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an elegant self-sufficiency

In what now seems like a previous life I spent days/weeks in Pembrokeshire trying to help John Seymour sort out his desk. His life was a complicated juggling act: book- writng, small-holding and speaking; inside, outside and away.

John, the great guru of the back-to-the-landers, many of them armchairers or week-enders, who fed their dreams of exiting the ratrace. They read Practical Self-Sufficiency, watched The Good Life and fantasized about escaping from the tax man, the mortgage man, door-to-door salesmen, traffic queues and the clock to a far-off field where they could sit under their vine and fig tree with a tankard of home brew, a slice of home-baked wholemeal and a hunk of cheese made from the milk of the house Jersey; the children out of sight and mind, building treehouses or searching the stream for little living creatures whose names neither the children nor their parents were quite sure of (and if this could endure long enough the parents would probably become uncertain about the children’s names, too.) In their hands coin of the realm would come to have only historic value.

‘In the old days, before you were born, Daffodil, people used to exchange these little bits of metal for food and clothes. It was called “money” and some people hoarded it but most people borrowed it, large quantities of it.’

‘Did they keep it in sacks or boxes or chests?’

‘No, they never actually saw it. They got a piece of paper from the bank, or loan shark, or mortgage company, telling them it was theirs, but they were never sent it or saw it. When spending money one parted with nothing but a signature.’

But back to John. He came to mind as I was planning our Lent Course, ‘Thought for Food’, for which I was recruiting Satish Kumar who, by the time you read this, will have delivered himself of ‘Slow Food’ to Hartlanders whom he has addressed only once before in the twenty-five years he has lived here. It is no wonder some of them regard him with a dessertspoonful of suspicion and a teaspoon of apprehension.

‘I don’t know about that Satish Kumar’, a local farmer said to me a while ago. ‘He might be a bit of a terrorist. Arter all, he does edit a journal called Insurgence.’ The fact that for many years he milked his Jersey house cow these farmers probably appreciate as cunning cover. Let’s face it, he also started a small school with the likely intention of training recruits for the Badermeinhof. That, or the cultivation of magic mushrooms.

But back to John. I had some weeks previous to the desk-sorting been approached by Canon Norman Motley to become chaplain/warden of the Othona Community centre at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. Kate and I viewed the place on an inhospitable winter’s day, a collection of nissen and wooden military huts huddled on the edge of the marshes by the Blackwater river. The One Redeeming Feature was the chapel of St Cedd, built in AD 654. The invitation to live here all-the-year round with a small group of likeminded crazies we placed on the back burner. But it was not flammable.

Sitting one day at John’s desk (a phrase that Sullivan might have set) I opened the top drawer on the right and what caught my eye? A postcard of St Cedd’s chapel, a place that was as far Eastward from West Wales as you could get without needing a boat. It was a sign.

So, to cut a short story even shorter, we found ourselves planting trees – the poplars are now over 30 feet tall, the orchard ‘mature’ – milking a Jersey, collecting hen and duck eggs and turning pigs into bacon. We should have given John the design for our smoker to include in one of his books. The dining hut was heated by a woodburning stove. I fitted a metal cupboard over the chimney on the roof and in this we hung our hog hams. We also held competitions to see who could grind the most wheat, from the local farm, in three minutes.

We also fished. The life was caught in words of St Columba, which I turned into a song to sing in the chapel:

Lord, bless us that we bless you,

creator and conservor

of heaven and all its orders,

of land and strand and waters;

that we may search the writings

that give the soul renewal;

that we may read around us

such beauty as will feed us:

That we may find within us

the letters of your loving;

that we may have such living

as any soul will freshen.

At times we kneel to heaven,

at times the psalms are singing,

at times are contemplating

our King, our holy leader.

At times we are delighting

in work that lacks compulsion;

at times we gather seaweed,

at times we go out fishing;

at times we seed and harvest,

at times we feed your creatures,

and feed the poor, our brothers;

at times we sit in silence.

St Columba lived in a community. We were living in community. And that is the only way one can be truly self-sufficient.

February 2004

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