Up until my late teens I spent a fair amount of time on or around a farm in Cumbria that belonged to a man known to me as Uncle Bob (I have mentioned this before, for instance when I told you about not being allowed to tell people our goats wandered indoors now and then). At one time I imagined I would grow up to work or live on a farm and I retain a more than passing interest in sheep, northern hill-farming, and related matters. I’ve followed with interest the ‘re-wilding’ (for want of a better term) that James Rebanks has been doing on his farm a couple of valleys over from where Uncle Bob was. Knowing that, it’s perhaps less surprising that I received Jeremy Clarkson’s book about his farm for Christmas, than if you only know me as a writer on almost exclusively non-agricultural topics.
I know very little about Jeremy Clarkson. He was born slightly further south in Yorkshire than I was. He used to present a TV programme about cars. He writes for the Sunday Times about cars. Since I have no interest in cars I only ever hear about him when he’s hit the headlines for saying something dreadful or punching someone. However, I had seen some clips online of his new TV programme about his own farm, and James Rebanks had mentioned him on Twitter as having woken a broad swathe of people up to some farming issues that they probably otherwise wouldn’t run across. I approached the book with an open mind and a certain amount of intrigue.
I believe the book (Diddly Squat: A Year on the Farm) is a collection of newspaper columns he wrote, starting in the first lockdown in Spring 2020 when he couldn’t test-drive cars as usual and therefore needed something else to write about for a while. He had been attempting to manage his own farm in Oxfordshire for a short while by then but he was still very much a beginner. Both from that point of view and the weird historical moment that was the covid pandemic, it’s a unique set of circumstances to be writing in. His writing style can be brusque, he clearly doesn’t care what people think of him, and he repeatedly exaggerates for comic effect. I can see how he manages to wind so many people up. I found some of his humour crass, and some of it surprisingly funny. For the most part I shrugged off his side-swipes at vegetarians, lefties (which covers a bafflingly wide range of people, in his view), Yorkshiremen (after all, he is one himself) and people who voted for Brexit.
I found the book interesting and enjoyable on the whole. I learnt some things about arable farming, and farming in the South, the typical content of Farmer’s Weekly and how easy it is to lose money as a farmer. Bits of it were essentially anecdotes of his comically inept attempts at maintaining social distancing while operating multi-person farm machinery, turning a tractor, planting in a straight line, or penning sheep. The city-dwelling fish out of water, grappling with this countryside lark. I was horrified by the amount of money he spent on useless equipment or ill-advised experiments, but then he is wealthy from broadcasting and journalism and can afford to try things. Mostly when people say you can’t grow that here or you can’t do it that way there’s a good reason, but sometimes it’s out-dated or pure tradition, and without giving it a go you’ll never know, I suppose. Sometimes the ‘tradition’ is far more recent than you might imagine, anyway.
Given that he doesn’t seem keen on environmentalists, he is doing a surprising amount that on another farm, under the guidance of a more palatable farmer, would be seen as the Right Stuff. He keeps bees, and acres of wildflowers, plants trees and changes the course of a beck to help alleviate flooding downstream. I’ve been trying to do my bit for the environment for the last thirty-odd years but I admit that sometimes it’s frustrating how naive and all-or-nothing some of the people on ‘my side’ can be. OneMonkey calls it the Single Metric problem, where blinkered people focus on one measure without looking at the whole picture. Like turning vegan for environmental reasons then drinking almond milk that’s imported from halfway round the world, without considering that might cause its own problems.
The trouble is, lots of things are complicated. Because Clarkson isn’t politically wedded to any of the ‘green’ agenda he can explore the contradictions and talk openly about weighing up costs and efficiency and biodiversity and carbon emissions. It doesn’t mean he’s necessarily giving each argument appropriate weight but it’s important to air the complexity. If you are one of those environmental lefties, like me, then you’re probably worried about affordability of healthy food, food miles (the impact of transporting the food that turns up on your plate), biodiversity and the destruction of natural habitats, water and air pollution, animal welfare, and the list goes on. There isn’t an easy one size fits all solution to all of this at the same time, but I don’t think we talk enough as a nation about what are the best compromises we could make right now and how they might change over time.
whether we like it or not, cheapness is what matters most of all to most people. Yes, everyone here wants to eat British food, but if an Israeli chicken costs 50p less than a chicken reared down the road, the Israeli chicken is going to go in the trolley.Jeremy Clarkson – Diddly Squat: A Year on the Farm
I don’t agree with everything Jeremy Clarkson has done on his farm, I don’t always agree with how he’s gone about the bits I do agree with, but I appreciate that he’s thinking about it and that he’s presumably causing an unusual audience to think about it too. A man who normally bangs on about high performance cars telling his readers at the end of an article about his wonderful wildflowers that ‘Almost everyone seems to be in agreement on this: we need to put Mother Nature back in the driving seat’ is nothing short of revolutionary. To be encouraged into (some) less destructive ways by someone they recognise rather than the lentil-eating do-gooders on the other side of the political fence can only be a good thing. Most people are a mass of contradictions and I’m sure the Single Metric gang won’t be happy, but I say let’s have as many people as possible doing their imperfect best and take it from there.
If I’ve shocked you by vaguely approving of some of Jeremy Clarkson’s work and you think I need to take it easy for a while you can always buy me a cuppa…