One of the first things that may strike you about The Fat of the Land, is that it’s a joy to read. John Seymour was a dab hand with a mattock and a stack-knife, but he certainly knew how to wield a pen too. In fact, this is one of the most devour-able works of non-fiction I’ve come across, rattling along, full of wit and strident opinion, as it describes the extremely steep learning curve of a small family attempting self-sufficiency in a remote cottage on a ragged patch of land, devoid of all mod cons.
The detail of life at the Broom, where Seymour and his wife Sally begin their self-supporting adventures, is a huge part of the book’s appeal. The cost of a pig, how to salt runner beans, Seymour’s methods for planting potatoes – all are curiously fascinating if you’ve any interest at all in food or gardening. Seymour’s words are simple but well-chosen, the prose uncomplicated, unpretentious – as enticing as a slab of fresh-baked bread, as clear as a new-sown line of seeds. One can vicariously live the Seymours’ hard-working, productive days through these pages – that is part of the pleasure of the book. But it is not an instruction manual, like the exhaustive and successful Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency Seymour published a few years later. Rather it is a wonderful chronicle of a family ploughing their own furrow, literally, in a world where the giant engines of mechanisation and industrialisation were rolling out inexorably across the land.
Anyone uneasy with today’s factory foods and automated agriculture (who isn’t?) will find the life described in The Fat of the Land both intriguing and inspiring. Seymour’s disdain for consumerism rings loud in the ears. His vision of what a ‘good life’ might be makes a great deal of sense to me and his humour, energy, insight and sheer vigour remain infectious to this day.
This is a still-relevant protest against an encroaching norm that many of us feel at odds with, and yet somehow struggle to resist. Seymour’s resistance – which was vigorous and also successful – is a model for anyone who feels powerless against the strong tides of modern, ‘developed’ life.
There is no romanticism in this book – none at all. Seymour makes no bones about the fact that he and Sally came to their life of self-sufficiency almost by accident: ‘We never meant to go like this . . . we were a fairly ordinary couple when we married’. The slog and hard graft of smallholding are laid bare in these pages: the bitterness of working outdoors, wet and frozen, in the winter; the toughness of jobs such as scything and fence-building. The ongoing imperfection of such a life is drawn in bold strokes – the constant striving to learn from one’s mistakes, to balance one thing against another.
Neither is the book polemical. But the political themes that Seymour went on to voice more vehemently in later work are to be found here, woven in among the portrayals of the life he and Sally carved out for themselves. He succinctly skewers the industrial culture of modern farming and its drive towards monoculture and specialisation. He lampoons the fads and squeamishness that cause us to reject the good food, like wild mushrooms and freshwater fish, to be found ‘under our noses’ (‘what has changed – the pike or the palates? Simply fashion – that is all’). And he questions the ‘progress’ and frenetic activity of the modern world, wondering: ‘is it really leading to a better or simpler or richer life for people?’. It’s a question that might sound glib coming from another writer but Seymour, having worked so hard to live and breathe an alternative, certainly seems entitled to ask. As he goes on to say ‘I don’t wonder very long. I have pretty well made my own mind up about it.’
I am always very much taken, unsurprisingly, with the way Seymour writes about food – which, after all, must necessarily become something of an obsession with anyone attempting self-sufficiency. Celebrated by those who knew him as a man of generosity and hospitality who loved sharing good food, drink and company, Seymour’s descriptions of Sally’s delicious home-made bread, or of their home-salted pork belly boiled up with haricot beans to make a dish ‘beyond belief’ are literally mouth-watering. They are a reminder, if you ever need it, that the simplest food, if it is based on good ingredients, is always the best. And Seymour is clear that one of the things that makes an ingredient ‘good’ is it having been as little processed, packaged and transported about as possible – ideally home-grown. He conveys something I have learned for myself: that growing even some of your own food teaches you truly to value it, not just for the passing moment in which you consume it, but for all the work and energy that has gone into producing it.
Seymour is never po-faced or preachy – the book is full of humour and joie de vivre and he conveys a desire not just to live but to live well. The Seymours always aim above mere subsistence – they want things that are pleasing to the eye and food that is pleasing to the palate. Life at the Broom is to be enjoyed, not endured – and always at the heart of what makes life enjoyable for them is the pleasure and reward of making things themselves and of doing it well. As much as John’s descriptions of their daily toil, Sally’s beautiful illustrations that adorn the book speak of work done with the hands, and from the heart.
Many who have read this book will have admired the lifestyle it describes but never believed for a moment it was one they would be capable or desirous of adopting themselves. To some extent, I am among them – complete self-sufficiency has never truly been my aim. But that is not the point. Seymour’s unblinkered view of what was going amiss with systems of modern food production, his matter-of-fact decision to swim completely against that tide, and his celebration of a life of honourable simplicity (which is very much not a life of ease) offer a beacon, a radical alternative that all of us can turn towards. There is something here for anyone with even the slightest interest in bucking the modern trend. The principles of crop rotation and mixed farming, for instance, of nurturing and feeding rather than depleting the land, are relevant to the smallest veg patch gardener. They also apply to the organic alternative to mainstream agriculture that many of us have turned to for our daily produce. The idea that we all need enough food – and good food – but not more, can apply to all of us who choose to uphold it.
The thought that we all retain power and therefore responsibility in our own small kingdoms is so very important. If you plant up a window box of herbs, you are taking a step towards greater control of your own food, your own environment, your own wellbeing. If you plant a veg patch, keep a few hens, or even a pair of pigs, you are taking several steps more. Any such movement is a positive thing in this age when we are increasingly ready to let anonymous ‘others’ produce our food for us – often with dire consequences for the land, for the animals on which we rely for so much of our nourishment, and, increasingly, for our health.
Seymour was clearly something of an eccentric – he happily refers to himself as a ‘crank’. But it is often eccentrics and cranks who make change in the world. It would be a great mistake to pigeonhole this book as a bit of charming 1950s whimsy. It’s no accident that it has not been out of print for the 56 years since it was first published. The ideas John Seymour espoused are timeless: self-reliance, resourcefulness, connection to the land, the rejection of greed. The seeds he planted in this book flourished to become part of the organic and environmental movements that are so important today on a planet groaning beneath the strain we have put upon it.
Whether or not you agree with all that Seymour has to say, it is impossible not to be in awe of the sheer energy of the man, who wrote more than 40 books, not to mention broadcasting, travelling and filming, in addition to the year-round hard graft required for smallholding. Throughout his work, he conveys the sense that anything is possible with commitment and a little bit of vision. His writing is incredibly empowering – it has certainly empowered me – in part because he talks about his mistakes as much as his successes but also because of the wonderful confidence he always seemed to possess, the confidence to find a particular way of doing things that suited his conscience, his land and his family, whether or not that was the generally accepted way.
For all these reasons, John Seymour’s is a voice that still needs to be heard, and a voice that can change lives, including perhaps yours. Though few will wish to emulate the downsizing experiment of The Fat of the Land to the letter – as I’ve said, it’s exceptionally hard graft – there is so much here to pick, and choose, and ponder on.
At the very least, you will surely be led, as I have been, to question and re-assess the way you shop, cook, eat and live. And I would bet my last home-grown spud or flitch of home-cured bacon that any changes you embrace as a result of this book will be, like the book itself, life-enhancing, long-lasting and full of joy.
This is the introduction to The Fat of the Land, published by Little Toller in our Nature Classics series. In the 1950s, John and Sally Seymour settled on a five-acre smallholding in Suffolk with the aim of living off the land. This is the story of their journey towards self-sufficiency, the seminal account of the struggles and triumphs of living apart from the modern world, a practical and optimistic vision of a less-mechanised and less-polluting life. You can order the book here, or buy it from bookshops.
HUGH FEARNLEY-WHITTINGSTALL is a chef, food writer and campaigner, whose River Cottage books and television shows have made him a household name. He campaigns for animal welfare, sustainable food production and the environment.
The cover of the book shows a detail from The Gardener by SALLY SEYMOUR, coloured by ALICE PATTULLO. Copyright Anne Sears.