to dig’ was one of the last to be issued nationally, the assumption being that digging was simply ‘common sense’. Yet, as Andrew and Carol explained to us in a recent interview, digging is a learned technique that requires ‘left-footed digging’ – a practice least likely to unduly tax or stress bodies, and, crucially, our backs (attested by Andrew who has a history of serious back problems). Bringing their own ‘common-sense’ knowledge of what we might term ‘left-footed victory digging’, the wartime gardeners’ have revised the ‘how to dig’ leaflet, intending to publish it for the benefit of Pig Rowers in early 2014.

So in presenting the leaflets as a ‘free’ resource for Life on Pig Row visitors, the wartime gardeners’ agency contributes to the promotion of self-sufficient food-growing cultures and to a wider sense of (digitally-based) community participation. Given the substantial investments in time and labour that a project of this kind necessitates, we might view it as a form of altruistic gifting to the nation. Invoking a dig for eco-victory ethos, Andrew and Carol explained that their intensive investments in social media, as well as in embodied digging is based in their desire to recruit the nation into a normative culture of digging and everyday scratch-cooking as a means of promoting greener, slower, less wasteful lives with more time for family, neighbours, communities (virtual and local) and the self: we are all, the Oldhams’ insist, ‘Pig Rowers at heart’. But as well, the wartime gardeners’ ethos and practice – by their own admission – represents a response to a possible future wherein issues of food security (and by extension, national security) are re-rehearsed in state policy.

So should we all be armoring ourselves with spades and hoes as our wartime predecessors did, and as the wartime gardeners are doing now? Well, there is ample evidence in the scholarship that digging is good for us in myriad ways. In addition to environmental benefits, digging has clear health and wellbeing benefits for the individual – a point that underscores contemporary mediations of dig for victory (although a tightly controlled, protracted food rationing programme impacted on the nation’s health, as well as digging practice (see Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 2000)). And as our Big Dig case study indicates, communal digging projects hold the potential to ameliorate the more isolating aspects of our increasingly technologized, indoor lifestyles, bringing forth communal connections and affective attachments to green spaces in urban contexts. There is also emerging evidence that digging cultures address affective and substantive experiences of social disenfranchisement for those most severely affected and marginalised by current austerity measures.

The ‘Hidden’ Lessons of History in Wartime Spirit                                                                                                      So, yes, taking up digging clearly holds a number of attractions that might be fruitfully interwoven into the fabric of the everyday life of the nation, as imagined and mediated by Wartime Spirit. However, we need to be mindful of the tensions and limitations inherent in mapping the lessons of history onto the present – not least in relation to the problem of land access addressed by the Landshare campaign, and in previous research led by Farida (see Vis and Manyukhina, 2011; Vis et al., at

The first, as most diggers will tell you, is that digging is a time and labour intensive practice, as well as wholly weather dependent – which in climate changing times (yes, even in the UK!) does not necessarily guarantee successful yields. My own research into the interrelationships between social class, gender and state-led mediations of ‘eco-domesticity’ reveals that such projects – at least for those with access to land – were most often abandoned due to their incompatibility with the pressures of contemporary, detraditionalized employment patterns and time-poor lifestyles. Digging also requires a level of gardening cultural capital and financial outlay for tools, seeds or seedlings and other digging-related necessities at outset; factors likely to be beyond the remit of growing constituencies of the impoverished and marginalized (Rivlin, 2013). We might, therefore, want to question the attractions of Wartime Spirit for those who live austerity as an everyday necessity (rather than as lifestyle choice).

But perhaps the most obvious limitation to Wartime Spirit’s mapping of the past onto the present, concerns the gender of the wartime national digging agent. The majority of Wartime Spirit’s ‘top ten tips’, and other eco-austere reforms presented in The Green Barometer are derived from wartime propaganda campaign materials that targeted women via a specifically gendered address in which images of domestic femininity were central (see Zweiniger-Bargielowska, 2000; Purcell, 2006; Slocombe, 2010). Whilst the campaign materials and The Green Barometer reproduces some of this imagery, for the most part it glosses over the gendered specificity of the wartime domestic subject through descriptions of what ‘people’ or ‘families’ did as responsibilized, communitarian subjects for national benefit. Of course, the wartime targeting of women was a necessity, given male conscription and men’s dominant role as defenders of the nation, and I do not intend to diminish the importance of that role, nor the extensive loss of men’s lives. Here, I just want to suggest that Wartime Spirit’s nostalgic re-visionings might be misplaced in the present eco-austere conjuncture – given the persistance of the gendered division of domestic labour and women’s extensive contribution to the labour market and the economy (Rivlin, 2013).

So if digging will save the planet in the present conjuncture, will women do it (again?). On the one hand, given the advent of second and third-wave feminism, probably not without a fight. On the other hand, Joanne Hollows’ (2006) work suggests that (post)feminist women harbor fantasies of downshifting, veg growing and going home to make homegrown jam – which might help explain the UK’s exceptionally long allotment working waiting lists, and the disproportionate number of retired women on veg plots.

Perhaps the lessons of history for eco-austerity are most fruitfully lived by the wartime gardeners themselves. As downshifters, they have eschewed their ‘cash-rich, time-poor’ former occupations and lifestyles, opting instead for a work schedule that allows time for food growing, green living and co-parenting their young son. In this sense, they are living according to a wartime ethos re-visioned for contemporary lives and subjectivities. In their Life on Pig Row self-representations, there is little evidence of the inequitable gender relations that the success of the original ‘dig for victory’ campaign depended upon. It is perhaps premature to speculate on whether the wartime gardeners ‘Pig for Victory’ ethos can be mainstreamed, but given that Life on Pig Row is attracting the attention of the mainstream media, as well as growing numbers of visitors (now in their thousands), suggests the emergence of a structure of feeling for austere digging – as emergent cultural value – if only at the level of armchair/digital fantasy.


Bramall, R. (2013) The Cultural Politics of Austerity: Past and Present in Austere Times. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bramall, R (2011) “Dig for Victory!’ Anti-consumerism, Austerity, and New Historical Subjectivities’, Subjectivity, 4(1): 68-8.

DECC (Department of Energy and Climate Change) (2008-9) Act on CO2 Campaign. Archived at: Accessed 1 June 2010.

EST (Energy Saving Trust) (2009) Wartime Spirit: The Green Barometer, Measuring Environmental Attitude, Issue 7, April. Retrieved at Accessed 4 October 2011.

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

Hollows, J. (2006) ‘Can I Go Home Yet? Feminism, Post-feminism and Domesticity’, in Hollows, J. and Moseley, R. (eds) Feminism in Popular Culture. Oxford: Berg, pp. 97-118.

Landshare (no date) Available at: Accessed 6 January 2014.

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

Norman, J. (2007b) Make Do and Mend: Keeping the Family and Home Afloat on War Rations. London: Micheal O’Mara Books.

Oldham, A. (2013) ‘Digging for Victory Again’, The Guardian Gardening Blog, 10 April. Available at: Accessed 14 January 2014.

Oldham, A. and Oldham, C. (no date) Life on Pig Row Blog. Available at: Accessed 6 January 2014.

Purcell, J. (2006) ‘The Domestic Soldier: British Housewives and the Nation in the Second World War’, History Compass, 4(1): 153-160.

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

Slocombe, R. (2010) British Posters of the Second World War. London: Imperial War Museum.

The Big Dig (no date) Available at: Accessed 12 January 2014.

Vis, F., Ochu, E., Miles, A. and Jackson, P. (2013) Everyday Growing Cultures, available at: Accessed 16 January 2014.

Vis, F. and Manyukhina, Y. (2011) ‘The English Allotment Lottery’, Guardian Data Blog, 10 November. Available at: Accessed 14 January 2014.

WRAP (2007) Love Food Hate Waste Campaign. Available at: Accessed 30 January 2012.

Zweiniger-Bargielowska, I. (2000) Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls and Consumption, 1935-1955. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Cultural Values of Digging: Mid-project Update

By Penny Rivlin

Last Thursday marked the end of a government-sponsored national campaign, The Big Dig – a year-long initiative that aimed to promote a culture of ‘giving’ through urban community garden projects organized around food growing (see Big Dig website).  One of our four case studies, The Big Dig is representative of organized garden projects that aim to regenerate cities, spaces and communities.  Through our review of the existing literature, we know that there is nothing especially innovative about organized modes of participatory engagement via digging. What interests us about The Big Dig, however, are the ways in which it seeks to generate impact and value through attaching voluntarism to the idea of digging as gifting. Supporting the development of new and embryonic urban growing spaces, The Big Dig’s launch statement placed particular emphasis on capturing volunteers from constituencies that are ‘traditionally’ disengaged, as a means of improving local wellbeing and community connections, as well as reducing levels of of ‘anti-social behaviour’. Oriented to the conceptual coordinates of the Big Society ethos, this policy intervention is based on the premise that the giving of one’s time and labour via green gardening holds transformative potential for the self, the social, and local environments.  If recruitment to The Big Dig is considered as a measure of cultural values of digging across the UK, then the project’s closing summary indicates its (re)emergence: all targets for volunteer and social action opportunities were exceeded (albeit ‘traditionally’ disengaged recruits constituted a modest 1,900 people), suggesting that the values of gifting has some cultural purchase in contemporary Britain.

Our project explores the ways in which cultural values circulating around digging – as an orchestrating node for the mobilization of diverse agendas – traverse the realms of everyday life, activism and policy. It seeks to establish evidence of cultural values through attention to embodied enactments of digging as everyday life or way of life(style) practices; the role of, and the processes by which, different media technologies and practices are implicated; and mediations and uses of digging/land-use histories and heritage(s) for modes of ethical relating and value-making in the present. With an empirical focus on the North West, we are conducting three case studies of digging that have developed over the past three years.  Our Big Dig study examines the specificities of digging cultures and practices in an urban community allotment in Greater Manchester.  Employing in-depth interviewing with volunteers alongside textual analyses of the volunteers’ engagements with digital media platforms, we are evaluating the extent to which The Big Dig project is a significant indicator of emergent cultural values of digging, and specifically, how such values are expressed, shaped and realized in online and offline contexts.

Reproducing these methods across the two other case studies, we are examining the cultural significance of digging as a metaphor or symbolic connotator in contexts of heritagization; a wartime garden experiment, and a public event.  An example of an online-offline green-living experiment (Marres, 2009), the wartime garden study examines a hetero-nuclear family’s attachment to the WWII ‘dig for victory’ campaign, and their recreation of the gardening broadcaster Mr Middleton’s prescriptions for year-round food self-sufficiency. Whilst cognate wartime slogans have been articulated to a range of consumerist and political agendas in recent years, our interest in the wartime gardeners resides in their nostalgic re-valorization of a past moment of austerity and security as response to the present conjuncture of eco-austerity (Bramall, 2013). Charting and synchronising their experiences of wartime gardening across a wide range of social media platforms, the wartime gardeners reach out to all heterogeneous communities of diggers (many of whom can consume digging culture only at the level of fantasy), gifting online visitors with comprehensive planting schemes re-worked from Middleton’s original manuals; advice on accessing heritage seeds; and vintage themed food growing films and collages.  Here, we are beginning to understand the ways in which the discursivity of heritage digging informs the constitution of cultural values of (digital) sharing; anti-consumerism; resistance (to the commercialization of the food system and to new austerity); and to familial and community resilience.

In the context of the public event, we are similarly establishing evidence for cultural values of sharing, individual and community resilience, and collective resistance in relation to the heritage elements of digging. This case study focuses on the Wigan Diggers’ Festival – an annual, free event in central Wigan (2011-2013. See Festival website).  The Festival reinvigorates and celebrates the political agency of Wigan born radical Gerrard Winstanley (1609-76) and the Diggers’ movement (1649-51) as symbolic resource for the expression and dissemination of a collection of political ideals circulating around interrelated issues of social justice and the redistribution of land (the ‘commons’), and ‘common’ resources and services – now effectively ‘enclosed’ through privatization and deregulation.  Disembedding Winstanley from land rights and food growing issues, the Wigan Diggers’ harness the historicity of the 17th century diggers’ narrative to express dissent at current welfare austerity measures, neoliberal modes of governance, and for the reclamation and renewal of working class politics and values. Like The Big Dig and the wartime gardeners, the Festival actively disseminates its political ideals in online and offline contexts.  Drawing together virtual and embodied communities into ‘digging’ spaces and places, these case studies diversely express, shape, renew and enact cultural values of digging in dynamic and productive ways.

Digging Up Mucky Carrots

By Penny Rivlin

Last Tuesday I invited my teenage daughter and her friends to help me prepare a bonfire night supper. Earlier in the day, I had harvested parsnips, beetroot and carrots from my plot, and had left them in the trug by the kitchen sink, ready for washing.  Returning home from school, my daughter spied the supper harvest, joking that the carrots and parsnips resembled the animal fodder we see in the neighbouring fields on our walks. Whilst the beetroot was pleasingly round and unblemished, the carrots and parsnips were large, knarled and clod coated – aesthetically very different from the clean, uniform shape and size of those delivered to our local supermarket. Of course, for the diggers among us, this kind of ‘earthy’ aesthetic is both expected and even desired.  As Eden et al. (2008) have observed, for some consumers, the presence of dirt and the non-uniform presentation of homegrown and organically grown vegetables works as a symbolic marker of its ‘ethical’, pro-environmental status and provenance.  ‘Mucky carrots’ therefore confer ethical value to both the producer and the consumer. Or as Thompson and Coskuner-Balli (2007) argue, in the context of community supported agriculture the experience of digging up locally grown, seasonal veg brings forth feelings of ‘enchantment’ in the digger that cannot be reproduced in the ‘organic’ and ‘ethical food’ aisles of the supermarket. There are interesting affinities here between Thompson and Coskuner-Balli’s notion of enchantment, and the processes of ‘visceral learning’ advanced by Rebecca Sandover (outlined by Peter Jackson in an earlier post). The concept of visceral learning encompasses the embodied and affective dimensions of digging, as both an individual and a shared experience.

In part, feelings of enchantment through visceral learning arise from the performance of digging labour itself: both embodied and sensory, engagements with the outdoors, earth and ‘dirt’ engender reconnections with food, the embodied self, and ‘natural’ environments in both rural and urban green spaces. Whilst digging for self and others is often onerous and time intensive, in the challenging conditions of an unstable, intensely competitive labour market (and increasingly denuded welfare state conditions), digging offers opportunities for experiences of unalienated labour, the products and benefits of which are principally delivered to the digger (and digging communities).

Expressions of digging for enchantment are evident in the self-representations of two of our case studies – the wartime gardeners and Big Dig allotment volunteers.  As I observed in my earlier post, ‘Digging for Abundance’, these diggers’ pictorially showcase their homegrown food on social media sites with evident pride and esteem.  As one Big Dig volunteer comments in response to a recently dug (mucky) harvest: ‘It doesn’t get much better than this’. Similarly, in a celebratory facebook entry, the wartime gardeners recently posted an image of their home-canned green beans, sharing their pleasure in consuming ‘a taste of summer’ as the winter nights close in.

Returning to my bonfire supper, a rather different version of enchantment emerged as my daughter’s friends gathered to prepare my homegrown veg for roasting. None were diggers’ or from digger families, approaching the ‘misshapen’ mucky carrots and parsnips with amazement and some trepidation (to my my daughter’s amusement). Whilst one girl felt unable to handle the veg, the others tackled the peeling and chopping with enthusiasm, such that her initial reluctance soon dissolved. The vegetables, they joked, had a ‘fairy story’ character – they were well suited to the giant’s table in the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk. It might be fun, they mused, if they could organize a school veg-growing project for a communal ‘giant’s supper’ next bonfire night.  In this moment of visceral learning and (imagined) digging as enchantment, pathways were forged to future possibilities of digging and community connection in unanticipated ways. We might, therefore, fruitfully think of ‘enchantment’ as a cultural value that is attached to, and constituted through digging at the levels of both fantasy and embodied practice.


Eden, S., Bear, C. and Walker, G. (2008) ‘Mucky Carrots and Other Proxies: Problematising the Knowledge-fix for Sustainable and Ethical Consumption’, Geoforum, 39(2): 1044-1057.

The Big Dig (no date) [online] Available at: Accessed 7 October 2013.

Thompson, C.J. and Coskuner-Balli, G. (2007) ‘Enchanting Ethical Consumption: The Case of Community Supported Agriculture’, Journal of Consumer Culture, 7(3): 275-303.

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.