My paternal grandmother (Nana to me) lived in three centuries. Born in 1899 Frances died in 2001. She grew up in Gloucestershire on the edge of the Forest of Dean and still had a West Country burr in her voice to the day she died even though she was forced to leave the countryside to find work as a maid in service in London.
She owned very little – a few books, a well-used Scrabble board. She never owned a house. She didn’t drive, so no car. She had no debts but no savings either. She’d experienced great poverty and hunger from an early age – once telling me she used a slingshot to kill blackbirds on her way home from school to eat – but in her later years considered herself very comfortable in her council flat.
Even though she’d never had material wealth (or maybe because?) she thrived. She walked everywhere. For miles. She loved growing things – potted plants all over her landing, blagging some beds in the communal garden to grow vegetables and flowers and feed the birds. She had a passion for propagation and told me if she’d had her time again she’d have been a gardener. She ate basic, fresh and unprocessed food – including raw tripe with vinegar on it. She was not an obsessive cleaner (I used to wince a bit at the inside grime on some of her tea-cups) so had plenty of good bacteria in her gut! She loved being with people and exploring new places by travelling on coaches across Europe into her late 90s.
Consumerism passed her by and she managed very well without it for 101 years. But for my generation of baby boomers things have been very different. Mass advertising, inducements to buy into brands on credit cards if you didn’t have the cash, we have been steered towards feeling the need to have more, do more, be more. I got into debt before student loans came in and it was horrendous. After years of fulfilling work as a journalist I found myself in a very lucrative job in TV but then stressed about things I couldn’t control (and didn’t matter greatly) and spent lots on things I didn’t need because I could.
I moved to live in the countryside as an experiment – holding on to my flat in London in case it didn’t work. For some time I commuted daily by train and this is where a wonderful community started to form. I got to know my fellow travellers and we shared stories, worries and hopes and started having regular parties – even full pantomime performances at 0632 in the morning! None of us wanted to be heading into the city but couldn’t imagine how to sustain our lifestyles by working closer to home and having time to enjoy the beauty of where we now lived. Slowly, almost all of us have found a way and are much happier as a result.
I set up my own company, beechtobeach, earning much less but using my income and resource to support other employment and fund things that matter to me – especially environmental causes and campaigns. I decided I didn’t need so much stuff. I stopped buying new clothes, I now repair and re-use things and eat fresh, locally-sourced food (but no tripe for me!). I spend a lot more time in nature discovering the beauty of the countryside that my Nana held in her heart. I’ve also become involved in local politics. Working at the BBC for 16 years where I had to remain objective I found it hard to put my own views out there but realised it was better to try to effect change than complain about what felt like insurmountable objects in change’s way.
By returning to a simpler existence I have become much less of a consumer and much more of a citizen. I know I have further to go on this journey back to values that were second nature to older cultures, but I am convinced that following my better nature is better for me and the world I live in.
Jane is hosting a weekly webinar called Your Better Nature with Sussex Wildlife President and ecologist Dr Tony Whitbread and Author, academic and environmentalist Paul Hannam. Every Wednesday in September 2020 at 7pm. Free tickets available on Eventbrite.