I live in east London in a second-floor flat with no garden. My groceries come from the local corner shop and, when I feel strong enough to face it, from the hellhole of a supermarket in Whitechapel. I grow some herbs in pots on my windowsill. The sage and rosemary do quite well but the coriander, tarragon, mint and parsley remain spindly however much I coax them. I have been known to forage for elderflowers, nettles and blackberries in Victoria Park and once, while visiting Dungeness, I broke off some sea kale from the shingle to eat with the kippers I had bought from a smokery there, then quickly had to hide it on realizing from a sign that it was a plant from an area of special scientific interest and I was liable for a £3,000 fine. I ate it anyway. It was . . . interesting.
In short, I am not in the least self-sufficient. And yet two books that have always had a strong influence on my imagination are the ‘back-to-the-land’ classics by John Seymour – The Fat of the Land (1961) and Self-Sufficiency (1973). My copies are the original editions, published by Faber, with beautiful woodcut illustrations by the author’s wife, Sally Seymour, depicting their self-sufficient rustic life in Suffolk and Wales, and diagrams of things that I will probably never need to know if I carry on living as I do, such as how to prune a fruit tree, how to dig a drainage trench in a field, the different parts of pig and beef carcasses (incorporating the visceral mysteries of the cod fat, the goose skirt, the kidney knob and the sticking), and ‘the “monk” device for controlling water level in fishponds’. Seymour never explains what this device has to do with monks and admits ‘I have never done fish farming, but simply write so much about it in the possibility that it will arouse interest in someone with more energy than I have.’
However, Seymour did do practically everything else that he wrote about in these two books, and in doing so he
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