It's been a ropey old year down on the farm. When I retired from London life 10 years ago, accompanied by a copy of The River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and romantic dreams about self-sufficiency, I was full of hope for a new dawn. Never again would I visit a supermarket. All eggs would be laid by our hens. Organic vegetables would spring forth from the garden. Home-brewed ale would comfort the evening and I would chop wood and cart muck every afternoon. The smell of freshly baked bread would fill the kitchen and the children would run free in the fields. The vulgar world with its television talent shows and mobile phones would not disturb our Epicurean retreat.
I was thinking about this dream the other day as I popped into Lidl to buy cheese, tomatoes, broccoli, eggs, baked beans, frozen pizzas, Jaffa Cakes and own-brand cereal. That was after taking the children to lunch at Pizza Hut. I returned to our smallholding and hung my head in shame as I surveyed the weeds in the vegetable patch. I fed our lone cockerel (the hens have all been killed by a fox), and went indoors to tell the children to stop playing Minecraft.
I'm in theory a fan of foraging, but somehow the whole of September has gone by without us picking a single blackberry. Last year – or the year before – I made five pots of hedgerow jam with blackberries, sloes, hips, haws and elderberries. This year: nothing.
This is not to say that my experiments in smallholding have altogether ground to a halt. I baked bread this week – huzzah! – and put some chicken bones in a pot with the idea of making stock at some point. I collected a handful of broad beans and peas from the vegetable patch in August, and I reckon three or four parsnips might have survived the attack of weeds. I chop logs every afternoon and in the evening light a cosy fire in the wood burner.
But gone are the glory days. I remember one summer three years ago when we didn't buy any vegetables for a full four months, so plentiful was our own supply. We even sold eggs at the end of the lane because we were producing too many for our own use. The shelves groaned with unlabelled jars of treats.
My excuse for neglecting my husbandry is the Idler shop in London: the demands of setting up a retail enterprise over the past two years have necessarily meant that there has been less time to potter about in the garden. I am turning bourgeois: while in the past I tried to do everything myself, I now find myself fantasising about earning lots of money so I can afford to pay a gardener.
I also blame the children. They don't want organic, home-cooked food. They want rubbish wrapped in brightly coloured plastic. They like telly and computers. They want to go to McDonald's and Alton Towers like their friends. They want to go to the fair. So I took them to the fair last weekend. Fairgrounds have remained completely untouched by the organic-food revolution. I simply did not dare to enquire as to the provenance of the meat in the hot dogs on offer, or indeed whether the buns had been baked locally with organic flour. There was only one noticeable concession to middle-class food ethics, and that was the sign "freshly cooked chips".
I was already feeling pretty queasy from going on the Super Waltzer and, in for a penny, in for a pound, I bought myself a hot dog, wolfed it down and instantly regretted it. What horrors had that hot dog contained? What terrible stories could the poor pigs who had died for it tell of their lives? Now I felt really sick in all sorts of ways. No, the fair is really not a healthy place, but the children consider it to be very heaven. "That was so fun," they said, with their poor command of grammar.
However, the country life has seemingly been kind to me as far as appearance goes. Last week I attempted to buy some fine ales in Sainsbury's. To my surprise and annoyance, the spotty youth at the checkout said: "Do you have any ID?" I laughed, saying that I was 44 years old and have three children. "I'm sorry, sir, but I can't sell you these unless you show me some ID," he responded, putting my fine ales behind the counter. "But it's absurd!" I spluttered, and asked to see the manager. An even younger youth appeared and patiently explained that once ID has been requested, alcohol cannot be sold. I decided to be flattered.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'
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