One man’s fight for the land
Fiona Harrington reviews It could have all been so different, which documents Laurence Keeley’s long struggle against mega farming and for housing justice.
Laurence Keeley author of this short part-memoir, part-manifesto, could be described as a kind of human perpetual motion machine. In his close to 70 years on earth so far, he has probably packed more activity in one life than most of us could manage in two or three lifetimes!
Born in 1945, Laurence was the only child of Victor and Daisy Keeley who were tenant farmers of Brigden Hall Farm, one of the many tenancies on the huge Ashburnham Estate near Bexhill, West Sussex. His father was a farmer's son and his mother the daughter of the local blacksmith, who when Victor met her was “in service” to a family in the area.
He sketches briefly but graphically the kind of life his parents led in the early days. Their life on the land was hard, at least by the standards of later decades – no electricity, no mains water, milking and all the tasks of the farm being done by hand, with the use of heavy horses who provided the power for ploughing, harvesting, transport and all the various seasonal activities. Their farm was of the traditional mixed type, raising both dairy and beef cattle, pigs and chickens. On the arable side they grew wheat, barley and oats while much of the produce of the farm such as eggs, milk, butter and vegetables were sold in the town.
By the time Laurence was growing up some modern methods had been introduced and water no longer had to be drawn from the well, but the farm still operated in basically the same sort of way. This was the life that formed the young Laurence and is also in fact the kind of farming he advocates today as the best way to manage the land. This view, which includes concern for animal welfare, is that “small” cannot only be “beautiful” but also efficient.
For example, he recalls that in the 1960s there were approximately 20 farms in Ashburnham and surrounding villages, milking about 20 cows each. All the small villages were similar in the size of their herds. He notes that there were probably no more than 400 cows in each village between the little farms. Today however, one farmer would have the only herd of milking cows in the village with up to four hundred cows.
This concentration of dairy production in one large concern is more industry than agriculture really. In his opinion cattle would be better looked after if more farmers had fewer cows rather than one farmer owning one very large herd. Not only that but it would also be better for the land because of the way smaller, mixed farms are managed. He also makes the very pertinent point that if a mega farm were to go out of business for any reason, there might well be no farm in the area left to carry on dairy production. Smaller farms would also create more employment for local people who wish to remain in their locality.
Transport and the problems it can create is another issue he touches on in this regard. The time taken and the mileage necessary for the conveying of milk have increased enormously – the milk produced in his own locale is now transported all the way to Essex rather than, as used to be the case, to a relatively nearby dairy. He wonders whether all of this really amounts to progress, ending one section of the book with the thought that “while no one made a lot of money, the farms were able to make a living.”
It would be easy to dismiss these ideas as simply nostalgic dreams of a bygone era to which we cannot return. However, that would be to dismiss the very lengthy and deep immersion of the author in the life of the land over a period of more than six decades. One gets the impression that his is a practical mind rather than a dreamy or impossibly romantic one. He knows what he writes about and what he knows has been born out of many years of hard toil on the land of East Sussex.
One of the chapters is entitled “My Thoughts on how Farming has Changed” and another one is “Thoughts on Food Production”. These could be described as a manifesto. In these passages he describes in more depth his vision for the future of agriculture in this country. In his view some quite fundamental land reform is necessary.
In a paragraph which one imagines might not be popular with a lot of city folk who move to the countryside to “live their dream”, he proposes that non-farming land owners should create “a new tenancy system which would allow new, younger people to enter into farming” rather than just sitting on what could be productive land reaping not crops, but “many benefits for themselves and their families but don't contribute to food productivity.” Old farm buildings could also be converted into dwellings for young farmers.
On the face of it while these changes would be progressive and beneficial in all sorts of ways, they leave untouched the system of tenant farming in itself and no matter how committed these farmers might be, the continuation of any particular farm is dependent on the commitment, or lack of it, on the part of land owners. Another idea is for the government to own the land and to let it on reasonable, lifetime terms to genuine farmers. The changes advocated are hardly revolutionary but taken together with other aspects of his vision and other good ideas on how we could better organise the communities we live in, they are a good deal preferable to the dysfunctional and wasteful agricultural system we currently have.
Further to his thoughts on farming, food production and care for the land, are his proposals for affordable housing for all and the related topic of town planning. It is his contention that it would be perfectly possible for a young couple let's say, to buy a house on a mortgage of £70,000 or less made possible by a system of “non-market housing” in which the government “transfers land to a new system we might call a Community Land Trust.” The novel aspect of this is that when and if the home owners wish to move they may only sell their house back to the trust. A similar system would apply to rented accommodation. The “right to buy” would be abolished and lifetime tenancies offered in its place.
It is his view that too many of us live isolated, lonely and alienated lives which all too often give rise to physical and mental ill health as well as to criminality. As an antidote to the swathes of sterile and depressing housing estates, he proposes a much more community-oriented alternative based on designing new developments with the needs and desires of people placed at the very heart of them, where people could live cooperatively while at the same time preserving the privacy of their own living spaces.
Old and young could mingle more easily and naturally, there would be allotments, sporting and exercise facilities, play areas, cafes, places of worship and public spaces where people could socialise as they wish. In short, areas for residents not developers, and an end to a system where people become either slaves to their mortgages and rents, or sink into homelessness. Plans illustrating these examples of community living are provided which look very appealing. His concern for and involvement with people living at the margins of society, including traveller communities, form the heart of the book along with compelling and humorous descriptions of the many vicissitudes of his own life.
On the death of his father the tenancy reverted to the landlord of the estate and Laurence found himself landless. Renting land for the grazing of his animals now became the only option, although that was far from ideal as he found that it was extremely difficult to properly care for cattle and other stock if one is not on the same site as they are.
He also rented fields on which to grow crops but the combination of having to travel constantly between the various sites and working very long and toilsome hours took its toll and dragged him downwards emotionally at times. He came to a point at one stage where he admitted that while he could never take his own life, he was nonetheless in a position where he was able to empathise with those who found suicide the only solution. He picked himself up and carried on nonetheless, animals and crops are not sympathetic to emotional troubles and work had to get done.
As an outlet and because he was a talented sportsman, he returned to active participation in all manner of athletic activities – from football to cricket, to badminton and table-tennis while also becoming involved in local politics. He stood as a candidate in various local elections on a programme of the social changes described above.
A major turning point in his life occurred in 2002 when a combination of bad luck and the necessity to dispose of some farm waste led to his being arrested, tried and a one month custodial sentence imposed, which he spent in Lewes prison. It was on the cusp of the disastrous foot and mouth outbreak and just after a new set of regulations had been introduced which outlawed the burning of animal waste on farm land. He was caught on the wrong side of the regulatory period when he did what he and his business partner had always done when the need to dispose of such waste arose. It was a complex situation and Laurence found himself sufficiently in the wrong legally as to find himself incarcerated because he was unable to pay the hefty fine the court required. While dismayed by the judgement he remained typically upbeat, using his time behind bars to connect with other prisoners and to question the prison system as a whole.
The politics of social change through political reform has remained a constant and urgent imperative. He became a member of the World Development Movement and campaigns with them, taking part in the campaign to Make Poverty History in Edinburgh during the G20 summit in 2005 among other activities.
His involvement with UKIP is questionable and troubling however. He stood as a candidate for the party in the course of the general and local elections that year, citing his opposition to the European Union as it currently exists as his reason for doing so. He describes the EU as a “beast out of control” and as a club for politicians and big business which he wishes to see reformed into a “Europe of the people” with a new constitution and a People's Forum substituted in the place of the current bureaucratic institution. Nonetheless it was a lapse of judgement which one hopes is no longer part of his political conviction. In fact his interest in Europe and his travels on the continent as well as his abiding concern for the marginalised and his liberal outlook, do not paint him as a typical UKIP member.
As the blurb on the back cover of the book says, “this is the true story of an individual trying to make his mark on the world against the backdrop of a rapidly vanishing way of life”. Written in an episodic and conversational style, it brings us into close familiarity with that world. Reading it left this reviewer feeling almost exhausted by the sheer dynamic energy of a man who has packed so much into a life which has been lived out in a principled and admirable way.
The book is illustrated very entertainingly throughout with witty drawings and caricatures by Andy Willard.
21 May 2013