As we hanker for a taste of the ‘good life’, we need to realise that more satisfying, enjoyable and sustainable lives don’t arrive in the post.
By John Walker. Published in Kitchen Garden, May 2010.
I don’t know about you, but I’m wholeheartedly sick of hearing about ‘the good life’. Ping goes yet another email newsletter: our motto is ‘Making the good life easy!’. In drops another catalogue with its wince-inducing cover: ‘The good life, made easy!’. Yet another emailed advert from a company called Live The Good Life Ltd (proof positive that ‘living a good life’ is now well and truly commodified; like so much of gardening, it’s now something you purchase, rather than something you do). Even the government exhort us to ‘get a slice of the good life’. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a telephone natter deals me the final blow: “Are you living the good life, then?”
Slumped in utter defeat, the best answer I could begrudgingly muster was, “Well, something like that.” I quickly steered the conversation on to less frustrating ground, determined not to be characterized as some 21st-century version of the ’70s BBC TV sitcom The Good Life. Ingrained as it is in our collective psyche, this programme has an awful lot to answer for. And yet, in a twist of pure irony, deep down it actually has remarkably little in common with the modern blizzard of adverts, messages and ill-conceived articles urging us to ‘live the good life – it’s easy!’.
For those tender enough in age not to have seen it, The Good Life is about how a couple in their early forties – Tom and Barbara Good – become ‘self-sufficient’ in suburbia, by growing their own fruit and vegetables, keeping a goat, pigs and chickens, making their own clothes, and running their car on methane. Their conventional middle-class neighbours, Jerry and Margot, look on in horror at the Goods’ many antics as they try to live a more self-reliant and, by definition, ‘good’ life.
But there are two key aspects of Tom and Barbara’s on-screen attempt to live a better life that grate with present-day illusions about what a good life is and how you get one. Firstly, 20 minutes into the first episode, Tom gives up his full-time employment. Barbara doesn’t work, so they face a future with no regular income, although their house is paid for, and they do have savings. Secondly, now they’ve broken free of the ‘rat race’, they can do all the things they want to do with total commitment; they have all the time in the world to live a good life.
“There’s no doubt that many yearn for something better than the overworking, over-earning and over-consuming lives that are the 21st-century norm”
Despite it being make-believe, at least the Goods understood that the key to living a good life is essentially a combination of much more ‘free’ time and a healthy acceptance of a depleted income. The two generally go together: if you want to live a better and more creative life, if you want to do more than hock your soul to a five-day working week, if you want to spend more time with family and friends and if – crucially for us, dear reader – you want to become more sufficient in home-grown vegetables and fruits, you need to become time-rich, while still earning enough to meet basic needs. Being cash-rich and time-poor is no recipe for growing great veggies.
The sad truth is that the message behind all the current newsletters, adverts and emails that shout to us about how ‘easy’ the good life is going to be, is that in order to have it, we must spend money – and not just a few quid. One mail-order catalogue has everything we need, apparently, to make our good lives easier, from a wormery for £100 to a wooden compost bin for £145 – and it’s much the same in one catalogue after another.
Now I’m not saying that we should never spend money on our kitchen gardens, but if we want the kind of better life that goes with a growing sense of self-reliance, it follows that we won’t actually be able to afford the kind of good lives that today’s muddled marketeers are relentlessly trying to flog us. Anyone spinning a ‘good life is easy’ mantra actually needs to wake up and get a life (good or otherwise). To aspire to a 21st-century-style good life, I’d need to keep working long hours to buy all the stuff that would supposedly make it ‘easy’ in the free time that, because I’m working so much, I won’t actually have. I imagine Tom and Barbara chuckling at the £195 price tag on a 1.4m2 timber raised bed, before heading home to make their own for next to nowt. They had oodles of time to devote to their suburban smallholding, and it was damn hard work. It still is, as anyone who’s started a kitchen garden from scratch will tell you.
Despite my own efforts at trying to reshape my life (by reducing large debts and the overall cost of day-to-day living, among other things), at times I’m still frustrated by how little time I have to do my own earth-friendly food gardening. I’m self-employed, and enjoy a certain freedom that many crave, so if I feel frustrated, it must be soul-destroying for those who hold no sway over their working lives, who are trying to juggle long, stressful days with family life, but who are constantly being informed that it’s easy to have your own slice of the good life. That kind of bunk makes a good soundbite, but it just ain’t true. At least not yet.
But there are hopeful signs that the grip work has on our lives might be loosening, and there’s no doubt that many yearn for something better than the overworking, over-earning and over-consuming lives that are the 21st-century norm. To spur us into contemplating what more satisfying, sustainable lives might actually be like, the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a think-and-do-tank that aims to ‘improve quality of life by challenging mainstream thinking on economic, environmental and social issues’, recently floated the idea that a ‘normal’ working week would come, over time, to consist of just 21 hours (or 4.2 hours a day), rather than our deeply ingrained 35 to 40 (or more). The NEF argue that sharing out paid and unpaid time more evenly will help us all to achieve better, richer lives, as the disparity between the overworked and the underemployed becomes evened out.
The NEF’s 21-hour week would also help to tackle ‘the interlinked problems of over-consumption, high carbon emissions [we’ll earn less, so buy less, so reduce our demands on natural resources], low well-being, entrenched inequality, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.’ And it would, of course, give us more time to grow our own fresh, healthy food.
Just imagine finishing (or beginning) work at lunchtime every day, and having the rest of the time on your cherished plot. We would have more time to prepare and cook what we’d grown, we’d be much healthier, and we’d be more connected to the world around us. We’d become more practical and able to make more things ourselves. Just like Tom and Barbara, we’d chuckle at the price tags of gardening stuff sold on the false promise that it will miraculously make life ‘easy’.
To live ‘the good life’, we need to fundamentally rebalance our lives in profound, enriching ways that give us much more of that magical yet elusive ingredient, time. And no catalogue lists that.