– the right to live where and how we choose

Television The Good Life

Tom and Barbara in their garden, The Good Life, BBC TV

On the eve of the referendum, my entire world feeling like it is crashing down around me, I came across this.  A foreword by John Seymour to a book entitled HOVEL IN THE HILLS, by Elizabeth West.  It was written in 1977 but is as pertinent today as then.

Working on the assumption (and it is only an assumption) that we have one life each it is important to every one of us that we do the best with it.  If society says to us: “We are prepared to look after you from the cradle to the grave provided you live in a boring place and work at a boring job” then we should consider very seriously whether this is a bargain we want to accept.  The author of this book has declined to accept it, and she is one of a growing number of people who have decided not to make this bargain.  In the first place, she and her husband answered the question “Where shall we live?” not with the answer: “We will have to live where our work is” but with the answer: “We will live in a beautiful place of our own choosing.”

People who do this are always asked by their friends: “Yes – but what will you do to earn a living?”  Now the only way to answer that question is by going and finding out.  I have come in contact with some hundreds of people who have made this choice, a choice that would have been unthinkable to all but a tiny minority of people twenty years ago, and I have always been impressed time after time at the enormous amount of variety of ways that such people have solved the problem of making a living in the place of their choice.  True the Wests have had to go away from home from time to time – but there is nothing wrong with this; it is a perfectly happy way to live to sally forth from your secure home from time to time to bring back the mutton, as it were: sailors, fishermen, drovers, traders, pirates, brigands, and soldiers of fortune, travelling actors, explorers; countless people of great initiative and resourcefulness have done just this.

But what has surprised me is how so many of these people who have fled from what they thought was a corrupt and corrupting urban society, have arrived in their Shangri-las either with no idea of how they were going to earn a living, or else with an idea which has proved in practice to be the wrong one: and found – quite unexpectedly and somehow almost without looking for it – a solution that they would have never have dreamed of.  The fact is, there is a livelihood for people in the country – ay and in the remote fastness of Wales too – just as much as there is in the middle of Birmingham.  There is a livelihood, for any people with determination and initiative – and the sort of people who refuse to accept the dull bargain society offers are always such people – in any part of the countryside you like to find.  You may have to go away sometimes – but you go away to come back again.  And I wouldn’t mind betting that the Wests, when they get tired of making forays into the outer world, will find a perfectly acceptable way of earning at home the little money that even the self-supporter needs.

Bee-keeping; designing and selling a range of picture postcards; publishing a series of small guides to the countryside; making wooden soup bowls on a lathe; building boats; making violins, spinning wheels, jewellery, leather objects; potting; weaving; engraving on slate; doubling as a landscape artist and a fisherman; illustrating botanical treaties; running a craft shop; running a second-hand tool shop; dentistry; doing fencing on contract; painting shop and van signs; jobbing building; nursery gardening; market gardening; sheep shearing: these are just a few of the solutions to this problem of earning a living where you want to live among people I know closely in my immediate vicinity that spring to mind without thinking about it very much.  It would surprise me if a quarter of the people practising the above trades had thought of their particular trade when they made the plunge into self-sufficient living in the country.  And the point is that few of them would be able to live at these trades if they had to pay urban rents and buy their food at the supermarket.

The countryside needs such people.  As well as the commercial farmers and farm workers we need people who practice a thousand trades – and people with fun and laughter in their hearts, and the sort of courage and initiative the Wests have got.  And there is more at stake than our own happiness and amusement.  Our very existence as a species may depend on getting more people with brains and imagination back on the land again: to grow the food that will be needed desperately to feed us all when the oil runs out, or when civilization as we know it now runs down out of sheer boredom and frustration, as it looks like doing.

For two hundred years now the cities have been sucking the life blood out of the countryside.  Intelligent country boys and girls have inevitably been drawn to the big city, and, except for occasional holidays, they have not come back again.  Now big-city culture is being examines closely, and is being found wanting.  There are a million unemployed people in this country now, who knows how many there will be in five years’ time?  More young men and women are opting out of it: some of them negatively, living on charity and handouts of urban society, but some – like the Wests – positively, determined to claim their birthright of their countrysides and be worthy of it, to build good and secure homes there and take their proper places as full members of country society.  There is a great renaissance going on.  The flood of brains and imagination from the country to the cities is being stemmed – and a gradually increasing trickle is running in the opposite direction.  The pioneers of this reverse movement may have felt it lonely and tough going at first, but as more and more people like the Wests move out – drop in as we should call it – so we shall give each other more mutual support, life will be fuller, and city people will have to come to the country if they want to see where it is all happening.

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