Thursday, 8 October 2009

NOT PJ: Ploughing your own Rut

This week Bernard Darnton wonders what could be worse than working class alienation and discovers the answer.

good-life-felicity-kendalFelicity Kendal has a lot to answer for. Her starring thinking-man’s-crumpet role in The Good Life is probably responsible for the perennial popularity of self-sufficiency.

The latest incarnation of this fad (that I’ve noticed) has been a thing called Beachcomber Cottage, in which our subject, Monty Halls, decides to live in a crofter’s cottage on the Isle of Skye, off the West Coast of Scotland. Self-sufficiency was hard enough in Surbiton; it must be horrific with a howling gale, uninterrupted for three thousand miles, slamming the Atlantic Ocean through the holes in your walls. Imagine Wellington, except cold, wet, and windy.

_BernardDarntonThe plan was to only eat things that he had grown or caught himself. In the episode I saw he was attempting to catch mackerel. Mrs Darnton’s enjoyment of the programme was completely ruined by me exclaiming every few moments, “how can he call himself self-sufficient when he didn’t make his own fishing rod.” All she said was, “Shush,” which I always take to mean that I’m completely, 100-percent, incontrovertibly right.

And I bloody was. There was no evidence whatsoever that his tumbledown crofter’s cottage contained the pyrolising furnaces, autoclaves, and various high-tech machine tools necessary to make a carbon fibre fishing rod. In fact, the whole area was barren and tree-forsaken. He’d have struggled to find a stick to make one of those Winnie-the-Pooh fishing rods.

For the sake of not being an irritating pedant, let’s assume that Monty got the fishing rod for Christmas and its use is not excluded by the “only eat what I catch or grow” rule. When he finally hauled in a handful of mackerel he marinated them in brown sugar. Bollocks to self-sufficiency again. Monty’s inventory of machinery was non-existent so a sugar plantation, even by itself, would have been hard work. He couldn’t have harvested the cane the old-fashioned way because the boatload of Africans would never have survived the Western Isles’ sub-sub-tropical climate.

Likewise the salt that the rest of the mackerel were preserved in. Now, to make salt you only need seawater and sunshine. The seawater’s delivered to your door at a hundred miles an hour. The sunshine’s harder to come by.

When he pulled out a bottle of wine to celebrate his catch I lost the plot.

The fact is that, despite the turnip growing and the obligatory pig slaughtering, to support one lonely fantasist requires all the machinery of modern civilisation. Just the knife to kill the pig with requires a steel mill, a smelter, a coking plant, container ships, a railway, a coal mine, an iron ore mine, and pubs and brothels strewn across the boondocks of Western Australia.

So trying to do everything yourself is just bloody silly. Harvesting scallops from just off your back doorstep has a certain appeal but who’s going to run the atmospheric liquefaction plant that supplies the oxygen for your scuba gear?

Off camera, self-sufficiency would mean no scuba gear to get the scallops, no fishing rod for the mackerel, no sugar, no salt, no knife to kill the pig, and that leaves just the turnips. There’s a reason we invented division of labour – because without it, even if you weren’t dead by thirty, you’d want to be.

* * Read Bernard Darnton’s NOT PJ column every Thursday here at NOT PC * *


  1. Must admit, Bernard, I watched the first episode of that television programme and thought the scenery looked just splendid; felt a bit envious towards that chappie as I have always wanted to visit the Scottish highlands.

  2. Scotland's a magnificent place and you should visit. I just wouldn't want to be trapped there over winter dependent solely on my gardening skills.

    That's why Scotland invented Adam Smith.

  3. Great post Bernie... There was a show on NZ TV a while ago with pretty much the exact same idea. The NZ comedian "Radar" tried the elusive "self-sustainability". At least he had the decency to identify that the tea he drank, the cotton sheets he slept on and the tent he lived in were actually made by someone else... Still, it is nice to pop out to the garden and pull some carrots for dinner!

  4. this should remind everyone to read once again Professor Read's "The Autobiography of a Pencil" in which he demonstrates that no one person (or committee) knows how to make a pencil.Go to

    And, consequently, as I have now argued before two select Committees, no one knows how to calculate the carbon footprint of anything. Let alone a whole building.
    Mind you Mark Twain made the same point in a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

  5. Love it, another great post.
    Just the knife to........Western Australia.

    So true, made even better with the usual amt of humour.

    Off topic, I hope to visit Scotland myself one day.


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