This photograph of Stoke Row hangs over my desk partly as a reminder of another era, but also as a reminder of my grandfather who, apart from a spell working as a carpenter in London, was born and lived there for almost the whole of his life. He was probably the biggest influence in my life; very short and equally short tempered with a creative gift for cursing that I’m fortunate to have inherited. He was a vernacular builder which meant his drawings were almost always on the back of a fag packet and securely in his head. Most importantly he was a natural radical and he had a collection of books that opened my mind to a world of possibilities, and several huge long sheds in which he stored everything he’d ever wanted to repair but never got round to; for instance a couple of penny in the slot pianolas which he would let my sister and me play with. He could make rainbows with a stirrup pump; give us rides in his wheelbarrow and let us feed the hens or look for Charlie the toad in the greenhouse. He also grew and cured his own tobacco which was so smelly he was chucked out of the pub for smoking it. He made carpenter style furniture – he was no Chippendale -hand built the first wireless set in the village and owned the first television. He also helped me to build my first transistor radio and erected a long wave aerial in the garden for me. He was almost entirely self educated and taught me logarithms before he gave me my first slide-rule (a kind of manual calculator for working with big numbers). He introduced me to Dickens and H G Wells and although he was a devout atheist, would secretly repair the benches in a local churchyard.
Much later, long after he died, I discovered the radical writer and pamphleteer William Cobbett; thorn in the side of everyone who annoyed him and whose two books “Rural Rides” and “Cottage Economy” inspired me and reminded me of my grandfather. I think this website owes a great deal to William Cobbett’s writing. In “”Rural Rides” he took up the cudgels on behalf of starving farm workers after undertaking a series of rides on horseback to see for himself the terrible poverty that followed the systematic impoverishment of land workers during the Industrial Revolution. He fought government corruption and campaigned for a more just electoral system – and when I say campaigned – his writings were fierce enough to have him thrown into prison several times. He fled from justice to France in the middle of the revolution; thought better of it and sailed on to America only to find that as a conservative he sat uneasily within the radical movements of the day, I would probably have hated him if I’d ever met him because he was really a backward looking old style conservative but the fire that flows through every sentence of Rural Rides is a model of righteous anger.
Most historians dismiss Cobbett because he advocated a return to the old rural ways. He was a ruralist and farmer himself and although he spent the last years of his life as an elected MP he never gave up campaigning. He wrote at the beginning of the industrial capitalist society and already he could see the cruelty and contradictions inherent in its exploitative and extractive philosophy. Today; as we suffer in the dog days of the same ideology, radical thinkers are again persecuted and imprisoned by powerful interests who can’t tell the difference between criticism and insurrection; and national politics once more is stained by corruption; industrial strength lying and greed.
Cobbett’s other book – “Cottage Economy” is, or should be required reading for anyone interested in 19th century traditional farming and any form of self-sufficiency. In a haze of what might seem to be sentimental idealisation of rural life due to Cobbett’s lifelong conservatism, Cobbett explains brewing, bread baking, building an ice house, the keeping and killing of farm animals and the preserving of them by smoking. He thought that the potato was the work of the devil and that the drinking of tea and the consumption of potatoes made men effeminate(?). Bread and beer were the culinary gods in his canon, and at a time when much water was unsafe to drink, the consumption of “small beer” – brewed from the remaining malted grains after they’d been once sparged – or washed for the making of stronger ale – was much safer having been boiled. Above all the book is a fascinating social history of village life before the industrial revolution. It’s hilariously funny at times – Cobbett was an old fashioned Church of England member and addressed some of his funniest and most excoriating prose to the Methodist Ministers who – in his fertile imagination – would always turn up to visit the poor cottager on the day that the pig was killed. No-one could possibly try to run a 21st century life on the pattern of a 19th century polemic, but his memorable style can make you wish it could still be possible; indeed some survivalists really do try it.
But Cobbett understood and called out injustice and its perpetrators in a fearless way that scared them. He was utterly incorruptible in a way that I would love to see once again. His pen name was Peter Porcupine – you get the joke at his own expense and he never stopped writing, pamphleteering and campaigning on behalf of the poor. Most critics focus on what he was wrong about. I prefer to attend to the things he was absolutely right about.
I wonder what my Grandfather – who was a member of the Independent Labour Party – and my Father who was also a lifelong Labour Party member would think about the present state of British Politics which is so corrupted by the lust for power that we can only look forward to choosing between a wealthy liar and a spineless liar because the electoral system is purpose built to crush radical dissent.
But although I get very sad at times I’m essentially an optimist, and the Potwell Inn and the way we do things around here are essentially my personal project to dig a pollution free well; think as clearly as I can; grow some healthy food to cook and keep us out of the hands of the merchants of sickness; oh and find every occasion to provoke and challenge the knuckle draggers and drool mongers who are driving all life on earth into a wall in the hope of enriching themselves at our expense.
There are, as the saying goes, no pockets in a shroud!