Monday, 12 July 2010

It's not every man that can live off the land*

I took a day off for what has become my annual pilgrimage to the Fens - it's our version of  vast open spaces and big skies in this little country: A bit of an overhaul for the 'grey bike' and a chance to catch up with my  friends who have swapped their inner-city custom bike shop for a small-holding up there.
My friends aren't unique - there's a whole little economy  of small-holders, making a living by trading with each other, supplemented by  odd bits of casual work  (such as working on Harleys). They also support each other - one of their neighbours  was hit by a car whilst I was there -  and everyone was rallying around to help tend his animals whilst he was act of action. 

You could call it a  kind of localised communalism or mutual self-help. It's not necessarily about hippies or townies fleeing to the country. Most of them seem to be ordinary people with connections to the area - possibly returning after some time away  - or after farming has skipped a generation in the family. They are not middle class drop-outs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  They just want to promote a traditional way of life and do something 'real'.

There's  an ideology that goes with this that's suspicious of big business, mass production and factory farming and  promotes local small producers, 'real' products and low-intensity agriculture. The Fens is an area where cheap Eastern European casual labour in agri-industry is well established so it could easily be  xenophobic or racist -  but actually it isn't. Animosity is mainly directed at the supermarkets who are forcing the race to the bottom. There's  a  definite disdain though for a generation of 'native' locals who are prepared to go along with this, and lack the gumption to do something for themselves.

It's not a lifestyle  for everyone. Politically it isn't a viable alternative on any meaningful scale to the rat race. But  I'm damn sure that my friends get more satisfaction from their work than I am getting from mine at the moment. 

* Every time I visit I'm reminded of the scene in Easyrider when they stop over at farm to fix a puncture and share a meal with the family. Wyatt turns to the farmer and says: 'It's not every man that can live off the land, you know. You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud'.

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