Like any self-respecting modern man I buy Ecover instead of Fairy Liquid. I recycle, I worry about my carbon footprint (must cut down on those Ryanair mini-breaks) and I’m about to buy my first hemp T-shirt. Global warming has got scary, industrialised agriculture makes me angry and I’m delighted to be living in a green moment, with Labour and the Tories both desperate to appear the more eco-friendly party. On the other hand, the craze for ethical living relies rather heavily on its own kind of consumerism and being green can seem merely a question of where one shops.
Farmers’ markets, yurts, organic hand cream, woodland burials, wind turbines and newspaper columns reassuring readers that it’s OK to own a washing machine: a certain version of pastoral is more fashionable than ever. ‘In a time of informational overload,’ John Updike wrote in an introduction to Walden, ‘of clamorously inane and ubiquitous electronic entertainment, and of a fraught, globally challenged and ever more demanding workplace, the urge to build a cabin in the woods and thus reform, simplify and cleanse one’s life – “to front”, in Thoreau’s ringing verb, “only the essential facts of life” – remains strong.’ I’m in sympathy, but I don’t want to sit in a hut eating ‘fried rat with a good relish’. I don’t know whether John Updike has ever opted for self-sufficiency, but I don’t think I could.
These thoughts came together in my mind the other day, when I had my hand up a partridge’s arse. It was my first experience of plucking and drawing a game bird, and if I felt close to nature, it was uncomfortably so. Having pulled off the head, and eased the lungs away from the backbone, I span the bird around my finger to free up the entrails and then pulled them out. Foul-smelling intestines spilled on the table. The next stage in the process was to turn away and retch, which I did as inconspicuously as possible. It would not have done to show distress, for I was at the national epicentre of back-to-nature authentic foodery, River Cottage HQ, the Dorset farm hang-out of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Initially notorious for eating roadkill and frying up placenta, F-W has established himself as the shaggy-haired, TV-savvy spokesman for organic, locally sourced produce, and the author of much-praised cookery books, the latest of which is a compilation of writings entitled Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All (Bloomsbury, £15.99). He grows his own vegetables, keeps cows and sheep and – ‘real smallholder’ or not – F-W is as close to Thoreau as the mainstream media are happy with. He makes a winning case that living closer to the land is an enriching, pleasurable thing. No hair shirts required, which is one reason River Cottage is the centre of a multi-million pound business. Local, organic chicken – preferably from your own coop – will not only be better for you than a battery-farmed chicken, it’ll be a whole lot tastier. And the planet will benefit too. How accommodating the world has become.
I made the pilgrimage to River Cottage just as hundreds of simple-lifers at the turn of the last century trekked to Millthorpe to call on Edward Carpenter, whose ‘wholesome’ dinners involved only oatmeal, an egg, some cheese and a little fruit. Carpenter, a romantic socialist and determined breaker of conventions, threw away his dress clothes, wore sandals, lived off his smallholding, sunbathed naked at dawn and was an exponent of alfresco sex: ‘embraces’, he wrote, too seldom ‘receive the benison of Dame Nature’. F-W takes his place in a long tradition. Carpenter himself, like thousands of New Yorkers, journeyed to pay his respects to the back-to-nature writer John Burroughs at Slabsides, his retreat in the Hudson Valley. In the 1960s troupes of hippies visited Scott Nearing, author of Living the Good Life, at Forest Farm in Maine, in search of spiritual enlightenment. (They were gobsmacked by how cleanly he lived and how hard he worked.) F-W’s appeal is less countercultural – barristers and City workers attend his courses to get a hit of rusticity.
‘If a critical mass of people think these things are important, then they can put a government in place that can actually do something about it,’ F-W says. He’s right, I thought at River Cottage HQ, as I tucked into my plump scallops fried in chorizo oil – and how delicious political activism tastes these days! Another simple-living precursor to F-W, John Seymour, wrote his 1970s bestseller, New Complete Self-Sufficiency, during the slump that followed the oil crisis: today’s broader, but shallower movement towards ethical living is underpinned by a strong economy. There are plenty of people who can afford the extra cost of organic food.
In such a climate it’s easy for the political parties to embrace environmentalism. No taxes have been imposed, and the lifestyle choices remain on offer. It still costs £1 to fly from London to Venice. There’s nothing in F-W’s infectious drive towards authenticity – foraging in the hedgerows, ethical food shopping – that would seriously trouble Gordon Brown or David Cameron, both happy to make green gestures but steadfastly wary of state action to enforce restrictions on personal freedom or curb corporate power. ‘We’ve all got our roles to play, in terms of the choices we make as individuals, as businesses, as families,’ Cameron said in the spring, before going on to caution that it was ‘not for the government’ to tell people to behave differently – to take fewer plane trips, for instance. Besides, shoring up local communities and living close to the soil has always had a type of Conservative among its supporters. Cameron chose to announce his party’s renewed eco-friendliness at a meeting of the Soil Association, which has long had links with right-wing (and sometimes far right) politics. He presents himself as a new, organic Tory, and so far it has cost him nothing.
So it’s a very fine thing for people like me who can avoid shopping at supermarkets to do so, but buying the right kind of light bulb will never ensure radical change. Earlier this year, Cameron was the guest on Desert Island Discs. Something about his selection of Radiohead and the Killers sounded fake (did he pick them out himself?), as if he were determined to prove he represented the times. His chosen reading matter was The River Cottage Cookbook.