Recently while flicking through the TV channels I happened upon an old episode of The Good Life. It turns out they are re running the series in its entirety. I remember it from its first time around in the 70s as my mother was a fan but I had largely forgotten its charm and humour. The Good Life came out at a time when the idea of self sufficiency and sustainable living was in its infancy. The story revolved around Tom Good, played brilliantly by Richard Briers, who decided that he had had enough of the rat race and that he and his wife Barbara (Felicity Kendall) would become self sufficient while still living in the heart of suburbia.
Tom gives up his executive job and the pair convert their back garden into a farm with pigs, chickens and goats. They grow their own fruit and vegetables and even in one hilarious episode try to make their own clothes from scratch; hand weaving wool and attempting to dye it with nettles. Needless to remark this particular venture wasn’t that successful. In the sit com Tom and Barbara are great friends with their neighbours, Margot and Gerry Ledbetter, who couldn’t be more different.
Margot and Gerry live a middle class lifestyle complete with social climbing and snobbery. The magic of The Good Life was that it attacked middle class snobbery and the ‘alternative’ lifestyle at the same time. Neither one really comes out on top and while Barbara’s social climbing is not a lifestyle you’d want, Tom’s fanatical self sufficiency is shown as just a step too far.
While society in general mocked self sufficiency and the alternative lifestyle to a large degree and labelled the brown rice and sandal brigade as loons, over 30 years on, some of Tom Good’s philosophies don’t seem so daft after all. Brought back into balance there is something very appealing about popping out to the garden plucking a little of this and that and returning to the kitchen to whip up something delicious.
Reality kicks in!
Of course it is an ideal and often while fantasising about this idyll reality kicks in and I think of the messier side of it such as the days spent in the mud planting the stuff in the first place, tending to it and then dealing with all the other hazards of ‘growing your own’; birds plundering the crops, what to do with too much of it once harvested, back breaking work and dirty fingernails. Isn’t it so much easier to pop to the supermarket and buy a bag of rocket?
It’s often strange how when you start immersing yourself in something you see it more and more in your everyday life. We have all had times when we think about someone and then they telephone or you bump into them on the street. Since I have been watching The Good Life it’s amazing the amount of times in the past few weeks that I have come across the new ‘Grow Your Own’ phenomenon. I’ve read numerous newspaper articles about it, I’m suddenly aware of TV programmes about it and I’ve also started meeting people who are doing it quite successfully and not in a Good Life, mad way.
Of course there are several reasons for the re-emergence. The soaring costs of food, our attention to diet and what we are eating, the environmental impact and then there is just the plain old joy of sowing and reaping. Growing your own has also become quite sexy. One of its more attractive promoters happens to be the British chef, James Martin. He has been teasing me recently with his immaculate vegetable patch which is often shown on one of his TV programmes. He does that thing of whipping outside with a garden trug, pulling a beetroot here and a radish there and returning to his kitchen to prepare a feast. One might think that a basket would compromise his masculinity, but quite the contrary.
Little food factory
Then last weekend I was invited to a barbeque at a friend’s house. I always knew the man of the house was a keen gardener but always thought it was confined to herbaceous borders and plants to beautify. Taking us on a spontaneous tour of the garden before we ate I was bowled over by the little food factory this guy had going on. As we strolled amongst the beds of berries and vegetables we got to sample some. The wild rocket was a taste revelation while the strawberries, loganberries, gooseberries, raspberries and blueberries, plucked straight from the bush, were so much better than any I have recently had from a shop. At lunch we also got to try some other of the produce and it was really, really great.
The really interesting thing is that this family has a beautiful home, they live a relatively modern lifestyle, they don’t preach a sustainable living mantra and yet here they are just doing it and obviously reaping the benefits. I suddenly realised why there is this growing problem that many children and adults aren’t eating as much fresh fruit and veg as they should, it’s because it doesn’t taste of anything. As an aside, I read earlier this week that the UK clothing store, BHS, has extended its generous-fit school uniform range to include size 18! That’s a 42 inch bust, 34 inch waist and 44 inch hip. These are clothes for school children.
In The Good Life, Tom Good embraced the whole idea because of cost. He had opted out of the rat race and the only way to live without spending too much was to rear and grow your own food. The difference today is really about quality and taste as much as it is financial. Tom Good also turned over his entire back garden to the project which was excessive but he was also living solely this way. For many of us it is just about augmenting our current food supply. You can also start really simply with just a grow bag or a pot. There is plenty of information available on the web, in books or on TV to get you started.
I have had lots of experience of growing green stuff but unfortunately it has been in the fridge rather than the green house. I also have to get over my fantasy gardening idea of pretty baskets, matching trowels and spades, lolloping around in large floppy straw hats on sunny days with a glass of homemade lemonade in one hand; that lovely country idyll sold to me in novels and episodes of Midsommer Murder. Instead it is initially about getting down and dirty. There is also the small issue of the fact that I don’t actually have a garden! That is a problem that I’m working on, but in the meantime some pots on the terrace should get me started. I’ll let you know how I get on.