23 weeks to go…

by Max Akroyd

Like a lot of Seventies families, we used to flee the suburbs and go on a holiday abroad once a year. For a fortnight, under the influence of French sun or Greek hospitality (and plenty of the local grog) the grown-ups suddenly seemed a lot less tense. I remember, even then, wondering why the ratio of happiness to ugly work was so unfavourable. From my naive perspective, it seemed very puzzling to slave for those other fifty weeks, to be indifferent to that flowing out of time. Especially since the best bits about the holiday – rock pools, the smell of wild herbs, the curve of the world visible on the long horizon – seemed to be freely available to local people who didn’t have the big house or the big car.

Thirty odd years later, and despite a lucky life free of that toad of a job, the duality persists. At any time, appointments, shopping, tax returns and other paraphernalia of modern life can conspire to deflect and distract. Opportunities to work outside, just trying to subsist you know, can feel like mere stepping stones in a big, swirling river of … stuff. This polarisation feels particularly intense at Christmas when the complex currents of rampant commercialism run strong and deep. Depletion is dressed up as abundance and made to dance to a soundtrack of cacky muzak. Families required to work apart for the rest of the year are suddenly forced to simulate a togetherness which should never have been subjugated in the first place. Fortunately there’s always a challenge: a reminder offered by snow or some other primal, natural force which can soon mangle the fragile machinery of modern life.

Just in time, here’s my virtual present to you.

Yes, lots of mucky Jerusalem Artichokes. Don’t worry, I’ve got loads more in sacks too. And anyway, it’s just the clumsy notion I’m giving away: that I planted maybe 4 kg of tubers and got at least 40 kg back. Plain, simple and abundant. I did nothing much to earn that abundance, I just planted the things and then dug more things up later. Under the auspices of February or December sun, both activities were a pleasure, unfettered by a commute or a boss. I’ll replant them all in spring and next winter’s animal food bill – if not the farm’s methane emissions – will be drastically reduced.

I’ve recently been handed a copy of Cobbett’s smallholding bible. His affirmation of the happy wealth available to a large family from a small patch of land is undiminished by time. Contrast this with the complex dependencies enshrined in the way of doing things two hundred year later. His assertions of independence and self-reliance blaspheme in the church of consumerism. Mind you, along with potatoes and tea, Cobbett hated Jerusalem Artichokes: “a very poor, insipid vegetable”. But I hope their use as an abundant animal food will contribute significantly to my humble take on a cottage economy.

In fact, if I could offer something tangible and worth having this Christmas and into the New Year, it would be a piece of Cobbett’s “smiling land” to everyone here. See you there in 2011!