Book review: Going to Seed

Going to Seed: A Counterculture Memoir by Simon Fairlie (Chelsea Green, 2022), ISBN: 978-1-64502-061-5

You might know Simon Fairlie’s name from his previous book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Permanent Publications, 2010), which rather remarkably caused George Monbiot to change his mind about veganism. Perhaps you’ve come across the magazine he founded, The Land, if you frequent a certain type of bookshop. You may even have bought a scythe from his shop, or learned to use one on one of the courses he runs. He is, as this cursory and highly incomplete list suggests, a man of many parts.

Some years ago, I attended a talk he gave under the auspices of the Low-Impact Living Initiative as an introduction to smallholding. He came across as the kind of man you’d like to go to the pub with. This book is probably the closest I will ever get to going to the pub with Simon Fairlie.

Which is not to say that this is just a collection of anecdotes, as he makes very clear in his introduction.

My focus is on politics (in the wider sense of the term), social relations and economics (i.e. work). It is a political memoir by someone who never entered politics (in the narrow sense of the term). As far as is consistent with the narrative, I have tried to keep personal relations out of it….

p. 3

So what we have is a kind of mixture of autobiographical narrative and political discourse, which is indeed, I suspect. very much what you might get if you did go down to the pub with him.

Fairlie is a hippie, a label he accepts with some resignation. Unlike many hippies, though, he is a thorough pragmatist. Having discovered the hard way that smashing the system is not as easy as he and his peers hoped, he has decided to continue the fight but to pick his battles with care. When so many of his generation gave up and sold out, he has carried on. This is one of the things that makes him interesting.

The autobiographical part is interesting and well-told. His father was a journalist, credited with inventing the term “the Establishment” and something of a rogue. Fairlie had the sort of quasi-privileged background that so often forms the characters in John le Carré’s books; he spent three years at Westminster School, for instance, until he was obliged to leave because his father had never paid any of their bills. He studied at Cambridge but found it a disappointment and dropped out.

Fairlie had and exploited the opportunity to travel – he laments the decline of hitch-hiking, which enabled him to go to Istanbul effectively free – and he pursued the hippie trail, partly motivated, as he frankly admits, by the desire to get access to decent marijuana. Very few of the things he did in his youth would be feasible today. Inevitably, there is an elegiac tone to some of these passages.

Like many of his contemporaries on the counter-culture scene, he sought to build a viable alternative to the capitalist-industrial system by going back to the land. Like many of this contemporaries also he found this difficult. This kind of life was not at all in his background, which was bohemian and largely urban. But he stuck to it, and has made a success of it where so many have fallen by the wayside.

Fairlie is refreshingly honest about his early failures and indeed ineptitude. Reading his account in Chapter 6 of communal living in a remote part of France, it is heartening to realise that we are not the only people to make daft practical mistakes, especially in the realm of DIY building work. But his doggedness paid off. He was clearly not afraid of hard work, and this led to what he describes as an “entente” between his motley crew of foreigners and the local population. It was a poor wine-growing region with a local labour shortage, and anyone prepared to fill that need could get a warm welcome.

On one occasion I worked for ten days on my own hoeing around the base of 20,000 vines with a mattock, 2,000 every day. That job made me realise what a valuable skill it is to be able to enjoy repetitive manual labour.

p. 110

It may have helped that part of the pay was in kind: “three litres a day of red wine that could politely be described as robust.”

Despite having no training in stonemasonry, he undercut a local builder to get the job of constructing a stone arch. When the project was a success, as he disarmingly puts it, “Nobody was more surprised than myself.” He did however go on to get properly trained – he describes how he ought to have build that arch compared to how he actually did it. Later he spent a year doing restoration work on Salisbury Cathedral.

His determination to acquire the practical skills he needed is shown many times. When he became part of the Tinker’s Bubble community, for instance, he took on the job of working with and looking after their heavy horse, Samson. They were committed to avoiding the internal combustion engine, not so much on environmental grounds as to avoid creating a dependency on the industrial system, and they needed a heavy horse to make their logging business work. It was a thoroughly practical decision, and very much the way Fairlie rolls.

Again, his scythe shop is a practical scheme. Having realised that scythes are a more useful tool than people think, and that Austrian scythes are especially good, he decided to start importing them into the UK so as to get them into people’s hands and at the same time have another income stream. (You can watch him using one here.)

His activism is likewise very practical and specific. He details his role in opposing road-building in various parts of the UK. It’s very much a guerilla war against the system. He know he isn’t going to be able to stop every new road everywhere, but he will do what he can. And he has not been without his successes.

Of a piece with this is his ongoing interest in the availability of land. After all, if you are going to go back to the land, the first thing you need is some land to go back to. This is not easy to arrange unless you have a great deal of money, certainly in the UK. As he puts it in the manifesto of The Land magazine:

The market (however attractive it may appear) is built on promises: the only source of wealth is the earth. Anyone who has land has access to energy, water, nourishment, shelter, healing, wisdom, ancestors and a grave….

The politics of land — who owns it, who controls it and who has access to it — is more important than ever, though you might not think so from a superficial reading of government policy and the media. The purpose of this magazine is to focus attention back onto the politics of land.

Rome fell; the Soviet Empire collapsed; the stars and stripes are fading in the west. Nothing is forever in history, except geography. Capitalism is a confidence trick, a dazzling edifice built on paper promises. It may stand longer than some of us anticipate, but when it crumbles, the land will remain.

His sheer staying-power is one of the most impressive things about Fairlie. This is a book to give hope to us all. At seventy, he is still keeping on, with no sign of giving up any time soon.

Let me be clear: I’m not one of those bronzed and wiry septuagenarians who take on challenges like rowing across the Atlantic. I’m pink and fat, and I avoid having to bend down to tie up my shoelaces. Yet despite this corporeal decadence, I can still milk the cows, muck out the yard and mow [a] quarter of an acre of hay in the morning, and I intend to keep it up. I expect to die in bed with my boots on, having been too knackered and drunk to take them off.

p. 260

Here is a life well-lived if ever there was one. Here, moreover, is a person who will not throw up his hands in despair in face of impossible odds. In this sense, ageing hippie though he may be, Simon Fairlie is an inspiration for our times.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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