Red Ken: green fingers and a curious wariness of the indestructibility of cheese

No cheese in here
You won’t find any cheese in here!

I can exclusively reveal that former London Mayor Ken Livingstone has something of a problem with cheese. Indeed the one-time fervent left-wing leader of the Greater London Council and controversial Labour MP won’t touch the stuff. Which is odd because back in the 1980s he used to advertise Red Leicester on the telly. Neat one eh? Red Ken loves a spot of Red Leicester!

Not anymore though and it’s all to do with composting, as he explained to me when I visited his North London home to talk to about his passion for gardening. As we sat in the Cricklewood sunshine discussing the contents of his three magnificent compost bins,  Ken told me: “They say you shouldn’t put cooked food on a compost heap but that’s nonsense. I put everything in my compost including the remains of yesterday’s dinner. The worms, woodlice, bacteria and fungi will break everything down. Everything that is except cheese.”

Oh dear, is he sure? Absolutely he is. “I used to love cheese,” whined Ken, a pained look crossing his face. “I ate a lot of it. Then one day I chucked a big chunk of cheddar that had gone off while we’d been on holiday onto the compost and a year later it was still there. So I don’t eat cheese anymore. If four billion years of evolved life forms can break down everything perfectly well but can’t handle a piece of cheese then frankly I don’t want it in my body.” So there you go. Our visit to Ken’s garden eventually resulted in a five page feature in Amateur Gardening magazine. Below is the piece I wrote with some added notes.. 

A sunny morning in Ken’s garden with his frogs, newts and hermaphrodite fruits

Mr Livingstone I presume?
Mr Livingstone I presume? Ken working in his beloved North London garden

Words: Jeremy Miles   Pictures: Hattie Miles

After losing last year’s London mayoral election Ken Livingstone announced that he was planning to pack in politics and spend time catching up on some gardening. He wasn’t kidding. For the past 16 months this one-time fervent left-wing leader of the Greater London Council, controversial Labour MP and two times London Mayor has been working day in, day out in his North London garden.

“I love it,” he says. “Every day since last May, if it hasn’t actually been pouring with rain or snowing, I’ve been working in the garden.”  This decidedly ‘green’ version of the one-time Red Ken also tends the gardens of two disabled neighbours. He has even constructed a tiny walkway built from sticks, bricks and old paving stones so that he can move between the three adjacent properties without disturbing anyone.

His aim has been to create a natural haven that he hopes will one day be seen as the legacy of his long-held environmentalist beliefs. “I’d like to think I’ll leave something that will still  be here in a thousand years,” he told me.

When we arrive at his Victorian terraced home, Ken was busy clearing irises from his pond – home to his beloved newts and frogs.  During his years in front-line politics he was regularly ridiculed by the media for being a “newt-lover”. As a criticism, this baffled him: “It’s just bullying. You get used to it,” he shrugs.

Wildlife is enormously important to Ken who once dreamed of becoming a zookeeper working with reptiles and amphibians.  In addition to the pond,  Ken says he has tried to make the garden as family-friendly as possible for himself, his wife Emma and their children Tom (10) and Mia (9).

The Livingston garden from the ktchen/breakfast room
The Livingston garden from the ktchen/breakfast room

“There was nothing here at all when we moved in. Just grass and a huge shed. I assumed I could just start planting things. But then we found there was an original garden dating  back to  about 1902 underneath the lawn. I spent a year getting skip loads of builders rubble out to expose the original paths.”

Ken says he initially designed the  garden “for two adults to sit in and have a drink after an exhausting and stressful day”. All that had to change with the arrival of two children and Coco the pet Labrador. “Now I’ve got a wonderfully robust garden full of things that can stand balls being kicked at them and dogs pounding through them.”

Ironically much of the legwork was achieved thanks to his difficult relationship with former Labour leader Neil Kinnock. “When I became an MP Kinnock refused to give me a job. I wasn’t allowed on any of the House of Commons Committees or anything. That was when I did most of the early work on the garden.”

It contains an intriguing collection of trees and a variety of fruit including tay berries, loganberries, grapes, apricots, figs, wild strawberries and, his particular delight, the first kiwi plant he’s managed to get to fruit in 15 years. “I tried male and female plants with no success but eventually I found an hermaphrodite variety that fertilizes itself and I’m really pleased with the results”. It somehow seems like a quintessential Ken Livingstone comment.

Entered through huge folding glass doors from the kitchen-breakfast room, it is a very natural garden and a constantly used extension to the living space. It is lush and south-facing and nourished by Ken’s lovingly nurtured compost.  He stresses that he never uses chemicals or insecticides apart from occasionally painting the bindweed. He’s certainly not interested in a manicured look. Rough and ready is just fine. He kicks over the dead leaves on his lawn. “Some people would sweep all this up but it’s home to so many insects I like to leave it,” he tells me. The lawn itself is basic.

“When we first moved in I bought really expensive lawn seed and it was like a billiard table It looked totally unreal so after a few years I dug it up, put in a crop of potatoes for a year and then put down this crappy old grass. It looks so much more natural.” Ken is clearly happy with his garden: “We get butterflies and lots of birds. We don’t have an endless display of flowers but there is a constant contrast of different leaf and colour which is lovely even in the winter.”

Ken's pond which is home to a variety of frogs and newts
Ken’s pond which is home to a variety of frogs and newts

His collection of trees is perhaps a little eccentric for the London suburbs and includes a giant redwood and a far slower-growing sequoia.  Both were planted 10 years ago  and the redwood is already soaring into the sky above Cricklewood. The sequoia meanwhile is still only three feet tall. “There’s plenty of time yet,” chuckles Ken. “They live for 3,000 years.” There are also two silver birch and an old oak beneath which he buried his mother’s ashes in 1997. “It was strange. It stopped growing for a year. It was as though it was in shock.” It was Ken’s mother, Ethel, who originally inspired his interest in gardening. He remembers as a child watching her working in the garden often until 10  at night.

These days Ken delights in collecting plants that offer an interesting story. There’s a King James I Mulberry: “I like the fact that it was originally established in the 17th century as part of an ill-fated bid to break the Chinese monopoly on the silk trade,” he tells me.

Nearby there are three Wollemi pine. “They thrived for hundreds of millions of years and then as far as everyone was concerned were wiped out with the dinosaurs,” enthuses Ken.  Hearing of their rediscovery at the bottom of a remote Australian gorge 20 years ago, he decided he had to have some. “It’s amazing! Dinosaur food! ” he tells me. “You can get them from Kew these days”.

Walking around the garden, Ken is full of fascinating  facts. He  chose the silver birch for its hardiness. “It is the first tree you find when leaving the Tundra”. While the Arbutus unedo tree and its crop of insipid strawberry like fruit was once worshipped by druids as a source of winter food.

Gardening, he says, has been good for his health. He looks lean, tanned and fit. “I’ve done more gardening in the past year than in a lifetime. My doctor says she’s never seen me so healthy. Mind you none of my trousers fit anymore. I need braces to hold them up.” This I can reveal is absolutely true.  When we arrived, Ken opened the door looking like a pantomime vagabond. His shirt was in shreds. There were no buttons (or at least none that did up) and a pair of braces snapped against his naked chest holding up a pair of indescribably tatty jeans. “I’m clearing the pond,” he explained. He appeared completely unselfconscious but the moment a camera was produced, he raised a hand. “No, you are not taking pictures of me like this. I’ll change into my slightly less filthy gardening clothes.”

One of Ken's waterliles
One of Ken’s waterliles

My morning with Ken passed quickly and amiably. There was plenty of talk about politics but that was not in the  Amateur Gardening brief. However I still have the notes and can reveal that he fears for the future of London, saying that his old adversary Boris Johnson has had a fine old time opening all the projects that he (Ken) started but has done precious little for the future of the city. He would say that wouldn’t he? He explains: “A city like London needs a constant programme of work to maintain its infrastructure.” He hasn’t seen that happening.  Ken worries about housing too.  “It’s in an absolutely catastrophic state. Thatcher stopped building council housing 33 years ago. Idiot Blair carried that on and we now have a housing crisis that’ s worse than at the end of the war after Hitler had been bombing us for five years. It’s really ridiculous.”

There is a glimmer of light at the end of Ken’s tunnel though. He  believes Ed Miliband is the best and most courageous Labour leader since John Smith but will not have been surprised at the recent attack on the Labour leader’s father Ralph by The Daily Mail.  He’s seen it all before and describes the Mail as a publication “that has spent its life promoting fear and hatred because it sells their papers and helps the governments they like. “Whatever has happened to the Milibands at the hands of Mail editor Paul Dacre and his team is clearly nothing in comparison to the going over that Ken himself received  back in the 1980s. He’s surprisingly philosophical about his treatment by the more extreme areas of the right-wing press.  “When you’ve got four billionaires controlling 70 per cent of the papers we read it’s hardly surprising that half the people in Britain think I’m mad or working for communists,” he tells me.  “The night I became leader of the GLC, Thatcher made a speech saying that I was going to impose on London the kind of tyranny the people of Eastern Europe wanted to escape from. Then when we cut the fares that autumn The Daily Mail said: This is the first step towards the introduction of a full Soviet economy. ”  He shook his head. “It’s awful but you get inured to it….  Would you like a cup of tea?”

The kiwi fruit - success at last.
The kiwi fruit – success at last.

Back in the garden, Ken says he’s finds satisfaction in seeing the fruits of his labours emerging before his eyes. It’s not an experience he very often enjoyed in the Machaovelian, back-stabbing world of politics. ” Here I can do two square yards a day and actually see what I have achieved whereas in politics everything takes forever. I mean they’ll eventually open Crossrail (London’s new high-speed rail link) in 2018 and I started  pushing for that  at the turn of the millennium.” So, if gardening is the perfect antidote to the high-pressure world of politics, what does Ken reckon Boris’s garden is like? Somehow the question never got answered. However Ken was once  asked  exactly the same thing by Time Out  and this is what he said.  “Given his attention to detail and his approach to hard work, I suspect – unless they’ve got a gardener – it’s a bit of a tip”. Over to BoJo. Fancy inviting me round?

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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