The Fat of the Land, by John Seymour (1961), is the author’s account of his family’s journey to self-sufficiency. When I first picked it up (it’s one of the gorgeous Little Toller editions of classic nature writing), I had a vague impression of Seymour having written it after ten or twenty years’ experience of living on a smallholding. In fact, at time of writing, he’d only been living in that way for about three years, so he’s less of an expert than he was when he he wrote The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency in the 70s. I have been reading plenty of gardening books in the last few years (and watching a lot of gardening Youtube); also, The Good Life is one of the television shows I like to have on standby in case the doldrums strike. Therefore I consider myself an expert on how hard it is to be self-sufficient. (More seriously, my mum’s parents were relatively self-sufficient in terms of vegetables, chickens, and eggs, so I do know somewhat how much of a challenge it is. Especially if, like Granddad and unlike Seymour, you have a demanding full-time job on top of your demanding full-time garden. Oh, we’ll get there). I think that part of what I want when I read books like this is to have an allotment, and to have my granddad still around to come and tell me everything I’m doing wrong with my carrots. That’s a wildly unfair standard to hold any book to – but I can’t help it, so I thought I’d better declare my interests up front.
There are two introductions to my 2017 edition of The Fat of the Land – one by Seymour’s daughter Anne Sears, and one by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Both contain irritating and untrue aphorisms. Sears writes that her father never would have dreamt of “being entitled to a handout” – but his mother and stepfather were wealthy, and though he wasn’t living off them, he was able to get by using his expensive education, travels around the world looking at different farming methods, and the network of contacts he gained as a result. Similarly, Fearnley-Whittingstall quotes Seymour, who asks if intensive farming and modern methods are really making things better for anyone. A reasonable question for Seymour to ask, in 1961; a less reasonable thing to quote in 2017, since we’ve had the answer for a while. Famines have been steadily decreasing for a long time – and starvation that occurs these day is often a result of dictatorships, not a lack of resilience in agriculture. Health complications caused by child malnutrition are decreasing across the globe. Most people who whine about the new way of farming are middle-aged men who are bitter that they missed out on being hippies in the 60s. I know this because my dad is one of the worst offenders. But to be clear: while we need to address the impact that intensive farming is having on the climate, we need to do so in a way that doesn’t reverse the huge and beneficial changes it has brought. You know, like the global child mortality rate being cut five-fold since the 50s. Obviously there are lots of reasons for this, but it would be absurd to pretend that cheap food year-round hasn’t played a role. It’s easy to be critical of New Agriculture if the limited food available under Old Agriculture would have come to you and yours first.
Of course, it’s not John Seymour’s fault that people wrote such stupid introductions to his book thirteen years after he died, so now that we’ve got it out of the way I will get off my soapbox and try to let the work speak for itself. For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The Seymour family starts off by stumbling into self-sufficiency: initially they are a relatively normal household who happens to rent a house away from the electricity grid – much more common in 1958 than today! – and the milkman can’t reach them, so they have to slog over the hill every day to get their milk. They get fed up with that, and they’ve got five acres of land, so they suppose they might as well buy a cow as not. Their journey into self-sufficiency starts there – they have to buy some pigs to drink up all the excess milk the cow produces, and then they suppose it would be cheaper to grow animal food than buy it, and so on from there. Seymour and his family don’t do things by halves: by the end of the book, a few years into their experiment, they have got rid of their van and bought a pony cart, they make their own brawn from the heads of their own pigs, and so on. Anyone who fondly remembers the cheese-making scenes in Little House in the Big Woods, behold: a gory 20th century English version. Squeamish people might find the details of how to slaughter and cure a pig a bit much – my revulsion radar is poorly calibrated; that part of your brain breaks when you train as a nurse – but I didn’t have any trouble with it. It was also a lovely escape from present day. Seymour’s problems and concerns are so rooted in 1950s rural England that, even though they are real problems, they make for a very clear change from 2020.
Reading a book written by a white upper-middle class Englishman in 1961, especially one who grew up at expensive boarding schools and travelled extensively in Africa and India, you have to cost in a certain amount of snobbery. Seymour is no different, except that he is perhaps worse. Though he has convinced himself that he is a Man of the People, he has several opinions about the decisions being made by the rural working class at the time – mostly the decision to move out of crumbling tied cottages into safe, warm council housing, and also the decision to buy new furniture that Seymour does not approve of*. It smacks of a man who’s never known what it’s like when you can suddenly afford something new for the first time in your life. The whole way through the book, Seymour demonstrates the kind of absolute disdain for material goods that you can only have if you’ve grown up in plenty. Similarly, he’s sneerily dismissive about the local rural poor abandoning subsistence agriculture for better paying industrial jobs “more in keeping with the people’s democracy”, but both he and his wife have secondary jobs. They are a journalist and a potter respectively. It’s a tacit acknowledgement that subsistence farming alone makes for a miserable and limited life. Although he addresses the need for additional income towards the end of the book, he seems to think that anyone could just fall into the right type of work. I’d like to see the newspaper, in 1958, that would have given a working-class man with limited formal education part-time employment jollying around the country, writing opinion pieces that patronise the locals. I’d like to see the paper that would do it now. Self-sufficiency and smallholding are exciting novelties to Seymour and his family. To his credit, he stuck at both for the rest of his life, so he really meant it – but he has no conception of the fact that it wasn’t novel for the people around him; that, in some cases, they were giving it up after hundreds of years of their families doing the same thing year-in, year-out. Ironically, one of the bits of advice he gives in his conclusion to anyone who wants to try the same thing is “don’t patronise working-class country people”.
Nonetheless, despite the hectoring, self-righteous tone to the book, I am very glad I read it. Stories of canning, the recounting of the year in vegetable sowing and cropping, advice about storage – this is all useful stuff for someone who eventually wants to grow most of her own veg for the year (though I maintain that I will not ever be making my own brawn). And in the moments when Seymour allows himself to drop the defensiveness and polemics, it is a joy to read. He has a very light touch in his writing, and he’s good at giving a vivid picture in just a few words. His writing about his life, his family – well, okay, his wife, since he seems to regard the children as annoyances on his peripheral vision – this is all delightful. One of the topics Seymour addresses is that just scratching out a living is miserable. He places a lot of emphasis, for example, on being able to have access to delicious food all year round. Equally, because his wife Sally is an artist, there is a whole chapter on the way they decorated their house when they first moved in – which is nothing at all to do with farming or self-sufficiency, and everything to do with making a home. The whole book is filled with Sally’s delightful sketches, which really contribute to the overall feeling of the rural idyll. Although Seymour doesn’t write with the aim of convincing people to take up smallholding – indeed, it sometimes seems like he wants to put people off – he does convey, if not an easy life, certainly a slower and calmer one.
Overall, though, rather than stop in to see the Seymours, I think I’d rather have a less impressive, less self-righteous dinner with Tom and Barbara Good. Maybe I’d even brave their peapod burgundy.
*Incidentally, because he talks about it being modern and “mass-produced”, I have to assume he means Ercol and the like, which now goes for hundreds or even thousands of pounds online. Who’s the fool now, Seymour?