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John Seymour

12 June 1914 - 14 September 2004

Writer, broadcaster, 

environmentalist, farmer and activist - the 'Father of Self Sufficiency'

Biography

 

John Seymour roared through life. He had enough adventures for a dozen people and wrote more than 40 books describing and elaborating on his experiences and ideas.

 

John had, some might say, a privileged upbringing. Born into a wealthy family he was sent to various private schools where he failed to be educated for a 'proper' job. From an early age he was more interested in the people and animals toiling in the fields and the fishing boats plying their trade on the sea than any conventional schooling. John renamed 'The Roaring 20's', 'The Boring 20's'. He left school and went to agricultural college at Wye in Kent and failed again, and then, at the age of 20, he left Britain for Africa and did not return until after the war. 

 

He spent five years working and travelling in Southern Africa, farming, fishing, mining and meeting local people, his love throughout his life. He spent time in the company of the indigenous Bushmen which affected him greatly.

 

At the outbreak of war John joined the King's African Rifles and trained in Kenya, fought in Abyssinia, then, after jungle training in Ceylon, he fought a long bloody campaign in Burma. He was appalled at the way the Allies finished the war with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and never forgave their cowardly inhumanity; after all, the war was being won.

 

On his return to England John worked for the WarAg in Suffolk, his old stomping ground. He became unhappy with the way farming had changed in England. It was now a big exploitative business venture. John gave in his notice and decided to enter the world of journalism. He started writing and giving talks on the BBC about his travels and his ideas for a better way of life. His early books concentrated on his adventures. These included his pre-war travels in Africa, his overland journey to India, a further year travelling in India and Ceylon, his voyages around the waterways of Britain in an assortment of craft and then his sailing trip to the Baltic in 'Willynilly', a Northumberland coble. He even managed to fit in an autobiography 'On My Own Terms', which chronicled his life before he had a family. 

 

In 1954 John married Sally and then, with a young daughter, they decided to adopt a more self-reliant lifestyle and rented 'The Broom', a remote house near Orford in Suffolk. The story told in 'The Fat of  the Land' is a fascinating insight into the life of a young family working towards living a sustainable, self-supporting, enjoyable life in times when most people were succumbing to the consumerist society we were all being encouraged to join. As John wrote, they wanted to "contract out of an economic system motivated by greed". Their experiences in Suffolk led to a move to 'Fachongle Isaf' in West Wales in 1964 with their three daughters collectively known by John as 'Janeannekate'. Here they continued to farm. John kept writing and in 1976 he wrote his most popular manual 'The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency'. This brought him fame and a certain amount of riches, neither of which interested him. As long as he had a 'sun downer' in his hand at the end of the day and the company of good people he didn't give a thought to it. 

In 1981 John left Wales and moved to another smallholding in Ireland. There, at the age of 84, he was charged with damaging a genetically modified crop of sugar beet along with six others known as the 'Arthurstown Seven'. John was prone to using Monsanto's own herbicides administered in a 'supersoaker' to kill their 'Genetically Mutilated' crops, as he preferred to call them, on more than one occasion. When confronted John would always claim that the faeries had done it.

John was not put on this earth to be a success in conventional terms. His business acumen was lousy, there is no other word for it. The more money he had the less able he was to manage it. When his marriage to Sally failed, he embarked on some disastrous liaisons in his business and personal life that haunted him to the end. However, he was blessed with two more children, Helen and Kett. Of course this did not stop his rebellion or his enthusiasm for living life to the full, he worked hard and played hard throughout his 90 years and produced some great work, written and broadcast on radio and television. But, it was during his time with Sally and the period just after that his most enduring and personal books were written. Sally was to remain a constant friend for the rest of his life. 

 

John spent his whole life rebelling against the juggernaut of big business and greed that was to consume the 20th century and ultimately bring us to the untenable position we find ourselves in today. As Herbie Girardet put it "He was a one man rebellion against modernism…".

He was opposed to things that matter; economic globalisation, multinationals, GM crops, intensive farming practices, the exploitation of the land and sea and non local government. Greed in all its forms.

He supported local activity, small scale economics, organic principles and common sense. 

He knew that to save our damaged planet personal responsibility was key, to quote a paragraph from John's 'The Age of Healing',

"The tiny amount you and I can do is hardly likely to bring the huge worldwide moloch of plundering industry down? Well, if you and I don't do it, it will not be done, and the Age of Plunder will terminate in the Age of Chaos. We have to do it - just the two of us - just you and me. There is no "them" - there is nobody else. Just you and me. On our infirm shoulders we must take up this heavy burden now - the task of restoring the health, the wholeness, the beauty and the integrity of our planet. We must start the Age of Healing now! Tomorrow will be too late."

In his last months, after his 90th birthday party, John announced "I've done enough in my life, I want to die now". From his bed one morning he opened one eye and asked enquiringly "How long does it take to die?". By the end of the week John, widely regarded as the 'Father of Self-Sufficiency', had gone, leaving a literary and philosophical legacy anyone would be proud of and he had 'a bloody good time' doing it.

John was inspired by and influenced a raft of freethinkers including his friends Fritz Schumacher, Leopold Kohr, John Papworth and Satish Kumar.

 

I encourage you to explore their works along with some of John's lesser known titles.

 

David Sears 2018 

 

Bibliography


The Lore Of The Land (1982) - practical advice on land husbandry, beautifully illustrated by Sally 

The Smallholder (1983) - the story of four smallholdings with Sally's illustrations (series of 3) 

 

The Shepherd (1983) - shepherding tales with Sally's illustrations (series of 3) 
 

The Woodlander (1983) - the stories of five woodlanders with Sally's illustrations (series of 3) 

The Forgotten Arts (1984) - a practical guide to traditional skills 

Far From Paradise: The Story Of Human Impact On The Environment (with Herbert Girardet) (1986) - from the TV series of the same name, a look at human impact on the environment 

Blueprint For A Green Planet (with Herbert Girardet) (1987) - a practical guide to restoring the world's environment 

The National Trust Book Of Forgotten Household Crafts (1987) 

England Revisited: A Countryman's Nostalgic Journey (1988) - John rediscovers parts of England 

The Ultimate Heresy (1989) - a discussion on man's effects on nature through the ages 

Changing Lifestyles: Living As Though The World Mattered (1991) - examples of the way we can all make a difference 

Rural Life (Pictures From The Past - Series) (1991) - photo book, text by John 

Blessed Isle: One Man's Ireland (1992) - John's move to Ireland with personal and historical detail 

Seamarks (with Connie Lindqvist) (1995) - a small collection of John's poetry 

Retrieved From The Future (1996) - a novel. 'Every city-based civilisation before our own has collapsed. This is the story of what happens to one little corner of England when the inevitable crash occurs...' 

Rye From The Water's Edge (with Connie Lindqvist) (1997) - more of John's poetry 

Playing It For Laughs: A Book Of Doggerel (1999) - a collection of poems, illustrated by Kate Seymour 

The Forgotten Arts and Crafts (2001) - an amalgamation of two previously released titles 

The New Complete Book Of Self-Sufficiency (2002) - a slightly updated version of the original with different artwork 

The Hard Way To India (1951) - the story of John's overland trip after the war (with photos) 

Round About India - (1955) - his account of his year long travel around India and Ceylon (with photos) 

Boys In The Bundu (1955) - a great children's adventure story set in Africa, illustrated by Sally 

One Man's Africa (1956) - John's pre-war African experiences, with new insight after a return visit in 1954 (with photos) 

Sailing Through England (1956) - in a Dutch barge 'Jenny the Third', illustrated by Sally 

The Fat of the Land (1961) - the Seymour's first forays into self-sufficiency in Suffolk, illustrated by Sally 

On My Own Terms (1963) - a fascinating autobiography up to his move to Suffolk 

Willynilly To The Baltic (1965) - John's trip in 'Willynilly', an open 18ft Yorkshire coble, across the North Sea to Belgium, around the waterways of Holland and Germany and into the Baltic to explore the islands of Sweden and Denmark with Sally and daughter Jane (with photos) 

Voyage Into England (1966) - a four month trip around the canal systems of England and Wales with the family, with illustrations by Sally 

The Companion Guide To East Anglia (1970) - still in print to this day! 

The Book Of Boswell: Autobiography Of A Gypsy (1970) - edited by John, this is the story of Sylvester Gordon Boswell 

About Pembrokeshire: The Land Of Enchantment (1971) - a brief guide to the county including work by local artists 

Self-Sufficiency (1973) - the forerunner to 'The Complete Book', beautifully illustrated by Sally 

The Companion Guide To The Coast Of South West England (1974) 

The Companion Guide To The Coast Of North East England (1974) 

The Companion Guide To The Coast Of South East England (1975) 

The Complete Book Of Self-Sufficiency (1976) - the best-selling manual 

Bring Me My Bow (1977) - essays on the absurdities of modern life 

The Countryside Explained (1977) - a view of the countryside, illustrated by Sally 

Keep It Simple (1977) - a collection of John's articles for Resurgence magazine 

I'm A Stranger Here Myself: The Story Of A Welsh Farm (1978) - the sequel to The Fat of the Land as the Seymours cross Britain to continue farming in Wales. Cover illustration by Sally 

The Self-Sufficient Gardener (1978) - a very clear and concise gardening book 

John Seymour's Gardening Book (1978) - a children's gardening book 

Gardener's Delight (1978) - a compendium of gardener's lore 

On My Own Terms (1980) (revised edition) - reworking of his autobiography with his early years removed 

 

Getting It Together: A Guide For New Settlers (1980) - practical advice for downshifters 

 

There have been various editions of 'The New Complete Book Of Self-Sufficiency' and 'The New Self-Sufficient Gardener' printed posthumously.

 

'The Fat Of The Land' has never been out of print since it was first published in 1961. The latest edition with a new foreword by Anne, John's daughter, and an introduction by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was published by Little Toller Books in 2017. It is available from us and all good bookshops.

 

'I'm a Stranger Here Myself - The Story of a Welsh Farm' was republished by us at Carningli Press in 2011 and is available from us and all good bookshops.

'The Lore of the Land' is available from us. We have a lot of copies from The Good Life Press.

'Sailing through England''Voyage into England' and 'The Book of Boswell' are available through Faber Finds print on demand service.

 

There are plenty of articles written by John over the years, published in magazines including 'The Geographical Magazine', 'Blackwood's Magazine', 'Yachts and Yachting', 'Fourth World Review', 'Resurgence' and various smallholder and farming magazines.

 

John's television and radio shows are unavailable but include 'The Lost Wilderness' (1970s) – a TV series following in George Borrow's footsteps through Wales, 'Where Do We Go From Here?' (1970s) – a TV show documenting the plight of Britain's gypsies, and 'Far From Paradise' (1986) - a major TV series with Herbert Girardet looking at human impact on the world's environment,  accompanied by a book.

 

'The Good Life' by Paul Peacock is an interesting read, a few errors in John's biography but some astute observations on John's philosophy. 

Book Extracts

 

The Horse...


"We bought the cow because we got tired of walking a couple of miles to fetch milk. We bought the pigs to help drink all the milk the cow gave. We increased our garden to feed the cow and to feed the pigs and to use up the incredible amount of manure which came from these animals. And I could see myself condemned for the rest of my days to hard labour with a spade. And so we bought a horse.


I read a lot of advertisements for those little garden tractors. Then I went and looked at several. But I found that to get one to do any real work at all would cost cost over a hundred pounds; anything smaller would just scrabble over the ground like a dog digging for a bone. Further they make a terrible noise, and I like to hear the birds singing while I work. I think that is very important."
 

from The Fat of the Land - published 1961

We Meet Our Neighbours

"Before I go any further I must describe how we came to meet our neighbours.

We didn't go out of our way to meet them, and they didn't go out of their way to meet us. But the time came when our grass was ready to be cut for hay. I can't remember how we cut it: I think we got a contractor to do the job, and to bale it as well. We didn't have a tractor in those days, and one horse will not pull a grass-cutter.

We had no means of carrying hay except the Fish Van, which only held about a dozen bales and there were hundreds of them. So Sally and I went out with the Fish Van, and started the laborious and apparently hopeless task of carrying hay home in little dribs and drabs.

Then we heard the noise. It was a combination of tractor engines and Welshmen singing. It got nearer, and two tractors pulling two trailers came into our field, accompanied by about a dozen people. They were singing. They had evidently been at the beer..."

from I'm a Stranger Here Myself - published 1978

Going forward...

Just as we cannot, for ever, go on keeping hens in wire cages, or pigs in total darkness, or suppressing every species of life on the land except one money-making crop, so we cannot go on for ever ourselves living in human battery cages and more and more distorting our environment.


It's all going to collapse. Either the oil will run out, or the grub, or the uranium-235, or the power of man to withstand the unutterable boredom of it all, and Mankind will have to find a different way of life. And he will not go 'back' as many people think he will. He will go 'forward' to something very much sounder and better than  has ever been before. And it is then that I hope that this book will prove useful.

from Self-Sufficiency - published 1973

The Living Land

You can pitch sheaves of corn any-old-how on to a wagon and then lash the load down with a rope so that the load doesn't fall over. We needed no rope. We loaded the great Essex wagons - half up to the sky it seemed - so perfectly that the interlocking sheaves held themselves in...Our haystacks and cornricks were perfect, works of fine art. Not a wisp or a sheaf out of place, the whole thing a perfect shape, and thatched to perfection. Thatched as if it had got to stand there for ever. And not only was the work done right - it was done with a flourish. The thatch on the rick would be finished off at each end with a corn dolly. The horses would be turned out - at crack of day - with their tails and mains plaited and beribboned, their coats shining from the brush and straw-wisp... 


Every weekend I would go back, from this ethos and this tradition, to Hexham. And I came to despise everybody who was not a farm-worker! I looked at the non farm-labouring world with contempt.


I had discovered that there was another world - another ethos - another kind of man altogether, and  this discovery rendered the old world that I was used to absolutely valueless. 


For the first time I learned to value the food that I ate. To realise that every loaf of bread, every rasher of bacon, had been paid for by hard sweat and well-directed effort. And for the first time I began to look upon the land as something living, something to be respected, something holy. The basis to everything.

from On My Own Terms - published 1963 (an early autobiography)

Non Co-operation

You cannot make people good, or give them good taste, by passing laws. Interference in our private affairs never has the result that it is intended to have. The cunning and venal find ways to get around the laws, and to cash in on them, while the rest of us have to pay for it.


We should mistrust all government, all the time. The less of it the better. Until we have adminstrative units of a sufficiently human size for us to be able to exercise proper control over the servants we pay to run them, then we must reserve the right of non co-operation. The present bureaucratic moloch can only exist because of our co-operation. Withdraw this and it will crash to the ground. We don't need to resort to violence. We don't even need to break the law. Passive non co-operation would be enough....


... Every member of every government in the world should be made to read a copy of Orwell's 'Animal Farm' at least once a week, and there should be a huge notice up in every council chamber and government office saying: DON'T BE PIGS.

from Bring Me My Bow - published in 1977 - from an essay 'Nanny Knows Best'

The Age of Healing

The Age of Plunder is nearly at an end.
The Age of Healing is ready to be born.

And whether it arrives or not depends upon two people: you and me.

 

The Age of Plunder was the natural successor to the so-called Age of Reason: the Age in which humankind decided that it knew better than God. For 200 years now the greedy and ruthless have been plundering the planet but their time will soon be up. The whole thing is going to come crashing down.

It could not have gone on much longer anyway - because soon there will be nothing left to plunder. The forests have almost gone from the Earth, the fish of the sea are all but exhausted, the air surrounding us and the waters of the Earth will soon be able to take no more poisonous wastes and, most serious of all, the soil is going. For we soil organisms this could be terminal. As long as the oil reserves last agribusiness will be able to produce the agrichemicals needed to keep some sort of production of vitiated food going from the eroded soil, but the oil deposits - that Pandora's Box of evil things - will soon be exhausted and then the final account, long deferred, will come up for payment. The bailiffs who present it will have strange names, like Famine, Pestilence and War.

But, thank God, maybe the old Earth will not have to wait for this to happen. The whole great edifice of international trade and finance - the whole mighty plunder-machine - is quite likely to burst like a balloon that has grown too big. The whole thing is becoming unsustainable: it has grown too huge to manage.

Owing to the incorrigible tendency towards cannibalism by the huge industrial corporations - the tendency of the bigger ones to swallow up the smaller ones - these molochs are becoming too large for humans to control or the planet to support. Ten years ago no economist would have predicted the complete collapse of the mighty Soviet machine that had engulfed half the Earth. International capitalism will follow.

It is in the nature of a limited company that it can have no responsibility either to the environment around it or to the people who work for it. It is no use blaming the directors - if they do anything that might reduce profits for the shareholders they will quickly be replaced. And the shareholders not only have no liability for debts incurred by the company - but they take no responsibility for the world of nature around them. If the directors can secure bigger profits by dumping poisons into the nearest river - they have to do this. If they do not, they will very quickly be replaced. If they can make more profit by halving the work force - they will have to do so or again they will be replaced. If both shareholders and directors suffer from that most uncapitalist thing - a conscience - to the extent that it interferes with profits - that company will be swallowed up by another giant that has no such inconvenient scruples.

One of the most dramatic effects of the Age of Plunder has been to drive most of the world's population into vast conurbations. These huge assemblies of uprooted people, called cities, are not only ugly but also dangerous. The billions who live in them can only be kept alive by an enormous system of transport which brings water, food, power, fuel and all the necessities of life, often great distances. Any breakdown in the supply of all this would be disastrous. And the great plundering molochs of companies which run it all get fewer and fewer, and bigger and bigger, and more and more people find themselves out of work, not needed, redundant and disempowered.

And meanwhile the tiny scattering of people left on the land, which is the only source of true wealth, have been forced by their paucity of numbers to resort to more and more destructive methods of producing the huge amount of food needed to sustain these billions. They have been forced to ignore the laws of husbandry, which could have retained the fertility of the soil as long as the world lasted, and farm instead with chemicals and huge machines. The soil is becoming poisoned and eroded. The only beneficiaries of this have been the huge chemical companies but they will destroy themselves in the end because they are killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

If we open our eyes, we will realize that all this is bound to come crashing down in the end. Then, in the ashes of the Age of Plunder, a new age could arise. The real New Age: the Age of Healing! We will set about it, just you and me, to heal the ravaged Earth. If we do not - if we fail - then there will not be an Age of Healing: there will be an Age of Chaos and it will not be nice.

And we do not have to wait for the end of the Age of Plunder to start the work. We must start now. And how can we - just the two of us, you and me, who are so few and disempowered - start this great work by ourselves?

Firstly, say to yourself, and I promise I will do the same, the following resolution:
"I am only one. I can only do what one can do. But what one can do I will do!"


Then consider what you can do.

 

Refuse to work for the plunderers. Refuse to buy their shoddy goods. Give up the ambition of living like a Texan millionaire. Boycott the Lottery, not because you think you won't win it, but because you don't want to win it! Refuse to shop in the plunderer's "supermarkets". Work, always, for a decentralist economy. Support local traders and producers - try to get what you need from as near your home as you can.

Take part in your local politics - boycott the politics of the huge scale, the remote and far-away. The current non-violent defiance of the law by people protesting against the export of live animals from Britain is a fine example of citizen-power.

Work for an economy in which land and property are fairly shared out among the people so that "everybody has enough and nobody has too much". We must withhold our work, our custom, and our investment from plundering industry. This may cause us "financial hardship" : then we must endure "financial hardship" .

Road transport is the most destructive thing of all. If you live in a city, you do not need a car. (When you go to the country you can hire one - it's much cheaper than owning.) If you live in the country, you may need one - use it as little as possible. Boycott most goods brought from far away. Take some trouble to find locally produced goods and buy them. Heavy road transport is enormously polluting. Oppose new road building. Building new roads never relieves traffic congestion - it simply generates more traffic. The only way of solving the traffic problem is to have less traffic.

If you possibly can, do not work for huge organizations. If we withhold our labour from them, they will wither away. (Do not be afraid that this will lose "jobs". It will create more jobs - a multitude of small firms create more "jobs" than a few big ones).

Support local cultural activities. Boycott mass "culture" coming from countries far away. Encourage, support, and initiate, local credit and finance organizations. Buy, if you cannot grow, organically produced food. Thus you will help destroy the polluting chemical industry - and you will be healthier. Boycott, absolutely consistently,   all products that have involved cruelty to animals.

Support the local and the small-scale. I will do the same as I ask you to do. The tiny amount you and I can do is hardly likely to bring the huge worldwide moloch of plundering industry down? Well, if you and I don't do it, it will not be done, and the Age of Plunder will terminate in the Age of Chaos. We have to do it - just the two of us - just you and me. There is no "them" - there is nobody else. Just you and me. On our infirm shoulders we must take up this heavy burden now - the task of restoring the health, the wholeness, the beauty and the integrity of our planet. We must start the Age of Healing now! Tomorrow will be too late.

 

from The Age of Healing first published in Resurgence magazine