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The legacy of John Seymour.


John Seymour, most closely associated with the self-sufficiency movement, was no fan of modern living. The cause which drove him affirmed the joys of living a simple, connected existence, close to nature. Vicky Moller gives a personal insight into a remarkable life and legacy

JOHN SEYMOUR died in September, aged 90. Known as the father of self-sufficiency, he wrote more than 40 books and was also a thinker, soldier, sailor, farmer, drinker, musician and above all, radical activist.

He had a huge effect on many people, as he discovered in his journalistic ramblings round Wales. Over-nighting with strangers, he opened their copies of his books to find soil on the gardening pages, butter on the dairy pages and blood on the slaughtering pages.

He was brought up in an Essex manor but spent his time with farmers and craftsmen and developed his commitment to nature and rural ways early. He loved the countryside, 'I knew every inch of it and was familiar with every bird, flower, tree and hill. I had spent those years in a kind of mystical, magic dream. I had loved the depths of the great beech woods...the flash of a kingfisher across the surface of the Stour.'

His family moved to London, where he hated the petty snobberies.

'I call them the boring twenties, not the roaring twenties'. As soon as he could he left for Africa, where began a life of freedom and adventure. From stockman to fisherman to miner and explosives expert, hunter, to vet - he rode, walked and worked through South and North-West Africa.

At the start of the war he joined the Kings African Rifles and led his platoon - 'white officers with black privates' - to help drive the Italians from Ethiopia and the Japanese from Burma. He accepted promotion to captain only on condition he remained actively fighting alongside his platoon.

John lived with the villagers, hunted with bushmen, learned Swahili and fed his men with his rifle. He respected the courage of the Japanese and was devastated when he heard about Hiroshima. John cried then as he cried in his last years at the memory.

'That was despicable', he told me, 'killing all those women and little children. I cannot forgive the Allies, we didn't need to do a filthy thing like that.'

After a spell at the WarAg, organising farm work for prisoners-of-war and looking after the women's land army - settling disputes with the employers, having sing-songs and working with them on the harvest, he took to radio journalism and book writing. In 1954 he married Sally, and they started out living on a barge with their babies. He wrote and she illustrated Journey through England, a book that helped re-open abandoned canals.

Then they found a five-acre holding to rent in Suffolk. It was so remote that when they needed milk for the children they decided to buy a cow, and so began the Self-Sufficiency Movement. He had most of the ideas and she made sure they came to fruition. They produced The Fat of the Land, the book that started it all, now reprinted.

In 1964 the family bought a farm in Pembrokeshire.

He said, 'I was back in a peasant society where people still brewed beer and killed pigs and we were no longer freaks'.

He and his farming neighbours were constantly brewing and singing. Children who were young then look back on those as golden days. He became involved in wider movements, made friends with Gwynfor Evans, and with Plaid Cymru friends, removed sign-posts to help the Welsh language movement. Among his friends were E F Schumacher, of Small is Beautiful fame, Satish Kumar, who ran Resurgence magazine, Christopher Day, founder of ecological architecture, and Lady Eve Balfour's family - she was founder of the Soil Association and organic movement.

Here John wrote the Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, which sold in its millions. His fame grew and a community gathered around him. Sally left to run her own smallholding and I joined John with my three children after his second marriage had ended. People thought him brave to take us on - he was.

Times changed - as the des- truction of the planet and the domination by corporations became public knowledge the counter-currents of organic eating, ethical and local purchasing and clean energy grew. John was increasingly called on to write, talk and produce television series like Far From Paradise.

The area where he lived is now rich in traditional skills and a thriving neighbourhood of people influenced by and in our imperfect way, living out his dream. Within a mile of his grave, tucked in the hills and woods are a blacksmith, mechanic, joiner, small-holders, tree nursery, seamstress, candle-maker, herb farm, baker and an eco-community. That this little economy is environment-friendly is proven by our ancient sessile oak woods carpeted in lichens, and visited by lichenologists from Europe. And the influence has spread.

The village of Newport, three miles away, has a thriving complement of traditional shops, including traditional health and an eco-centre. People travel from cities to Christmas-shop in our village. Unfortunately its house prices rival London's as a consequence of its popularity. The whole-food shop has a stunning range of organic breads and vegetables produced within eight miles. The garage sells organic milk for conventional prices from a nearby three farms co-operative. All the butcher's meat is local. Pembrokeshire surpasses any Welsh county for organic businesses, from small to 2,000 acres run by six farmers co-operatively, many now pioneering renewable energy. And the activist tradition is unbeaten: When GM crops were planned organic farmers and writers led the county to action and within two months the GM farmer had to abandon the idea.

John died as he had lived. After his week-long 90th birthday he said, 'I've travelled three continents, I've written 40 books, I've done enough on this planet, I want to die'.

He had cancer but he went ahead of his illness, knowing what he was doing. He refused food and lay staring ahead very calmly. Asked if he wanted anything at all he answered simply, 'Death'.

His daughter and her family filled the room with welcome and beauty. People sat talking round the candle while John made his final journey. The doctor who happened to be there when he died said she felt extremely privileged to experience such a death. There was humour too; the natural coffin didn't arrive in time, so the funeral guests built a bier to carry John, wrapped in home-made blankets made from his own sheeps' wool.

He is buried in a field on his farm looking out at Mount Carningli. His sons and friends dug the grave and found the headstone lying in it, and they built a stone seat next to the grave for contemplators. No professional undertaker, no expenses, a self-sufficient ending!

A fuller version of this article appears in the winter edition of Natur Cymru - A Review of Wildlife in Wales along with articles on porpoise watching, marsh fritillary butterflies, air pollution, the Montgomery Canal and much more. An annual subscription costs pounds 12.50, a single copy is pounds 3.50; please send cheques (payable to Natur Cymru) to: Natur Cymru, Maes y Ffynnon, Penrhos Garnedd, LL57 2DW, or visit the website at
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 7, 2004
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