Rustic simplicity?


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I caught a program on TV last night which looks an Australian variation of The River Cottage. The Gourmet Farmer charts the journey of an ex-high profile Sydney food critic as he takes to the bush of Tasmania and begins a new life as a novice farmer. Matthew Evans is the critic in question, and a guy I used to read occasionally when he was syndicated to the local paper here. He’s a tall, affable, and perhaps naive wannabe farmer who takes to his new life with enthusiasm and a frequent expression of confused uncertainty. In other words, he’s pretty much like the rest of us would be if we suddenly found ourselves deposited in the country looking to eke out an existence as a farmer.

I enjoyed the show greatly. It’s now on my must-see list. Because he is a foodie first and foremost his perspective is, as the title suggests, the gourmet. He has pigs and chickens, he takes on turkeys, he milks his own cow and grows his own vegetables. He even goes diving for abalone. In the meantime he constructs a life in this totally foreign environment far from the bright lights and familiar comforts of the city.

For me it’s great entertainment, and kind of educational too. It’s about living simply and well, plumbing the great treasures of providing for yourself, but also coming to terms with what that actually means. Last night, for example, our farmer was grim faced at the prospect of having to slaughter some of his chooks. That’s not much fun to anyone I expect. He was instructed by a couple of down to earth women who helped put together a strange contraption to make it simpler and more humane (though it looks like torture to me). Then he did the deed. That’s the bad news. Good news is there’s roast chicken for dinner.

I find programs like these very alluring. They appeal to that part of me that more and more tends towards a simpler lifestyle. For a couple of years I’ve had in the back of my mind the idea that I may one day take to the bush somewhere. Give me a good bit of land somewhere the dream goes, big enough that I can’t see my neighbours, with a vege patch, some nature, room for Rigby to carouse in and me to build, and in an environment where the bare essentials of a civilised lifestyle – good coffee, cheese, a decent restaurant, a handy pub, and a swift internet connection – are available, and I need for little else. I dream of this sometimes, and more recently, though surely I see much through rose coloured glasses. It is a lifestyle very different from the urbane man about town lifestyle I’ve lived for so long, but then that’s much of its appeal.

The urge to the tree-change, as it’s come to be termed, has become very common in recent years. There’s plenty of practical reasons for it – overcrowded cities, change in lifestyle or beliefs, health, the desire to raise children in another environment, cost, and so on. There’s all that, but ultimately I think it’s something innate in most of us. As children we delight in the wonders of nature we come to consume as adults. That wonder doesn’t die, it simply becomes dormant. At some point it calls to us. It speaks to that more rustic, even primal part of our selves. This is how we lived for millennia after all, hunting and gathering, living off the land. In a busy, crowded, crazy and often superficial world we have been engulfed by in the last century or so the appeal of the ‘simple life’ begins to sing in us like so many sirens. As much as anything else it promises a return to a more honest lifestyle. It may be only a promise, and prove a promise too much for many, but cast in an idealistic light the prospect of working with our hands and witnessing directly the return on effort has the earthy and dignified glow so often absent in our more more packaged lives.

It seems I’m little different, but for all my superlatives I know it’s not so easy as all that, and that nostalgia colours our view. It’s nice to feed fresh cut wood into the fire, harder though when chopping it with blistered hands. Are we capable of slaughtering our own stock, or will it remain easier to buy from the butcher? Is it so easy to put our pampered lifestyles behind us to enter a world where we must do most ourselves? And how do we cope with the city, friends, family all far from us?

I don’t know what I’ll do – I’m not ready yet, and life has to turn more revolutions before I may be. I tend to think I might though one day, and programs like the Gourmet Farmer and the River Cottage are more than just inspirations, they become proof in a way that it’s possible – and this is how you might go about doing it.

The value of being provocative

Dancer with a hobby horse

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I went to brunch on Sunday with one of my speed daters. It was pretty conventional, light-hearted conversation over coffee and poached eggs in the convivial atmosphere of a classy cafe (Madame Sou Sou) on a Sunday morning. Not for the first time in my life I found myself drifting into inattention due to the prosaic nature of the conversation, and not for the first time I took the plunge to liven things up by inserting something a little more controversial into the conversation.

I find myself unconsciously testing people often these days, particularly women. Sometimes it’s just to see what sort of reaction I get, but more often – with women – it’s to get an idea of how they think, what they expect, and where they’ve drawn the boundaries around their mind. This is important to me. I like women plenty, and am glad to be with them in any capacity, but there are only a few, I’ve discovered, who have a compatible mindset to mine – which, in brief, is basically open minded and curious, a little bit adventurous, and very much engaged with the world (and society) in which we live. There are other basic elements – humour, intelligence, etc – as well as commonalities I seek – food, music, art, etc. None of that matters though if there isn’t that basic connection of minds, the pull to explore and understand that outweighs any fears associated with that.

Often I use my intention to begin the Bedroom Voice website to market women’s erotica to test the waters. Some women are delighted, even enthusiastic, clapping their hands, offering suggestions and generally saying it’s about time. Many more are ambivalent about the idea, curious, but not quite sure what to make of me. Some look upon me in wonder, flabbergasted to discover the urbane man across from them is actually a dirty little pornographer. I don’t worry too much about the reaction: for me it’s all instructive. Some pass, some fail, and we move on.

When I met this girl previously I had let slip my plans. She had fallen into the ambivalent camp, looking at me curiously, but not asking the obvious questions that you might. I’d let it go at that. She is an intelligent, bright, confident woman who gives off the vibe of no-nonsense practicality. She is a publisher (another one), but I can equally imagine her living in the country clomping around in gum boots and helping out in the calving season, or whatever they do. Like most women I like she has her own mind and point of view, which is the simple and elementary outcome when you have confidence in yourself.

I’m not sure we are absolutely sympatico – I’m sure we’re not – but we may have a fling, may become friends. Who knows what the universe has in store for us? Still, as I say, I was flagging Sunday and thinking to liven things up I climbed aboard my latest hobby horse about how disappointing it was to observe the apparent dilution of masculinity over the last generation. I said quite blithely, almost off the cuff, but her eyes narrowed as she took in my words. She paused before responding as if she was properly digesting my words. Then she disagreed with me.

I had said it to prompt a reaction, but I was also deadly serious about it. She disagreed less with what I said – she conceded things had changed – than my right to say it. The conversation went to and fro. Having made such a general statement I was forced to concede ground – of course it’s but a generalisation, naturally with maturity and development people will change. And so on. None of this mattered too much to me, but there were points we came at from opposite directions, and it diverged into a much more general conversation on the times we live in.

My perspective is vaguely disappointed, but she was positive, pointing out how much more tolerant society is today against even 20 years ago. Yes, this is true to a point, and a lot of it is due to education. But a lot of it has become habit also. There’s no doubt, for example, that gays are much more readily accepted than when I was a kid and gays were pooftas and pansies. Undoubtedly it’s a lot easier to be gay now than it was then, and the fact that so many more are out of the closet now makes acceptance so much easier. Being gay is really just another way of being normal. In general we live in more enlightened times.

Being tolerant is only common sense in my book, but as common sense is contentious I was in no position to dispute with her – and really I had no desire on that front. Among many, my main contention is that people think much less now than they did once. By ‘think’ I mean examine a situation in light of their own knowledge and experience, ideally critically questioning the key aspects of it. Once upon a time we were given space to do it, it may not have always been pretty, but at least it was real.

So much of what we now believe is received opinion. It is opinion trotted out, manipulated, and contrived to influence. “Yes well, there’s always been propaganda,” she said. Yes, generally so I agreed, though with qualifications also, and spin to some extent also, but what is different now is that it is all pervasive, and it comes at you day and night and from every direction.

It’s so easy to take your information from a multitude of sources in your face and instantly available that you don’t really need to think nearly as much: somebody else has already done it for you. To that degree homosexuality has been absorbed into the societal norm. It’s an idea that has been assimilated over time: the edge moves towards the middle. There’s little choice being made though, not now, no real discernment being demonstrated. Now homosexuality should be viewed as normal – that’s not my point (and it is a poor example, but hers). My real point is that people should be making their mind up for themselves about everything. The credit she claims for a more tolerant society is less to do with how open people have become, and much more to do with general ignorance – even apathy. And so while gays have been largely accepted, Muslims – once pretty well tolerated without comment – have now in many parts of the world been demonised; and it’s become acceptable to discriminate with the officially sanctioned excuse of ‘border protection’, etc. It’s the better man who chooses to look past the stereotypes and the rants of the media and makes up his own mind on the issue, than one who simply goes with the flow. But who can be bothered?

As I spoke I think I actually claimed a decline in our society. I’m being very general, and I’m looking at the collective more than the individual, but the argument remains valid. I find it perverse to think I may be lumped together with that nostalgic brood who proclaim ‘things were better in my day’, but accepting that many things are better now, I think society as a whole was healthier a generation ago. We’re wealthier than we’ve ever been, but we take it as our due. Public discourse has without question become largely trite and trivial. That extends to – or perhaps is led by – our so-called leaders, in a phenomenon current all over the world. I doubt if self-interest has ever been keener, or more oblivious. As a society we have become more selfish I think. And so on. Life is good, comfortable, often sweet, but it is becoming meaningless when it’s all about what we saw on MasterChef last night, or the latest rant by Andrew Bolt. I look around sometimes and I see the sweet, fey people of distant future as portrayed in The Time Machine, vessels for consumption and pleasure, but without original thought, ambition or desire.

“But that is life,” she said, “some people live for the experience, some live for the sensation. Isn’t it our choice?” she asked. Yes, of course I agreed – but shouldn’t we have better options than that? Shouldn’t we have greater role models to look up to? Should we accept mediocrity without complaint?

“People have the right to live as they like, and to believe whatever they wish,” she responded.

“And I have the right to rebut them,” I answered.

I was willing to be called wrong. I’d like to be (and in fact I’m not nearly as pessimistic as I may appear – it’s not as bad as I paint it, and besides we live in cycles and everything I complain of has been complained of before – and times react and change). Being the practical and good-hearted person she was she believed in the individual good. And so do I – I think most people are essentially decent.

“It’s up to everyone,” she said. “If we all do our best then there is no issue. That’s how I live, to do my best and keep trying.” And, I thought, if everyone did the same then there would be no problem. But everyone doesn’t, and even for those that do the best is in different directions. I didn’t say this, but I did say it was not enough to think positively. Sometimes we need to do. Sometimes we need to make it so. Democracy doesn’t mean we can’t act.

And so the conversation petered out into a silent stalemate. I felt more serious than I wanted to be, more solemn than I am.

I walked away from our brunch wondering if I had come on too strong. Probably I had. She saw me as being judgemental I think, and I was, and I regretted that. The conversation had got away from me, like many times before, the argument leading me on. It was inappropriate to the occasion and to the person – casual provocation being no excuse.

Over the remainder of the day my position modified. I should not have gone on as I did over breakfast, but I couldn’t resile from being myself. What do I believe in? Thinking for yourself; standing for something; reason. I believe in those things because that’s who I am. I go too far at times perhaps, but in being that person I am true to myself, which is more important than anything else.

You should never apologise for who you are. Too much of that happens now, and is good reason our society has become so antiseptic. I would encourage people to speak their mind, and to really feel it. I think we live in anodyne times, lit only by the rabid extremists ranting from their pulpits and the margins of society crying out for more. We don’t question enough what we are told, are too easily led, too easily seduced by shocking headlines, by violent emotions, by the style and not the substance. We have become conditioned to this state, lazy in our thinking and modest in our intellectual needs. Too many of our opinions are manufactured, too little bubbles up within us any more. We need to defy political correctness, not because it’s wrong, but because it has stultified our natural mind. I’d rather disagree with someone who has formed a different conclusion to me, than be in agreement with someone whose opinion has been handed to them from some other source. You need to think, and you need to be heard so, regardless of whether I’m right or wrong – and I’ll be wrong plenty – I’ll continue as I am, outspoken, opinionated and up for the argument.

Just maybe not over breakfast with a pretty girl.