Journey Update: Late June 2013!
The ferry took four hours. We occasionally ventured on deck and squinted at the horizon as the UK coast expanded from thin black squiggle to the coastline of Poole.
Going by sea, it didn’t dawn on me that we were really back until we walked out of the terminal and onto the street. Up until then it had all been fairly familiar- sailboats scudding by, squat red buoys, reeds and rocks. The tireless lapping of the waves at everything humans build to fend against them, ride over them and plunder their riches. We saw it through glass from a long way up, but it was our same wet world.
Outside the terminal there were road signs to places with evocative names like ‘Brighton’, ‘London’ and ‘The WEST’, sluggish snarls of traffic and only fifteen minutes to reach the train station. We jumped into a taxi with an angry moustachioed man, who hated all the stupid tourists lined up in front of him queueing for the bridge to lift. He knew a shortcut. With a furious wrench of the wheel, we skidded round the tourists and belted over the estuary on a different bridge, to the station. We paid him with the damp remnants of our real English money scrabbled from Joker’s corners. It wasn’t quite enough. Given the rage bubbling under his tash, I was pleasantly surprised that he let us off the remaining 49p.
Once on the train, we tried to sit back and enjoy it. I love train journeys, especially with a book. I had a good one, but- I couldn’t concentrate. I kept staring out of the windows. Those old terraces you see with their gardens facing the rail line, laundry flapping as we swept past. The hedges and fields and gawping cows and plastic bags like ragged white flags hanging off the buddleia. The faces thronging the stations, so motley and neat and young and old and hip and square- a peculiarly British tapestry of difference and tension, pretending to politely ignore each other.
I turned to Sam.
“I’m excited. It’s exciting, isn’t it? To be back.”
“I dunno. I’m not really feeling it. It’s pretty weird.”
“Aren’t you excited about seeing our friends?”
“Well. It’s just… weird.”
“Why aren’t you excited? You should be. Don’t you care about seeing our friends?”
Suddenly I was about to cry. He was right. It was weird.
We changed trains, and we were closing in on Bristol. Arrowing through the hills, kissing the edge of the canal we’d travelled down a year ago on Lexia. Stopping in Bath with its prim uniform of creamy stone, Bristol next. The sun was low and red and the sky purple, a deep orange sun melting into the hills separating us from our hometown. It was beautiful. It felt doomy- the colour of blown deadlines, bruised dreams. Marking our half-arsed return to the place we’d cast off triumphantly months before. Within the space of eight bloody hours. We clung to each other squinting out of the window, trying to get on top of the anxiety.
At Temple Meads we struggled outside with our big bags and caught our breath under the familiar station clock. We queued for a cab and it trundled towards the centre, up Old Market, towards Easton. We gripped hands and stared into the streets.
The cab pulled up outside our friend’s house. I lifted my camera as Sam knocked on the door, and the battery light flashed red.
The tall silhouette of dear Matt Jennings appeared in the dim glow of the hallway, and I was filled with total joy.
“Stop bloody filming, Smyth. Come in.”
We did. After a cup of tea and an hour of catching up. it was hardly weird at all. In the spare room we stretched out on a real double bed and slept, watched over by our friend Emily’s impressive shoe collection.
The next morning, for some reason, Sam decided to announce himself to his workplace and head in for a meeting in person. I thought he was insane, having done his job successfully online for our entire journey, but it was pretty nice to indulge in the luxury of time apart. More than a metre apart! Can you imagine? I swung my arms about quite a bit after he left.
I announced our arrival on Facebook, had an immense and blissful bath, and headed out into the streets of Bristol. I had a few people to meet for coffees and the confidence I’d bump into more as I roamed from Easton to the Centre and back via Montpelier and Stokes Croft.
It was great. The very kerbstones welcomed my feet with their familiar cracks and bends. I saw three friends in the street and we stopped and talked like I’d seen them only yesterday. I poured stories into beloved faces and drank in their lives, smiles and speech patterns like water in the desert. I felt blessed not to be a stranger.
Unlike many of my friends I never did the ‘travelling thing’ for months or years on end, or even many holidays abroad as an adult. As a result this was my first conscious taste of the rootedness we’ve built over 10 years in Bristol, and the difference between making new friends and being in a place where people just know you.
Most people remarked on how calm and serene I seemed, and I speculated that boat life had probably done wonders for my patience and resilience and smoothed off some of my hectic, anxious edges. Or it could be that walking the streets of Bristol again for that four days was like bouncing into a brightly coloured hammock we’d woven ourselves over the years and stopped even noticing? We drank, sang, and talked and talked.
During that time we also met with the friends we’d been emailing and saw the land. We spent exciting hours poring over maps, legal arrangements and land management plans. We loved the plan even more after seeing it, but there were still months of working out ahead of us.
We went to Wales and spent a weekend seeing a big chunk of extended family, which was great in a hill-walking, friendly bickering, roast-eating way. Then back to Portsmouth where I grew up, to spend an evening with my best friend El.
Soon it was time to cross the water to Joker and continue South.
Journey Update: June ’13
True to his word, Grant arrived after work the following day and whisked us on a 5 hour narrated tour around Jersey. For anyone considering a visit, I can safely say it’s very pretty with lush beaches and craggy bits around the edges, and the middle seems to be farmland producing great potatoes, dairy herds and veg. Grant was a brilliant tour guide.
Our last stop before sunset was a 20ft tall sculpture of a horned cloven footed devil, standing ankle deep in a small lake, tucked away among trees and vines. Called ‘Devil’s Hole’, it was baffling, sinister and beautiful. The sun set in molten gold as we turned along the coast road to face a gorgeous and famous old lighthouse on a spiky chunk of rock. We all ended the night eating chicken and chips and drinking wine on Joker.
Grant had a lot to say about other aspects of living there. For example, there’s no NHS and it costs around £50 to see a doctor.
“It’s a nice place to live, but there’s a lot of poverty. More than people think. I’s a very rich island but if you’ve not got much money you can’t really leave, the ferry’s so expensive- so people get frustrated. Some people develop bad drug problems, drinking, depression.”
The tax status of the Channel Islands has made them a magnet for the rich and the dodgy for a long time, though apparently they’ve recently become much tougher on the money laundering. It’s clear just from wandering the streets that there are tons of rich people here. Deep sailors’ tans (the kind who sail as far South as the ACTUAL Med, folks! Or even spend whole chunks of the year in tropical climates. AND have a house or three as well as a boat). People in pristine sportswear, knotted pastel sweaters and flashy cars are everywhere, as are the luxury goods shops catering to them.
The following day, Grant was back, determined to help us get to the bottom of our erratic engine. After hearing the list of symptoms and the conditions under which Joker fails us- fine on the flat, calm waters of the harbour, chokes when we need her out on the waves- he concluded there was probably gunk in the fuel tank clogging the system when it got bounced around. Sam and Grant covered the cockpit in a gaudy arrangement of spanners and greasy rags- apparently to set the scene- then hauled the diesel tank out and dragged it away to one of the garages Grant works at. I made soup out of the leftover chicken and looked after all the spanners and rags.
They finally returned five hours later, reeking of both diesel and petrol. Due to the awkward shape of the tank, it had taken several rinses of petrol to sluice out the gunk. And there had been LOTS. The tank came back as clean as a whistle and after munching chicken soup they screwed it back in. Grant had spent his entire day off sorting out our engine, completely gratis. What could we do but feed him again?
Over the previous weeks we’d been talking with increasing excitement to a friend about investing in a land project with them somewhere near Bristol. The usefulness of emails and phone had run its course, and now we had to have a look at the place and spend time face to face thrashing out the details. We had to return to the UK for a few days.
It was a dislocating prospect. Having made it only to the Channel Islands over nine months, we now faced a short journey back for a flying visit. I was excited to see people again, but as we checked out flights- direct from Jersey to Bristol for less than the combined ferry and train fare- I couldn’t face getting on a plane.
We decided we weren’t going to fly anymore six years ago, for reasons to do with reducing oil consumption and getting a more intimate perspective on travel- how long it takes to traverse the earth, what you see on the way. We’ve only broken that vow two or three times for work and family- still more than we felt comfortable with. Also, it only takes one and a half hours. After taking nearly 10 months to reach Jersey, I didn’t think my heart could handle that.
So with trepidation, we booked a four hour ferry and four hour train journey combo, to unravel all our arduous travel in a single ticketed, tannoy-announced, buffet catered eight-hour day. We would board the wave-devouring Condor ferry that so terrified us while sailing, and ‘pop back’ for five days.
Come the day, we loaded ourselves down with the usual baggage of clothes and filming kit, but also bulky winter clothes, a punctured dinghy and a few other chunks of stuff we weren’t using, as a further ‘donation’ to my parents’ overloaded attic. Nice of us, wasn’t it?
We left Joker bobbing reproachfully on the pontoon. We lugged the lot onto the ferry and settled down to a strangely flourescent passenger safety video. The Condor steadily munched the waves, erasing all the ground we’d covered and taking us home…
When we left Bristol on our tiny boat Lexia, we had a Plan. We told everyone we knew about it for about two years, we wrote about it on this blog, we told all our friends and when we left we had a big launch party and told everybody there about our Plan. We told the press about our Plan, and first the Bristol Evening Post and then the Daily Mail of all things, published stories about our Plan.
The Plan was as follows:
1. Travel through Europe on 21ft Lexia, with Greece as the end point, passing through France, Spain and Italy, possibly heading back via Croatia, Germany and the Netherlands.
2. Meet fascinating people along the way who would teach us various survival skills and outlooks on what we believe to be a future of dwindling resources and a steady- or abrupt- reduction in prosperity and stability of all kinds. Skills to include old fashioned handcrafts, sustainable farming methods, food preservation, different economic models and models of community.
3. Make brilliant feature length documentary of our lives while doing this, plus regular video episode updates, to be published on the blog. I pitched this idea at Sheffield DocFest after developing it on the Devise to Deliver course, with great feedback, advice, and many expressions of confidence.
Not only would we travel through Europe rather quickly, we would also meet and develop real relationships with lots of people!
Not only would I leave my life and work behind for a year, the year itself would result in a fantastic piece of work!
Not only would we both gain skills for the eventual collapse of capitalism and the ecosystem, my professional and creative development in my particular little DIY media niche would rocket in the meantime!
What a brilliant Plan. What a total win-win and furthermore, win.
It’s all gone wrong.
And while the only thing I truly regret about this incredible year of struggle, beauty and learning is all the blah I spouted about what we were going to achieve before we left, I feel the Plan merits a dissection before moving on.
Lots of people warned me about the things that might go wrong. One way or another I was warned about everything I discuss below. I didn’t really hear it properly, instead I latched onto the encouragement I got from other quarters. This is what you’re supposed to do, I thought, be optimistic and positive! ‘Think Positive’ is a mantra of our times. After the past year and two months, I’m fonder of what my sailing and film making friend Jenny Jones says: ‘Experience has to be experienced’.
What went wrong?
We got all the way from the West to the East of England on our first tiny boat Lexia, before going stir-crazy and decanting ourselves and our possessions into a bigger and more expensive but rather flawed boat– our now-beloved Joker.
We sailed across the Channel with the help of a professional sailor in the dead of winter, despite multiple mechanical failures. We then spent winter stuck in expensive marinas in Normandy, with an often broken boat and hideous and scary weather that we didn’t quite have the balls or stupidity to go out in.
We found it hard to meet anybody under these circumstances, and generally the most we learned that wasn’t gleaned from the internet was different ways to cook seaweed, where to forage for mussels without sand in them and which varieties of very cheap French wine were actually nice.
We did have an Apocalypse ‘test-run’ when the power in the marina went out for two days during a blizzard. We totally survived it, so there!
When Spring arrived we spent three weeks working on the smallholding of Dominique, a woman who has forgotten more than we ever knew about growing, preserving and cooking wonderful organic food. We learned lots. But our skills by the end weren’t anything to make a documentary about.
That’s when I finally twigged something about the Plan: it was bullshit.
Learning stuff takes time. Those reality TV shows are lying when they say that Gordon Ramsay taught crap restaurateurs to manage successful gourmet establishments in two weeks. They are lying when they pretend the X Factor contestants are transformed from ropey pub singers into uber skilled superstars over a few months. It is all just lies. I have actually always known this. It is in fact obvious. But I sort of thought that in my case it would be different. Not sure why. Odd.
Also, if you really want to learn something, filming yourself learning it- or even getting someone else to film you learning it- just gets in the bloody way. You have to really be there and concentrate and do the thing and not worry about what the camera can capture of it or whether it ‘tells a story’ or ‘do that bit again because we didn’t get it from the right angle’. Especially something- like sailing- in which if you get it right, there are no prizes- you just stay alive, hopefully with an intact boat- until the next time.
Meeting people also takes time. You can meet someone out at a bar and have a chat. We did this, often, in France. People were interested in our weird quest. It didn’t make them particularly want to take us home and teach us how to make jam, nor invite us round or introduce us to their families. Nor indeed, did it make them wish to be filmed talking about the future or the present or anything else. And as we were planning to move on, er, as soon as our engine worked, it was hard to establish the necessary relations of trust that might persuade them.
I could definitely sympathise with this. My first feature documentary was about a community I filmed for four years, who became my beloved friends. Even my beloved friends often didn’t want me filming them at vulnerable or angry or tender moments, or even normal chilled moments. Those moments I longed to have on record, because of their truth and beauty, but found it the hardest to film. Because a camera brings another eye into the room, and you don’t know at that moment whose eye- or how many thousands of strangers’ eyes- it might eventually multiply into.
We did have contact with people we wanted to film, scattered across Europe, before we started. We got their agreement, we said ‘see you in a few months!’. Then, as our itinerary shrank and we were completely unable to say whether we’d definitely arrive in such a place at such a time, or would simply be forced to test the boat engine again in the hopes it would work this time, any notion of a schedule became farcical. We could have taken trains or planes or ferries to meet people in a fraction of the time, but with a budget drained by marina fees and boat repairs and a real desire to fix the bloody boat so we could do the voyage we planned, we were-or certainly felt- stuck.
In some cases it did actually work. We do have some genuinely great and thought provoking interviews, and now I have to figure out how to do justice to them.
But ‘our story’, that was going to be the central spine of the film, is full of holes. Whether the holes prevent it from making a decent story is something I can’t currently judge, so it will take time, going through the footage with colleagues on my return, to figure that out.
The holes are there because I came to hate filming my own life.
Sam, who I thought I’d persuaded to participate in the filming, turned out to have very little interest in it, and to dislike being filmed and resent the time I spent on it even more than I’d expected. So the shooting I did do became a film about Sam having a difficult and underwhelming adventure while I unhelpfully filmed it. Which wasn’t true or beautiful. The time I was actually participating in the adventure either went unfilmed, or wonkily filmed with a head-mounted Go-Pro sports camera, which occasionally caught awesome moments and other times was just unusable.
It got to the point where if we saw something wonderful, or got through a scary time at sea, or had an interesting conversation, or just had a funny night in on the boat cracking jokes, I’d feel guilty afterwards that I hadn’t filmed it. And if I did set up the camera, oftentimes the magic would just leak out of the air with a flaccid hiss.
It comes from the sacrifice you have to make when filming something. You trade really being there for making sure lots of other people can feel like they were there. You concentrate on a viewfinder and how much of this gorgeous 3D world you can cram into it before the moment passes. In the meantime you are not in that moment. You miss it. Maybe not all filmmakers feel like this, maybe that’s why they’re better at what they do than I am. But it’s a feeling I’ve never been able to shake. I did find that my film-making background made me think in images and mentally ‘save’ moments to write later. This helped my writing to be more detailed and imagistic. Though there is much room for practice, I remembered this year that my first ambition as a child was to write.
My ‘big project’ ended up making me ask myself all kinds of questions about the type of art I want to make, what I like and don’t like about the cultural drive to document our own lives and the creative and emotional limits of that for me, and how much time I need to spend in 3D space versus looking at a screen.
Some of these changes in my outlook can be usefully articulated for public consumption, and much of it is priceless to me but not of much interest to anybody else. In time I will sort these things one from the other. This post is no doubt a mishmash of the two.
I decided at a base level that I need to interact increasingly with people and objects instead of with screens if indeed I’m expecting energy and technology to be less rather than more available in the future. And if I believe, as I do, that strong ties between people are our best chance to get through hard times, I need to be out and about talking to them instead of indoors ‘liking’ their latest photos.
So much for the creative angle. A potential feature doc or series of shorts if people will help me clarify it- and thanks for those offers of help I’ve already had. Also a rediscovery of how much I love writing, and a useful research period.
At the beginning the plan was to raise money through crowd funding, but once I realised it wasn’t going to work the way I’d hoped I was very glad I hadn’t done that. I wouldn’t want to ask strangers or friends to pay for what turned out to be my creative roadblock and epiphany phase.
As for the journey. In mid July, we were able to say with confidence that our boat engine worked, and that the weather and our skills were good enough that we could really go somewhere.
Instead of really going somewhere, we reached the River Vilaine in Southern Brittany, fell in love with it and with the summer, and moored up for two months. We swam, we sailed, walked and climbed trees, I played music and sang, the sun blazed, the moon shone, the river ran by. After being stuck, cold and lonely, it was a blessing to choose to stay because it was beautiful and we wanted to be together in its beauty. We felt free to do that because everything else had already gone wrong.
It was one of the best times I’ve ever had, and in our forays to La Ronce and La ZAD during that time we made our best most satisfying connections with other people and projects as well.
After that incredible summer, we had a choice- keep heading South and accept we’d be away for another year or so, or head back home before the winter closed in.
For various reasons- money, a longing for our friends, excitement over a possible new adventure there- we’re heading back to Bristol. We’ve made it all the way to Devizes as I write this, and should reach the place we call home, in Joker, our only abode, within a couple of weeks. After this lengthy period of pondering and little access to electricity, I’ll continue to catch up on the blog, despite being outrageously behind. Lots of great stuff happened between then and now.
We’re hoping for even more exciting times that are very relevant to the wider project if a plan we have comes together when we get home, but it’s by no means certain. Therefore I will not be trumpeting it to the heavens, the Daily Mail or anybody but the dear friends I’ve missed so much.
If it doesn’t come off, we don’t really have a plan- let alone a Plan. For now, I think that’s alright.
Time travel alert! First experienced in mid June, posted in mid September. Shocking, I know.
Waiting for the weather, we remained in Guernsey for long enough to get accustomed to the availability of cheddar, bacon and tiny, bland overpriced vegetables. We also decided to seek out a proper English-style party, and located an ad for a festival ‘all-dayer’ on the other side of the island. We tried to walk, got lost, argued over the route and eventually discovered we were further from the site than when we’d started. Luckily we were able to hail an extremely expensive cab. When it finally pulled up in the fading light, we were charged a fiver to enter a sparsely populated corner of a playing field. A white plastic table and gazebo combo staffed by two loud blonde women was selling orange hotdogs, grey burgers and yellow cake and miscellaneous cans from an ice bucket. Dub remixes of popular chart hits leaked from a tiny sound system under a low white tent decorated with a 3ft statue of an alien playing a flute. It dawned on us that what we’d meant by a ‘proper English party’ was ‘a proper Bristol party full of all our friends and our favourite music’. Alternating waves of absurdity and homesickness washed over us as we huddled on plastic chairs drinking terrible cider. At one point one of the blonde women from the stall walked to an unoccupied picnic table just in front of us, deposited three tiny Tupperware boxes, each containing a chocolate brownie, and walked away. We speculated that they were spiked. People passing for the next two hours eyed them suspiciously and sidled away, apparently thinking the same thing.
After dark several good local bands played, but the feeling of dislocation got even stronger as people who’d clearly known each other since birth danced in a line, arms slung round shoulders, voices raised to lyrics they all knew. I eyed them balefully, thinking ‘I have bands like that, you bastards, that I dance to with my friends and we know all the words. And they’re better than yours you bastards, and they’re far far away. You bastards.’ I worried my misanthropy was getting out of control. To say nothing of my perspective on relative distance.
We periodically retired to the indoor toilets to refill our cider cans with wine from the bottle in our bag. I got cold and morose. Someone dumped a British tabloid on our table. It was the Daily Star. We read the TV schedules and soaps roundup- stuff we haven’t watched since our teens, not possessing a television. I squinted drunkenly at the information, looking for something comforting and homely and English. It was just as nauseating, hysterical and superficial as ever. Result.
I whined about my lack of purpose and direction and wished I had something to focus on the way Sam had his job and the boat. Sam pointed out I was supposed to be making an amazing film project and writing an intriguing blog. I whined some more. I wasn’t sure what it was about anymore and we weren’t learning any survival skills or meeting anybody who could teach us anything, or meeting anybody at all for that matter. I was lonely, I needed other people in my life, what the hell was this all about? I got teary-eyed and dripped all over the Daily Star. Sam was patient.
I concluded my wine-induced whine and wiped my eyes. As we made ready to leave, I was seized with a renewed sense of purpose. I marched to the bar where the blonde woman was whooping it up with her bosom buddies.
“Those brownies you put out. They’re still sat there. Who are they for? What’s in them?”
“Oh, I had them left over, they’re for anyone. They’re just brownies. “
On our way out we scooped the still-neglected cakes from their Tupperware and crammed them in our mouths as we stumbled down the dark streets towards the port. Delicious and gooey and full of chocolate chips. Sadly not spiked.
A couple of days later the weather was right to head for our final Channel Island- Jersey. I announced this on Facebook and got a message from Grant, who’d been a page fan for several months. He said he lived in Jersey and had a boat there, and would be happy to meet up and help us sort out a mooring.
Heading into Jersey we felt buoyed by the prospect of meeting someone who knew us even a little. I’d hoped to meet lots of blog readers on our travels, and excitingly almost met up with someone near Aldermaston as we passed through, but in the end it was not to be. It’s hard enough arranging to meet with relevant organisations and projects, when we don’t know ourselves when the wind will be right to travel or on which day the engine will decide to work.
The coast of Jersey was stunning- sandy, craggy and golden in the evening light. The engine choked a couple of times, but always came back to life- and we didn’t need it too often. Our phone was flat when we went to call Grant, so we just headed for the visitors’ marina and moored up. I looked up where Grant’s boat was moored and headed over. It was a sunken, bare marina packed with lonely boats locked up behind keycard gates. I waited for a good ten minutes before a middle aged couple headed for the gates, bickering. I slipped inside in their wake, and found Grant’s pontoon.
A compact, muscly bloke in his 40’s with a cheeky grin and shaved head, Grant sat in the open cockpit of a small fishing boat, sharing a beer and a steady stream of animated Scottish chatter with a friend. He introduced me to his mate, then got up to follow me to Joker.
“It’s weird meeting someone you’ve only seen pictures of on the internet, eh? I’ve really enjoyed your blog. The best thing about it is all the problems you’ve had. Everything going wrong with the engine and that. Really funny. That’s what I really like about it. How it’s all gone wrong.”
“Yeah, that’s the best bit. Do you want to stay for dinner?”
Grant seemed even more excited to meet Joker than me or Sam, and we ate pasta and drank booze until late. It turned out he was a mechanic, with 20 years’ experience servicing the luxury cars of Jersey’s wealthy residents.
“I’d be happy to have a look at your engine. And if you want, I’ll take you on a tour around Jersey tomorrow.”
After drifting like strangers for so long, making a friend was like coming home.
We sold our house in Bristol and came on this sailboat journey to discover some things about how we want to live in an uncertain future of unstable climate and dwindling natural resources. Here are some things we’ve found out:
1. Nature is indifferent to our discomfort, our schedules, our plans. We must adapt to it, not the other way around.
2. Knowing how to fix things is really important.
3. Travel makes you realise how priceless it is to walk into a room and be welcomed by friends.
4. On the sea, you rely on yourself and your boat and trust to a luck you can’t rely on.
5. Plants, trees and insects and soil are bloody brilliant and you miss them when you’ve been at sea.
6. The more time you spend on screens the less you have for 3D things. I prefer 3D things. They still exist when there’s no electricity.
7. If you can live in a 6msq space with someone for a year, you have a strong relationship.
8. It’s not hard to cut your own hair, do without new clothes, use less water and electricity, mend and fix your own belongings (well, engines can be hard).
9. It’s hard to feed yourself without relying on industrial food production. Especially when you live on a boat and have no lasting connection to any one place.
10. How to fail, repeatedly, at things you were sure you could do (eg. live in Lexia, get to the Med, put out a short film every month, meet a ton of fascinating people to teach us survival skills) and deal with it, and appreciate ‘what is’ even as ‘what you wanted’ crumbles round your ears.
11. Sailing in fog is a good metaphor for trying to plan for the future. It’s really scary, but you might as well do it and try to enjoy it, because there you are.
Time Travel Alert! Posted in July, referring to early June!
Our stay in Alderney was short and sweet, with the sun coming out and spangling off the water into our eyes and onto our pasty skins in a surprising way. We looked at it, coating our hands and arms, and said hello to it, as if it was an alien life form. I played the uke in our rocking boat and felt like maybe the horrible bits were over. I considered swimming but there was too much bite still in the wind.
We headed for Guernsey. As ever with Joker, when you sail her on a fair wind there’s very little to worry about. We didn’t need the engine, and glided there with amazed grins on our faces.
On arrival, the Englishness was even more apparent, and several decades more up to date than Alderney. I was particularly touched by the huge yellow ‘Boots’ sign looming over the marina, and the branch of M&S across the street that funnelled BakingSmell™ out into the traffic. We ignored these and headed straight for the nearest fish and chips. Best I’ve ever tasted, probably in the sea that morning (sorry, guy) and fried right there in front of us.
On Monday, as Sam worked, I ‘wifed’- lugging a huge bag of laundry through hot streets to the nearest laundrette. The only one I could find was run by a woman called June and her autistic son Aiden who said I was ‘very pretty looking with lovely brown eyes.’ He noticed my ukulele in my rucksack and asked me to play. Flattery will get you everywhere with me, so I whiled away the next 40 minutes chatting to them and playing Van Morrison and Cyndi Lauper classics. First time I’d played in front of anyone but Sam, and I only got a teeny bit nervous. Aiden reckoned he could get me a gig at his local or at the very least I should sit in the street and put a hat out. Too scared, I told him.
Later we went to the Co-op and experienced the familiar sterile disappointment of English supermarket shopping. In contrast to France, all the sensuality of the food seemed to disappear behind plastic. Veg reduced to miniature overpriced portions. Meat limited to smoothly shaped plucked cuts from animals who never had blood, guts or organs. Food that tried desperately to avoid the offence of suggesting it had once been alive.
After a few days in Guernsey we plotted a course for Sark. We were excited about Sark because it’s very small- only about 2 square miles- and no cars or motorbikes are allowed there. The stated objective in the tourist brochures is to become completely self-sufficient. They also have a Dark Skies policy to keep night lighting to a minimum so people can see the stars.
As we readied Joker for the off, the guy from the boat next door came over. Marinas are funny places, sort of like very posh floating campsites. Sailors can be very interesting people, but we’ve found they’re usually several decades older than us, with considerably more money, and not that keen to have lengthy conversations with a pair of ragtag thirty-somethings. We don’t even have red waterproof jackets, which is basic yacht wear for God’s sake! People do hang out together and have long, festive meals on deck, but they’re usually parties of a few boats who’ve come along together.
Most of our interaction with fellow sailors has amounted to silent (but very welcome) help with mooring, followed by abrupt disappearance, brief curiosity about our unusual junk sail rig, and occasional advice. This fellow was offering the latter. He peered at Sam as he worried at the last knot tying us to the pontoon.
“A clove hitch?! No wonder you’re having trouble.”
Sam explained he’d had difficulty making the bowline tight enough, which seemed to confirm the man’s opinion that we needed his help.
“Where are you going? Sark? You’re leaving it very late on the tide.”
We weren’t- we’d checked the tides meticulously. Still, just in case, the tide tables were hauled out again and the point argued and cleared up. Finally we convinced him we’d make it, and cast off. The man shook his head forebodingly as he dwindled astern.
It’s a very short journey to Sark from Guernsey, and people row it on a regular basis- despite the enormous and petrifying seabeasts of Condor Ferries ploughing their frothing maws up and down several times a day. The wind was technically with us, but so light and wafty that we had to use the engine after half an hour of creeping along.
As the day mellowed towards evening, the blank grey cloud began to tatter and mist. The light became golden, tea-stained.
Approaching Sark, we slid past craggy, biscuity chunks of rock, wet black and biting where the waves lapped them and patched with mossy green on top.
Attached to the mainland by a bridge was Brecqhou, a tiny islet topped by a castle straight out of a fairytale. The insanely wealthy Barclay Brothers purchased it in 1993.
With a population of 600 on Sark, the scale of the Barclay’s investment has caused tension over the island’s already fragile and partial democracy. The Barclays and their supporters claim they are the champions of democratic change in an archaic feudal system, while others support the right of the aristocratic Seigneur and his appointees to continue to govern. Appropriately for their location I’d say they’re between a rock and a hard place. With only 600 people they could be well placed to have real direct democracy, if the Channel Islands weren’t ruled in such an archaic way or such a magnet for super-rich tax avoiders.
Past the Barclays’ fortress, we slid into a cove dotted with free mooring buoys. Four other boats were already there, widely spaced. All was calm and beautiful. Above us, a sandy coloured path meandered down the hill to wet stone steps 200 yards away.
“It’s late, it’ll be dark in a couple of hours. Let’s have dinner and go in the morning.”
I cooked a meal and we ate and drank wine in the last of the mellow light. The air was warm, a soft hair-ruffling breeze. After dark I played my uke and sang to the waves, the cliffs, the stars. We fell asleep with the hatch open.
At about 3am we were woken by a series of clunks. Hauling ourselves out of bed, we found the luxurious 40-footer that had been our distant neighbour had swung round on its buoy as the wind and tides shifted.
Sam adjusted our lines to pull us away from them, while I perched on the prow, pointing a torch at Sam’s hands with one arm and fending off the big shiny boat with the other. Our efforts improved things, but we could have done with their help. After ten minutes or so we gave a few friendly shouts and a couple of knocks. Finally we beamed our torches in at their windows. No response- only the ghostly hiss of an 80’s hits compilation floating over the wind-hoot and wave-slop.
We could only speculate that they were either dead, or having very absorbing and acrobatic sex to the 80’s hits and had somehow remained unaware of our repeated collisions. Finally we drifted far enough away from them and crawled back to bed.
The morning was pure mayhem. I woke as Sam rolled hard into me, squashing me against the hull. Two seconds later I smashed him into the central table. Last night’s wine bottle dived to the deck, sputtering purple. Mugs, cutlery and toothbrushes shook loose, fell, slid and rattled. I already felt seasick, and sat up with that helpless feeling of no escape. Sam huddled under the covers, groaning and rolling like angry spuds.
I took the camera out on deck and saw the last of our neighbours leaving, bundled in waterproofs. Not dead then. The idyllic cove of the night before was thrashing steel and gnarly rock lashed by sideways rain. We couldn’t stay. I downed some seasickness pills with water and they came back up two minutes later. The prospect of pumping, assembling and boarding our joke of a dinghy was dimly comical.
I pulled my retching shudders together for long enough to run the engine and steer as Sam loosed the mooring rope. We leapt away from Sark. Halfway back to Guernsey, the forward motion and our better angle to the waves had calmed my stomach.
Arriving back on the pontoon in Guernsey, our neighbour was waiting.
“Back from Sark already? Ha, I bet you are. I am not surprised. Horrible weather for it. You’re not doing a clove hitch again, are you?”
We checked the weather for the next few days, hoping for a window to revisit the intriguing island. It didn’t look good. Anxious to keep moving south, we decided our next trip would skip Sark and take us to Jersey- the last of the Channel Islands.
Time Travel Alert! Although it is now July, the events in this blog post took place in May. Terribly embarrassing. Realised this was an issue when a friend enquired about our terrible rescue experience and I had no idea what she was talking about despite having published the post the day before. I’m trying to catch up, and finding writing with a pencil(!) on some paper(!) means a lot more writing gets done, as there is no interwebs capering about in my notebook to distract me. Anyway. As you were.
Seeing my parents for a couple of days was a welcome distraction from the fiasco of our last crossing. They took us to the restaurants we’d previously only gawped at while lugging our groceries home. They also brought summer clothes, cheddar cheese and old post, and packed their car with our winter fleeces, mouldy boat cushions and broken/useless bits of one sort or another to take away. All this was done with warmth, affection and apparent enjoyment- something I hope I’ll be able to match in the face of my own child’s strange quests and enthusiasms.
One topic of conversation was the recent progress regarding a piece of land near Bristol we’re hoping to buy. It’s early days and I’m superstitious, so I won’t go into detail, but it’s very exciting and I hope it reaches a point soon where I feel safe enough to tell you all about it.
What I will say is this: If this journey still has any purpose (and I do wonder, believe me), it is to help us figure out where, how and with whom we want to live in an uncertain future of increasing global poverty and instability. A break from the life we were living has enabled us to look at its various parts more dispassionately, from a distance.
You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone- an old one but a good one. Within a month of leaving Bristol we knew we wanted to be near there but not in the city, with some land of our own to grow food on. Bereft of our community, we realised how strong, how loving, how skilled and how resilient it is. Searching fruitlessly in new places for people with the time and inclination to teach us old skills, we remembered friend after friend who possesses them.
Online I discovered and rediscovered multiple projects in and around Bristol that we could have got involved in years ago if we hadn’t been planning this journey.
So when a friend told us she was trying to buy a plot a 20 min train ride from Bristol, in a place already full of people we know, it seemed our dreams and the capital from our house sale finally had a place to go.
If you’re someone who believes the global banking system is doomed and running on borrowed time, the thought of turning all your worldly wealth from a handful of zeros in the digital casino to a piece of ground you can walk on and grow food from is a very comforting thought.
Mum and Dad’s visit was followed by a couple of weeks of our very favourite sport: Waiting in Cherbourg for the Bloody Wind to Change. Interspersed, of course, with our next best thing: Fixing the Fuckbucket Engine.
We changed the fuel filter again and ran it and pumped out air bubbles again and tested it in the harbour again and it was just like old times. It ran fine in the harbour of course, except for a few changes in note. We developed a lightning-fast Engine Glare that we instinctively exchanged every time the engine sounded a little bit different. On a couple of test runs, we tired our eyeballs out with The Glare but it never quite choked.
So one fine day we decided- good enough! And left Cherbourg, yet again. West, my friends- To Alderney!
The crossing was utterly glorious, quite short and required very little engine use. We swept to Alderney almost on a single tack over a joyously bouncy blue sea. For the first time ever I took sea sickness pills, and felt awesome as a result. For some reason I’d assumed they wouldn’t work.
On arrival we blew up our tiny red dinghy and somehow got our outboard strapped to it. The engine looked far too big for it, but we gamely loaded ourselves and our waterproof rucksack full of camera kit and laptops, and cast off. We hunched awkwardly there, squashed together with tortuously folded limbs that still managed to hang over the edges. Sam fired up the outboard and the whole back dipped underwater and drenched us. A swift and tangly bout of limb rearrangement stopped the water surging in, but small as the waves were, we were so low in the water that they slapped us in the eyes. We straggled ashore very wet indeed.
We’d hardly considered what Alderney would be like, in our anxiety over whether Cherbourg and our engine would let us leave. I think I’d assumed it would be a mix of French and English, so close to the French coast.
What we found was a place that felt more English than England. It was like a tiny bubble of 1950’s England had blipped into existence last week, quickly got to grips with the modern economy, whacked all the prices waaaay up and started flogging souvenirs.
No sign of a decent loaf of bread for under £3, nor a decent bottle of wine for under £6. But there was cheddar, and there were pubs.
There was also whimsy and sarcasm. The door of the Marais Hall, one of the oldest pubs on Alderney, was flanked by two hanging baskets made of the smirking corpses of Henry hoovers. Inside, the ambience of a true PUB enveloped us . We’d missed it more than we knew, and sighed comfortably. Dark wood and threadbare upholstery. Framed photos of the darts team dating back to the late 60’s. All team members plastered and festooned in fancy dress ranging from hairy French maids to Tellytubbies. Faded prints of dogs playing cards. An immense knicknack shelf groaned with unidentifiable brass objects and decrepit nautical paraphernalia. A fireplace with mantelpiece, on which no fewer than seven charity collection boxes jostled for space. Lifeboat. Guide dog. Pudsey. Several rattly tube ones. And on the wall above the bar, a huge string of letters, proclaiming “DON’T MENTION THE WAR!” Below, a trio of porcelain Hitlers seig-heiled their way across the wood cladding.
If this seems unduly touchy, bear in mind that the Channel Islands- Alderney, Guernsey, Sark and Jersey- were occupied by the German army during WWII. The British Government, with its overstretched military, essentially allowed this to happen. What followed was 5 years of military rule, curfew, seizure of food, crops and assets, and increasingly, as D-Day loomed, starvation of both the Islanders and the occupying soldiers.
The prisoners they brought to the Islands from conquered Europe fared even worse, designated as disposable humans. They were set to build fortifications, tunnels and military infrastructure and some brought to provide sexual services to the officers. Their life force burned up like so many human candles, they were not fed or allowed clean clothes or soap, and perished in large numbers of starvation, disease and exhaustion.
As in any history of an occupied people, some Islanders ‘collaborated’, some ‘resisted’. Still more were probably somewhere in between, trying to get through it alive.
Anyway, for the rest of the afternoon we reclined on the high-backed corner sofa, feeling English, not mentioning the war, and enjoying a pint and a packet of scampi fries. It was ace.
Our trip back to St Vaast was uneventful, which we flattered ourselves was due to our increasing abilities to a) study the weather and tides, plot a course and b) pay close attention to the actual conditions and respond accordingly, ie sail. We did shudder with superstitious dread as we passed through the all too familiar harbour walls. What if we never escape this place?
After a few days, it was time to head for Cherbourg. The tides are fierce around these parts and more difficult to negotiate going back the other way. We set ourselves deadlines for reaching our waypoints so we could be sure the tide wouldn’t turn against us before we reached our destination. If it did, our engine would struggle to fight against it. Our main error after all this great planning was not really having a plan for what to do if we did miss our deadlines.
The wind was good for the first leg North, belting us along at a great pace. The waves were fierce, deep cobalt blue slaps throwing spray in our faces and slinging us side to side. Fun in that carefree, scary, the-sea-doesn’t-care-if-I-live-or-die type of way.
When we reached the point where we turned West to follow the coast, the wind was at a tougher angle for us and our speed dropped. We sailed in long tacks for a while, then fired up the engine and ‘motorsailed’. The tide was with us, powering down the coast but also dragging us out to sea, so we had to keep steering inland.
We could see Cherbourg. At sea, on a clear day, a harbour can look incredibly close but in reality it’s five or six miles away. We knew it would be hours before we reached it. Nevertheless, we started to feel we’d get there.
The engine suddenly choked and died. It wouldn’t restart.
As Sam hoisted the hatch and checked all the usual things- temperature, seawater chamber, fuel level- I steered as best I could, grateful that the wind had picked up.
Sam figured out that the fuel line was blocked, probably by an air bubble. The few choking splutters we were able to get out of the engine threw a bubbly froth out of the bleed valve, and although the finger pump released even more air, it didn’t solve the problem.
We tried our outboard, which started as reliably as ever but couldn’t get a purchase on the waves. They slopped and scooped around it, one minute drowning it, the next leaving it hacking at thin air.
All this time we were drawing closer and closer to Cherbourg. Although we had passed our first ‘safe’ deadline for the tide and were nearing the ‘late’ deadline, we could see those blue cranes! The same blue cranes that loomed over us all winter. We could almost touch those blue cranes.
“We’re going to make it! We’ll sail in.”
“Yeah, we’ll be like Roger Taylor. Like the sailors of old. They didn’t have motors.”
“Yeah, look, we’re only two miles from harbour, we’re-”
“Sam? We’re going backwards.”
Time and tide wait for no one, however touching their delusions of competence. Our clock had run out, just two miles from Cherbourg. We were being dragged swiftly back the way we came, only just inland a bit because there were some really spiky rocks there.
First order of business was to set sail directly away from the really spiky rocks, which also took us out to sea. Sam tinkered with the engine some more. The sun sank towards the horizon. It was 7pm. My phone rang. We remembered that my parents were visiting us in Cherbourg from the UK the following morning. They would be checking our crossing had gone smoothly. I ignored it. What parent wants to hear their child is in the process of hacking aimlessly through the waves in a seasick daze while sharp rocks wait patiently for the tide to strengthen and deliver her, her husband and their only home to their black teeth? Far nicer to leave that call til everything was sorted out. Then we can talk about what croissants we’ll have in the morning.
But how was that going to happen? We radioed Cherbourg marina, hoping we were close enough to get a tow in. By the time the answer came back we were a mile further away. The answer was ‘no’. We radioed the lifeboat. They said they could come and pick us up but that it would cost 150 euros per hour.
We said yes, please. Come and get us. It was a sharp stab of failure, having just a few minutes before compared ourselves to the sailors of old. Sam’s hero Roger Taylor sails everywhere without an engine, yes- and would never, ever dream of calling for rescue. But he doesn’t do coastal hops, hoping to reach a port in time to meet his parents for croissants. He stays out at sea for months on end, going at the pace of the wind, his only goals the crossing of invisible northerly latitudes and the merciless, refining testing of himself and his boat. Basically, Roger Taylor is a legend and we are plebs.
When we were finally picked up, we’d sailed four miles out from Cherbourg. They asked us to drop our sail as their inflatable RIB approached. Looking at the GPS later, the moment we dropped the sail Joker slewed backwards on the tide a full mile in about 10 minutes.
The lifeboat guys were friendly, dressed in really lush grey and flourescent orange outfits with jackets and stretchy wetsuit trousers and matching boots. They didn’t seem to think badly of us for calling them out when they heard about the engine. Two of them sat in the cockpit with us and asked questions about the junk rig sail, and told us about their dinner which they were missing because of us.
1. We could have gone with the tide back to St Vaast and arrived back there around 1am. If we’d missed the tidal gates we could have tied up outside for a few hours.
2. We could have continued sailing out to sea as the sky darkened, and stayed out there for five hours until the tide turned and brought us back in.
Deciding to do either one of these things would have been much easier if we’d entertained them as possibilities on setting off. We’d also probably have made the decision much earlier on, when the engine failed or when we passed the first deadline. In the event, we made the decision based on discomfort, tiredness, worry, our sense that we’d almost made it and it would be too frustrating to turn away, and my seasickness.
On arrival a guy from the lifeboat shore crew approached us in an agony of embarrassment.
“”Very sorry, would you come with me, I will drive you to a cashpoint”
On the drive, he explained that in France the lifeboat crews are volunteers, but people have to pay for their own rescue.
“None of us do this to get money, but we cannot afford the equipment, the fuel…really I hate to do this part.”
After taking a look at Joker and our bedraggled selves, they’d put their heads together and worked out a discount of about a third. I think our lack of the proper sailing uniforms (red anoraks with flouro hoods, pristine red fleeces, chinos, deck shoes, Breton stripes for the ladies) helped there.
I blithely chirped that in the UK the RNLI are the richest charity in the land, with more money than they know what to do with, practically falling over themselves to rescue people and justify their enormous stack of toys. He writhed with resentment and I felt guilty. Many apologies and words of thanks were exchanged, as was about 200 pounds.
“We’ll see you at lunchtime-ish, we can get some croissants.”
After three blissful weeks of garden work, sunshine and good eating at Dominique’s, we were ready to return to Joker and continue our journey. But it would be far too straightforward to simply follow our existing plan of reaching Le Havre in a couple more hops and turning South towards Paris on the industrial canals. Straightforward is not our style.
Dominique’s seafaring family includes several fishermen and trawler captains, and one riverboat captain. Apparently, the riverboat captain has been down the canals from Le Havre to Paris and found the scale of the other traffic petrifying. Initially we puffed our chests out and said we weren’t scared of a bit of terror, but there were good reasons to reconsider. Our plan was based on spending the winter inland away from the howling sea winds. We extravagantly failed to carry out this plan. Now that the season has finally turned, it seemed a shame to spend summer in great canyons of industrial concrete.
On Dominique’s advice, we reconsidered our route and decided to enter a different canal at St Malo, sailing there in short hops via the Channel Islands. We’ll cut off a corner of coast by taking roughly 100 miles of canal from St Malo to Nantes. After that we’ll coast hop to Royan, where we head back in to the Canal du Midi. This canal, my friends, will carry us triumphant to the South of France, and the Med.
Excitingly, this means heading back West, and stopping off at our beloved adoptive homes St Vaast and Cherbourg. Imagine our delight! Perhaps our engine will break down again and we’ll be stranded for yet more tedious weeks or even months, until the snow and ice return. I hope you are all as excited as we are about that.
Meanwhile, as we settle back into Joker, we feel replenished and ready to carry on the journey. Our time at Dominique’s has been very inspiring, for me in particular. Seeing Dominique’s wide range of skills and the quiet cycle of nourishment and connection that flows through her land and kitchen made me think hard about the tasks traditionally associated with ‘women’s work’ and how stupid it is that these are often seen as regressive roles or dismissed as mere drudgery. I drafted a post called ‘Women and Collapse’ a month or so ago, and after my experience at Dominique’s and some reading recommended by a friend I’ve decided to completely rewrite it.
There’s lots to catch up on first though. More soon!
“I can cook for vegetarians, but I run out of ideas after two weeks. So it can get boring for them. Vegans though, I can’t cook for them. What would I make?”
At the time we were sitting at Dominique’s wide kitchen table blissfully spooning up creme chocolat. It was hard to disagree that her awesome cooking would lack a certain something without animal fats. And with Hugues’ contributions from the trawler turning up every few days, and last year’s meats stockpiled in the freezers and pate jars, meat and fish both fresh and preserved is a big part of the diet here.
Dominique’s daughter Julie keeps goats for milk and bees for honey in the adjoining fields. Once she brought a jug of goat’s milk for us to taste, warm from the udders. There are six gorgeous kids, some of which will be sold as milkers, pets and lawnmowers in time. With goats, it is possible to wean the kids later and continue milking the mothers without separating them. The same can’t be said for cows.
An organic dairy farmer works next door on Dominique’s land, so whenever she wants milk she dips into his unpasteurized, unhomogenised milk tank with a bucket. When she kept her own two cows she churned her own butter, but these days she’s not up for the obligation to milk at 6am every morning.
She told us that when the calves are taken away the mother cries for days.
“It is very hard to listen to at first, but they soon forget.”
I’ve been a vegan and a vegetarian in the past, most recently following an almost vegan diet that included eggs, and also avoiding all refined sugars and grains. I felt physically great on that one, never mind the pride that my diet was ‘green’ and humane. However, the proteins I ate as a vegan- pulses, avocado, chickpeas, nuts- were mostly flown in, and my substitutes for refined sugar were usually tropical fruits like pineapples and dates. Hardly sustainable long-term, in a future of depleting oil resources. I hate soya products, but for the vegans who love them, swathes of rainforest- full of animals- have often been razed to provide the growing land. This sweet exchange demonstrates the knots ‘ethical eaters’ can tie ourselves in: http://www.ukhippy.com/stuff/archive/index.php/t-43379.html
I only really gave up that diet when we moved onto the boat. Sam is never going to be vegetarian, let alone vegan, unless absolutely forced by circumstance. The kitchen is just too small to cater for two widely differing diets, so we’ve both been eating veg-heavy meals with mostly whole grains, but including butter and small amounts of meat and fish. Over the winter we bought two preserved sausages a week- one spicy, one salty- and usually some cheap grass-fed meat like lambs’ hearts and kidneys to make a stew from on Monday. Sometimes we use a tin of fish from the stash in our cupboard. We stick to non-endangered species but all trawling involves ‘by-catch’, which is generally discarded. We both eat something sweet almost every night, out of habit. (Because as I kept telling him, Sugar Is An Addictive Substance.) Until we got here it was often Nutella from the jar. Nom.
Similar to smallholders Ken and Carole Neal, who we visited in Newbury last year, Dominique has a humane but unsentimental attitude to keeping and eating animals.
“I can cook for vegetarians, but I don’t understand them. What do they think we can do with all the male calves while the females are being milked? You need a calf to get the milk. They can’t all be kept. Vegans are more consistent, I understand that. If you don’t want animals to be farmed and killed, it makes sense.
If it’s about how the animals are treated in industrial farming, if you just become a vegan or vegetarian you are missing the opportunity to support farmers who are treating their animals very well. If it is the conditions you care about, and the environment, why not eat a very small amount of expensive meat that has lived a good life?”
As a smallholder, Dominique is not constrained by the profit motive to squeeze her livestock into a small space and feed them crap. The chickens and ducks have a whole field, where the compost heap is also housed, to scratch all day. They’ve dug themselves dust baths in comfy little corners and they put themselves to bed in a spacious henhouse each night. They’re glossy and feisty, with sharp beaks, strong feet, bright red combs, and enough attitude to take a flying banzai leap at the egg collecting bucket on the offchance it contains food. They live about a year, ten times longer than the average factory broiler because they provide both eggs and meat.
The geese have a smaller field for two of them. The gander was killed by a fox recently and they’re too old to make tender meat, so for now they’re just contributing the occasional egg. There’s only one rabbit left, after Dominique’s hunting dog Belisse got confused about which animals it was OK to kill. And she looks so innocent…
“I try to give my animals a good life. I’m not going to set them free, they’d be run over or eaten by foxes straight away. And they’re not pets, I keep them for food.
I try to be considerate of them. When the chicks hatch, there’s a light you put in their cage to keep them warm. The first one I got was a red one, it kept them awake all the time. They use this in factory farming because they eat all the time they are awake. When I realized, I got a softer light so they could get some sleep. They grow slower. But, I would hate it if somebody stopped me from sleeping.”
Luckily for us, the new chicks hatched while we were there. One day the incubator was sitting mute in the corner, the next there were cheeping noises coming from it. Two days later it was time to lift them out. I prepared their cage in a barn, with fresh newspaper, a saucer of water and the warming lamp. Dominique opened the drawer and there they were!
I went back several times during the day to replenish their water. By day two, they were walking properly instead of pinging about like confused electrons, and they’d learned to drink by sipping and tilting their heads back. The four late hatchers we put in that day were quite outclassed by the day old chicks, who’d grown by about a third and mastered the basics of life outside the shell.
When they’re old enough, these chicks will be added to the existing flock of 22. Then the killing of the older generation begins. By the end of winter only the new generation will be left.
“I can kill my animals if I have to. Chickens are the easiest. Most animals get upset if you kill one in front of the others. But the chickens all crowd around and eat up the blood. Hugues goes hunting for wild boar and game birds, so he usually does it for me. I find the rabbits the hardest.”
Like most meat eaters, I already know I wouldn’t like to see with my own eyes the conditions industrially raised animals are subjected to. If you can find peace with the thought that we eat them in the first place- and many can’t– the cruelty stems from treating living beings like units on a production line. If the chickens peck each other from lack of space, burn and blunt their beaks when they’re chicks. If the pigs go mad in their confinements and bite each others’ tails off, just lop them off pre-emptively. If the cows can’t digest the cheap corn they’re fed, dose them up with drugs.
Veganism is a necessary response to a culture in which most of us eat far too much meat. If everyone did it- which is very unlikely- we’d have a problem: what do we do with these animals? Death may be preferable to life on a factory farm, but Dominique’s animals seem happy to be alive.
If everyone followed Dominique’s suggestions of only buying ethically farmed meat we might have a similar problem at first, but it would be easier to make a transition to having fewer, better treated, more expensive animals whose manure could start to replace fossil fuel fertilisers. But we don’t. We rarely count the cost of meat, which is huge in terms of land use, water and cruelty.
People have different reasons for going vegan. The best argument for me is a kind of offsetting. As long as so many people eat meat and dairy several times a day and expect it to be cheap, it’s necessary that others try to take up the slack by rejecting it altogether. I’ve given up persuading Sam to join me in my vegan diet, so for now I’m a meat-eater at a reduced level. I enjoy the flavour, though the ethics of it nag at me. It’s not an industry I want to support.
I can see myself raising my own meat, though. If we had a few grass-eating pigs, two goats for milk, some geese to raise for Xmas and some chickens for eggs and meat, I think I could justify their deaths at the end of a happy, healthy life in the open air. And if I couldn’t, I’d have to give it up altogether. A major part of this journey for me is looking the costs of my lifestyle square in the face, trying to eliminate as many as possible and take as many as I can of the essentials into my own hands.