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Monday, 21 April 2008

A Good Life

After a couple of good days, with nice weather, today the rain is back again, so here comes another book review. I just finished reading A Good Life - John Seymour – His self-sufficiency legacy by Paul Peacock. It’s a biography of John Seymour. I first came across John Seymour’s Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency when I was living and working on the Peace People Farm in Coleraine in Northern Ireland in the mid-80s. We were 3 volunteers living off the land there on 3 ½ acres. It was not only a centre for reconciliation, where kids from both sides of the divide could meet on neutral ground and prisoner’s wives (Magilligan Prison was nearby) could meet for a cup of tea not organized by the paramilitaries, but it also grew into a centre of alternative living.

We used this book on a daily basis to gain information on how to milk goats, tether our Shetland pony in front of a plough, thrash our oats and barley, clamp our potatoes for the winter, make country wines etc. Like for many other people it became our bible. Before launching our Italian adventure I bought myself a copy of the latest edition of this invaluable book. When I recently discovered, that someone had written a biography about this influential author I became curious. How did he start out on his path to self-sufficiency? Is there anything I can learn from it? I didn’t know much about the man apart what could be glanced between the lines from the one book of his that I have read. I didn’t realize that Seymour had written some 40 books on all sorts of aspects of country living, his travels to Africa and Asia and even a novel and some poetry. I had no idea he worked for the BBC for many years presenting both radio as well as TV programmes. I also didn’t know that he died aged 90 in 2004, the same year we arrived in Italy. In fact, apparently the day we moved into our new home an on-line wake was being held in his honour and memory. We were without electricity that day and the following 3 months, so I couldn’t have known.

What I had guessed was that he hailed from a very privileged background. His mother married twice, both times into money and high society. Seymour is said to have an early affiliation with what he called the ‘real people’, i.e. the serving staff, but the fact that you grow up in such an environment gives you much greater choice in life. He had opportunities to make it in the business world through his stepfather’s influence, but he was a hopeless romantic and wanted to become a cowboy. In pursuit of this aim he went to an agricultural college, sponsored by his parents and then to Africa, where he worked on various farms. Also in Africa he continued to get on better with the native bushmen than the white colonialists. During the war he fought in the African Corps, where as a white man he almost against his own will got promoted to the rank of captain.

Returning to England after the war he became increasingly interested in the old ways of farming. He travelled the country, sometimes by boat and collected stories. This lead him to his work for the BBC. Soon he started with his first wife to rent a piece of farmland in Suffolk. Some years later they bought a farmstead in Wales and finally he went on to move to a farm in Ireland. Paul Peacock is giving a very sympathetic and personal portrayal of Seymour’s life, showing both his qualities as someone who loved life, loved people and had an infectious enthusiasm as well as his negative traits, his treatment of the women in his life, his sometimes raucous drinking and his inability to hold on to money.

The fact that, as someone who had the choice of living a life in financial comfort with a secure job and pension which he rejected to opt for a life of relative poverty, is seen as almost heroic. The actual fact in my view though is that he did have the choice, whilst many people haven’t. He has visions of everyone owning and caring for an acre of land and therefore all of us achieving some self-sufficiency. Surely this is the vision of someone who may have experienced temporary cash shortages, but does not really understand poverty.

Shortly before his death John Seymour wrote an article outlining a ‘manifesto’ of his convictions. Whilst in principle I agree with much of his action plan to turn this planet into a better world, a lot of it is naïve and unrealistic. The first 4 points of his plan were Refuse to work for the plunderers, refuse to shop in the plunderers’ supermarkets, give up the desire for large wealth, endure financial hardship. For many working class people these are not choices. You work where you can to support your family, you shop where you can afford it, your only way out is money and enduring financial hardship you do for a living. I am 45 years old and have never known a time I have not endured financial hardship. I have tried to educate myself out of the working classes, but had to interrupt my university studies due to lack of money. I long dreamed of a plot of land somewhere to grow my own food, but it was a completely unrealisable dream. The only way out was to work for not always ethical companies, take a large mortgage from the ‘plunderers’ bank and as values of this property rose by pure chance, I could partially realise my dream. However, I still don’t even own an acre, having virtually no financial resources makes any project almost impossible. I’d like bees, but need equipment, I’d like hens and need to build housing and buy chickens; everything costs money. Therefore, not being completely self-sufficient, I have no choice but buy the shortfall from the cheapest supermarket. I can make sure that anything I do buy is at least seasonal and produced relatively local, i.e. Italian rather than South African for instance.

I was also a bit disappointed to learn that Seymour did not really live the life I had imagined. He was a full time writer, whilst his wife Sally did most of the running of the actual farm. However she seemed to prove that the self-sufficiency dream is realisable and his Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency shall remain one of my most referred to books.

In a lot of ways I saw myself in many aspects of Seymour’s character. He liked to simplify life; there’s nothing that can’t be solved over a few pints down your friendly local and a jolly good sing-song. I’ve had a good few of those myself while in Ireland. It was in the pub where we founded the Green Party of Northern Ireland, The Campaign for Cyclists’ Rights in Belfast, where we launched Blaagh, Northern Ireland’s first green magazine and where we met after a session of tool cleaning for Tools for Self-Reliance and planned our opposition to the Belfast Urban Area Plan. And we generally put the world to rights and John Seymour would have fitted right in. Shame he is no longer is with us, so I’ll never be able to share that pint with the man.

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