I first knew my mum and dad had become ecofreaks when I ended up on the front page of the Observer in a gigantic pile of recycling.
They’d gone to a Friends of the Earth rally along with “a cheerful group of young people” (the Observer’s words) to highlight the amount of paper London wasted every day. It was 1974, and I was a cute, obedient three year old with blonde hair. A journalist spotted a photo-opportunity and asked if he could snap me on top of the pile, so my parents chivvied me up it.
Little did I know this was just the start of something that would change our entire lives. It may have begun with a bit of innocent recycling, but then it got out of hand. They set out to chuck the rat race altogether and chase the self-sufficiency dream, and we ended up with a small herd of cattle, dozens of chickens, two hives of bees, some feral guinea pigs and an orphaned cat. Oh, and vegetables. Rows and rows of vegetables, plum trees and apple trees, a fruit cage, a huge compost heap, a coal shed, a hay barn, and a lot of nettles. And we squashed it all in, along with our actual house, on a bit of land a third of the size of a football pitch.
That’s what happens when you have a mid-life crisis.
Unlike Tom and Barbara in The Good Life, my dad didn't start out with the intention of starting a farm in the back garden. In fact, he hadn’t seen The Good Life – nobody had at that point, because it hadn’t been on telly yet. We came first. Tom and Barbara copied us and the other self-sufficiency nutters, not the other way round. The resemblance was uncanny though.
In the sitcom, Tom Good hits his forties and suddenly gives up his job in a London advertising firm.
In real life, my dad hit his forties and suddenly gave up his job in a London advertising firm.
In the sitcom, Tom Good is an incurable optimist who decides to turn his dream of self-sufficiency into a reality.
In real life, my dad… well, I don’t need to spell it out for you.
He aimed big. He didn’t just want a few veg and a pint of milk for his efforts, he actually wanted us to be so self-sufficient we’d be making our own electricity. The plan was to buy a watermill which could provide power, and enough land for a proper smallholding.
It was a good plan before we found out how much watermills cost. But more of that later.
Of course, I was only little and if they told me what they were doing, I didn’t pay attention. I couldn’t help noticing when they wanted me to climb recycled paper mountains, but I didn’t pick up any of the talk about moving to the country. We were city people - South Londoners.
Wimbledon Common was quite rural enough for my liking, and of course, quite tidy, as the Wombles had taken all the litter.
I wish I could say that I could remember the day my dad came back with the glow of the newly converted Good Lifer on his face, but I’d be lying. I probably was there during the key conversation where he persuaded my mother it was okay for him to change our entire lifestyle because it offended his morals, but I may have been concentrating on drawing 666s on the Radio Times. The moment is lost. All I know is that by the time I was four, my mother asked me what turned out to be a crucial question: was I getting bored at Playgroup?
“There doesn’t seem much point in going to Playgroup if you aren’t learning anything,” she went on. “After all, you won’t be going there much longer. And you won’t being going to school here after all, so don’t worry about it for the moment.”
You’d think I would have noticed that little word here. Unfortunately I didn’t pick up on the right bit. All I could think was: Hooray! I wouldn’t have to go to school, ever! What could possibly go wrong?