Brave Old World: a Month-by-Month Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking After Yourself
Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £16.99
The sense that technical innovations impoverish us by rendering obsolete an older, more authentic way of being probably goes back to the first spearhead. The poet Hesiod, writing around 700BC, was already lamenting a lost golden age. Seneca thought the comforts of Roman civilisation made life harder rather than easier. Before sewage pipes, he wrote, no one worried about polluting streams. When people slept in the open, or in rudimentary shelters, they did not wake up at night sweating in fear because they had heard a house-timber creak. As is often the case with Seneca, it is hard to decide whether this is immensely wise or immensely silly.
I have much the same response to the amiable but increasingly extremist writings of Tom Hodgkinson. As editor of the Idler magazine and founder of the Idler Academy in west London, he has produced a series of books in which he argues that labour-saving devices and easy entertainments alienate us from the joy and freedom that are our birthright. We work long hours to pay for it all; our time trickles away in wage-slavery and self-indulgence, and we forget how to live well. In particular, we forget how to be truly idle, an almost mystical notion for Hodgkinson, and one that he defines mainly in terms of gruelling drudgery. "The simple life is extremely complicated and very hard," he writes. "Toil, endless toil - that is the only way, my idle friends!"
To put this idea to the test, he and his family have moved to a farmhouse in North Devon, where they bake bread, plant vegetables, chop wood, keep bees, make jam and brew what Hodgkinson happily describes as "foul beer". Brave Old World is a primer in these arts, and a meditation on why life has been a dreadful mistake ever since the Reformation brought us paid jobs and the work ethic.
Brave New World is modelled on the householder's calendar, a guide telling people what to plant, reap or preserve at various times of the year, and when to down tools and have a rumpus. It has 12 monthly chapters, headed "Dig Earth", "Sow Seeds", "Tend Fowl" and so on, through to "Kill Pig" in November and "Feast" in December. Each ends with a list of festive days and suggests seasonal amusements, such as singing "Summer is a-coming in" or playing a medieval Mr and Mrs game.
Practical tips abound: lay in wood more than a year in advance so that it dries; build walls of eggshells to keep the slugs off your lettuces. There are quotations from classical literature, anecdotes from Hodgkinson's experiences, and cheerful rants against such things as strimmers, firelighters, shop-bought bread and television, which he abhors. He prefers to spend his evenings grinding corn.
The appeal of all this is great; it taps in to our sense that we must have left a simpler and happier life behind us. Never mind that, for most people in the Middle Ages, simplicity meant struggling against crop failure, disease and starvation. Hodgkinson denies being sentimental, yet he asserts that "life was lived passionately" and was "more sensual", and "bitter tears would be followed by merry jests" (isn't this the case today?). Well, that's one way of describing a winter spent huddling up to one's goats on a bed of straw.
Nonetheless, to scoff at Brave Old World's naive moments is to misconstrue its author's spirit of mischief. Besides, his sheer charm makes it impossible to take against him. "It must be admitted," he says, "that I am not very good at the practice of husbandry." The bees don't flourish; the beer tastes ghastly; the "evil slug" steals everything it can get its gums into; and the Hodgkinsons' greatest triumph - delicious pork from their lovingly reared pig - is treated as a health hazard by public health inspectors. Yet none of this slows the author down, and none of it robs him of his sense of humour.
Moreover, Brave Old World is hugely inspiring even when it is most bonkers. Hodgkinson's love of the past is not conservative; rather, he is heir to the agrarian radicalism of Gerrard Winstanley's 17th-century Diggers, who seized public lands, planted crops and distributed food for free. It ended badly for them: beaten and intimidated by landowners, they scattered and vanished. If things are going better for Hodgkinson, it is partly because he writes so entertainingly and passionately about what he does. Only the meanest naysayer would not wish to cheer him on. l
Sarah Bakewell is the author of "How to Live: a Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer" (Vintage, £8.99)