Friday 27 December 2013

Classic cinema and our future

Originally published in Front Porch Republic, November 2011. 

Invited to a Halloween party a few years ago and at a loss for a last-minute costume, I put on my most raggedy suit, bought a cigar, applied three strips of greasepaint, and walked in the door as Groucho Marx. If you think you know where this is going, don’t worry – everyone else dressed in costume too. Unfortunately, I thought Groucho would be as iconic and recognisable as Elvis or Dracula, and not one of my educated, middle-aged neighbours had heard of him.

Of course we were in Ireland, where cultural touchstones can be different, but more and more North Americans, I find, have no familiarity with classic movies either. I rarely see them in my local DVD stores or libraries, with a few predictable exceptions: a John Wayne movie or two for elderly men, a now-colourised musical for women, and the inevitable Three Stooges. Exceptions like It’s a Wonderful Life loop endlessly in holiday marathons until they become white noise, no matter how relevant in this time of bank failures.

Perhaps this is understandable; most people these days find the conventions of black-and-white movies as alien as Kabuki theatre, familiar only from decades of countercultural spoofing. Many times I have eagerly attended the rare revival, from Dark Victory as a teenager to Metropolis last year, only to cringe when the dramatic scenes reduced the audience to horse laughter. Young people might do well to explore old movies, though, for as we enter a time of austerity they might turn out more relevant and prophetic than anyone realises.
Invited to a Halloween party a few years ago and at a loss for a last-minute costume, I put on my most raggedy suit, bought a cigar, applied three strips of greasepaint, and walked in the door as Groucho Marx. If you think you know where this is going, don’t worry – everyone else dressed in costume too. Unfortunately, I thought Groucho would be as iconic and recognisable as Elvis or Dracula, and not one of my educated, middle-aged neighbours had heard of him.

Of course we were in Ireland, where cultural touchstones can be different, but more and more North Americans, I find, have no familiarity with classic movies either. I rarely see them in my local DVD stores or libraries, with a few predictable exceptions: a John Wayne movie or two for elderly men, a now-colourised musical for women, and the inevitable Three Stooges. Exceptions like It’s a Wonderful Life loop endlessly in holiday marathons until they become white noise, no matter how relevant in this time of bank failures.

Perhaps this is understandable; most people these days find the conventions of black-and-white movies as alien as Kabuki theatre, familiar only from decades of countercultural spoofing. Many times I have eagerly attended the rare revival, from Dark Victory as a teenager to Metropolis last year, only to cringe when the dramatic scenes reduced the audience to horse laughter. Young people might do well to explore old movies, though, for as we enter a time of austerity they might turn out more relevant and prophetic than anyone realises.

I don’t mean science fiction films from that era, with their now-hilarious predictions of flying cars and domed cities. Nor do I mean recent science fiction, which in the 1970s took the same apocalyptic turn as our religion and our politics, until by now most rental stores have a single section for “science fiction/horror.”

In defence of Zombie Apocalypse movies, our society is facing some serious problems. We have built a world where almost everything depends on fossil fuels — cars, air travel, trucking, shipping, heat, electricity, plastics, and fertiliser -- and we use more every decade, yet the supply is limited. The coming decades will probably bring more outages and shortages, along with weirder weather and economic shocks, problems that feed on each other. Energy alternatives like bio-fuels, nuclear, wind and solar might allow us to live with the per capita energy of 80 years ago rather than 180 years ago, but nothing will spare us from having to make do with less.

Post-apocalyptic fiction, though, assumes everything will disappear, overnight, ridding the world of the people we don’t like and leaving usin control. The reality will probably be less horrific and cinematic; fossil fuels will probably abate over decades, and the greatest danger will be enforced austerity for millions of people mentally unprepared for it.

That’s where movies come in – and television and other media, but I’m focusing on movies. Most of us spend most of our waking lives staring at glowing rectangles, and we weave our mental landscape of the world from media images like birds building a nest from scraps. When I read accounts of Thermopylae I still see 300, and even when I read Gandhi’s original writings I still picture Ben Kingsley.

For movies to help us prepare for our real future, though, it has to show us what such a world could look like, and neither Star Trek nor Zombie Apocalypse fiction help us show people struggling to pay the mortgage, irrigate the crops and hitch a ride to town. We do have thousands of movies that do show us this more limited future, though, because they were made in a more limited past.

Some films of the 1930s and 40s included Busby Berkeley-style fantasies, of course, but most had to show people a world they recognised, and in the details of backgrounds and dialogue we can glimpse a very different America. For one small example, take 1932’s Grand Hotel: Joan Crawford’s character eats only one meal a day, the most she can afford, while Lionel Barrymore’s dying character wants to treat himself to the finest luxuries the hotel can offer, “my own bathroom, like rich people.”

Or take the scene in 1943’s Tender Comrade where Ginger Rogers describes to Robert Ryan the kind of normal life they would have when he returns from the war: a garden where they could grow their own food, with chickens in the yard. It’s not the kind of dialogue we’re likely to see in a war movie today, but it should be. And when our soldiers return, they will have to rebuild their old lives, reboot their marriages and rediscover their children – a story Hollywood told well in 1946’s The Best Years of our Lives.

As another example, take King Vidor’s 1934 film Our Daily Bread: a young couple can’t pay their rent, and neither can most of their friends. They have inherited some land but can’t pay the taxes, for no one is around to cultivate the property. Someone realises the two problems could solve each other; they and their friends can move to the land, build a new life and split the profits from the farm.

I haven’t seen many films about working people trying to get health care — unless I watch 1938’s The Citadel. More people must care for elderly parents, but I don’t see many films dealing with the problems that causes, outside of 1937’s Make Way for Tomorrow. And has any recent film showed the down-and-out as heroes, as in Meet John Doe, The Grapes of Wrath or I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang?
To most people I talk to these days, old movies seem hopelessly corny and unrealistic – and obviously some had dated references, poor dialogue, or simply have not aged well. Their depictions of African-Americans appropriately offend modern sensibilities, as does the sight of white actors playing ethnic roles. I don’t recommend them if you’re trying to quit smoking, either; even in The Citadel, one surgeon hands another some cigarettes, saying “they’ll calm your nerves.”

Classic films also treated courtship and language with a gentleness that seems strange to us today, now that our mass media have spent four decades celebrating every new broken taboo as a victory against The Man. Are films with graphic sex and gore, however, more realistic? Is that what your life is like?

In fact, movies of the 1930s and 40s, despite their innocent image, show a grimmer world than we are used to seeing. Frank Capra’s movies have become synonymous with Norman Rockwell Americana, but their bright moments were powerful because they were surrounded by darkness, their decent characters – John Doe, George Bailey — framed, harassed and pushed to suicide and madness.

Ironically, I grew up with old movies because of this misconception; for conservative Christians in the 1970s and 80s, classic movies made safe entertainment, so my brothers and I grew up knowing Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart the way other children know rappers or wrestlers. We passed every supper with trivia contests, with games our parents and grandparents had created. In one game we were given two actors – say, Charlie Chaplin and John Wayne – and had to link them with the shortest possible number of co-stars. These days I’m sure someone has a web site and algorithm to tell you instantly, but we had to calculate on the spot that the answer was one: Paulette Goddard.

Yes, it’s the Kevin Bacon game; years later a bunch of college students patented it, marketed the idea and gained fame and fortune. No, I’m not bitter.

In another game, which we called Rotunda, we started with a film and two co-stars – say, Claude Rains and Jimmy Stewart – and then each of us took turns bouncing through co-stars, from Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story to Cary Grant/Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and so on. The goal of the game was to make your way back to the first actor you named, but to anticipate several moves ahead, so that only you, and no one else, would reach the crucial link to Claude Rains.

This love of movies stayed with me over the years; I worked as a film critic for a newspaper chain for a while in my twenties, which sounds like a dream job until you realise how many bad movies you need to sit through. Depressingly, I found that the quality of movies has deteriorated over time; take the best films of any year, and they do not outweigh the products of even a single month of, say, 1941.

Of course such a sweeping and subjective statement will not match everyone’s tastes, and of course film technology keeps improving, each decade bringing a new kind of animation, CGI, 3-D or some other way to wow us. Few films today, though, seem to rely on great stories; they have become spectacles, as silent movies were, rather than well-written plays. Moreover, any one of them cost enough to make a hundred films like The Thin Man or The Maltese Falcon, even accounting for inflation. Few filmmakers today, rolling in wealth and with the godlike power to create whole worlds onscreen, do as much as John Huston or Woody Van Dyke did with a cardboard set.

And this brings us back to living on less. When the Great Depression hit, movies shifted away from the big-budget fantasy spectacles of the 1920s into more modest and realistic fare. In part they were responding to the demands of newly invented talkies, but also to the desires of an increasingly desperate and politically radical America. Hollywood saw an intellectual movement – imagine! – of writers and directors determined to tell useful stories by and for ordinary people. American films have never been more well-written or resonant than in the 1930s and 40s, because they have never been more gently and consciously populist.

Such ideals drew accusations of Communism even then, and some of those writers and directors did become entangled in the misguided intellectual causes of the 1930s. “A surprising number,” though, write authors Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner in their book Radical Hollywood, “came straight out of Middle America and made their choice on old-fashioned moral grounds.” There is a reason old movies are so sentimentally cited by Glenn Beck and Pat Robertson as symbols of a better America, and why the growing neo-conservative movement in the 1970s asked an old B-movie star to be their figurehead.

Movies and other media have become spectacles again, and as we move into something far greater and deeper than a Depression, I long to see well-written, idealistic stories about regular people coping with the long emergency.

I want to see films for all ages, devoid of hip countercultural irony. I want to see low-budget teleplays in which today’s equivalent of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland put on a show to raise money to build allotments in the old park, a new series of Dead End Kids movies in which modern versions of Tommy and Milty cajole the neighbourhood association to allow pigs in the vacant lot.

With a future this severe bearing down on us, movies might seem like small potatoes; if we do face a future of widespread poverty, of course, we should all attend to fundamental human needs, and save the old lady rather than the Mona Lisa. But few things can stick in the thoughts of masses of people as well as movies and television; when I referred to a “Star Trek future” or a “Zombie Apocalypse,” you knew just what I meant.

And they are one of the last things we do in community. I took my seven-year-old to see Buster Keaton’s The General at a rare showing recently, and while she chuckled when I showed her clips on YouTube, we had tears in our eyes laughing with an auditorium of people. It felt like a good football game or a revival tent, with waves of emotion rippling over a crowd, and for a brief moment in the darkness you are reminded that we’re all in this together.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

Christmas as it used to be

Before Christmas we trimmed all the manes and tails of the ponies, and would stuff the hair into pillows or saddles.  Around Christmas time the excitement began; on first good day in December white-washing was underway. Pictures from old calendars decorated the walls, or tin candy lids. 

-- Dursie Leonard, Burren, County Clare, 1920s.

We were as good as gold the week before Christmas because we were told that “Holly Pux,” Santa’s friend, would be sitting on the chimney. 

-- Phyllis McDermot, Longwoods, County Meath, 1930s.

The shopkeepers had to look after their customers; everybody got some gift. Good ones got a brack and a red 1 lb. candle, others got just a brack, another just a red candle and so on. The men who got tobacco were taken very quietly down to the parlour or a glass of whiskey. It all added to the excitement.”

They bored a hole in a mangold to hold the candle, and everyone in the family was there Christmas Eve for the lighting of the candle. Christmas Eve was a fast day, with no meat; we had salted fish and potatoes, white sauce and butter, followed by tea and fruit cake. Santa only gave them perhaps an orange, a few little books, crayons and sweets, but the important thing was that Santa had come. 

-- Aine Aherne, Nohoba, Kinsale, County Cork, 1920s

A week before Christmas my father killed three turkeys and a goose. He nailed pieces of wood together to make a box, and put the turkeys in it feathers and all. Then he put an address on the box and posted it to family in Dublin. In return we got brack and a huge cake the size of a motor car wheel. 

Consiglio Murphy, Clonpriest, Youghal, County Cork, 1920s

Christmas used to be very different than it is now; if my parents had what we spend on toys they would have been rich indeed. A few days before the grocery boy arrived with the dray (cart) and a Christmas box, the ingredients for cake and pudding with a large candle in the middle.

Annie Dunne, Rathcoole, County Dublin, 1920s. 
On Christmas Day, if the weather were fine we went for a walk before dinner. Our relations came to visit, and we played musical chairs with our cousins while someone played the piano.

We played tops, which you kept spinning with a little whip; hoops, which were old bicycle tires without spokes which you rolled along the road with a small stick; marbles, which were divided into large ones (taws) and small ones (mebs), and conkers. 

-- Gerry Fehily, Donnybrook Village, County Dublin, 1920s

The house was scrubbed before Christmas, the roof thatched and the outside whitewashed. The lining of the chimney was cleaned lest Santa be blackened, even though he rarely bought more than oranges and sweets.

The goose was plucked and killed beforehand, and left ready for cooking.

Christmas Eve was a fast day, but at 3 am we rose, dressed in Sunday best, and making our way by the reflection of the sea and the moon, we rowed our boat to the mainland and walked the remaining three miles to church. We stayed on for the three Masses Christmas morning, so joyous was the carolling and heavenly was the organ playing. 

-- Ann McGuire, County Galway, 1930s

From No Shoes in Summer, a compilation of interviews from Irish elders in the 1930s.

Saturday 21 December 2013

The one-year anniversary of Nothing Happened Day

Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, millions of people felt a growing sense of -- I was going to write “relief,” but it might have been “disappointment” -- when the world didn't end on Fake Mayan Prophecy Day. Social media users around the world greeted the non-event with the kind of viral mockery everyone loves these days, so long as it’s someone else’s beliefs being mocked.

Such scares, however, can be serious business; a few weeks before the predicted end of the world, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported that “panic buying of candles and essentials has been reported in China and Russia, along with an explosion in sales of survival shelters in America. In France believers were preparing to converge on a mountain where they believe aliens will rescue them.”

China might seem a strange place for the apocalypse idea to crop up, but the Telegraph said that “In China … a wave of paranoia about the apocalypse can be traced to the 2009 Hollywood blockbuster ‘2012.’ The film … was a smash hit in China, as viewers were seduced by a plot that saw the Chinese military building arks to save humanity.”

That $200 million steaming pile of callous manipulation, I suspect, did a great deal to boost the 2012 myth from New Age circles into the mainstream. As I wrote a couple of years ago, we might be able to forgive filmmakers for creating an overpriced package of ridiculous escapism like The Core or Volcano. Unlike those films, however, and like the fundamentalist Left Behind series, the film implied their fictional work presaged actual and imminent tragedies.

The filmmakers also dropped the “Rapture” name for extra points among the mega-church crowd, both in the script and in the cruel advertising line, “Will You Be Left Behind?” The difference is that the Left Behind authors seem to truly believe their dubious theology, whereas the filmmakers seemed to be exploiting the genuine fears of real people to make some quick cash.

Even if only one person in ten thousand takes them seriously, scares like the 2012 fakery can cost real people their lives. David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA, told the Telegraph that “at least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

Apocalyptic scares have cropped up throughout history, and no one has written a more readable overview of them than John Michael Greer. His drily funny book Apocalypse Not: Everything You Know About 2012, Nostradamus and the Rapture is Wrong probably saw sales fall off after Nothing Happened Day, but should still be read as immunisation against the next one.  

One area Greer could have explored more, perhaps, was “Why Mayans?” Why not prophecies from Norwegians, or Saudis, or any other group? The answer seems to be twofold; first, it’s easier to project any beliefs or ideology you like on a now-extinct group that can’t protest. There are some descendants of the Mayans left, who have rightly objected to their pop-culture co-opting, but poor Third-Worlders do not generally have the media influence of California New Age gurus.

The other reason has to do with the exalted place Native Americans hold in popular culture. Of course Native Americans were the victims of the greatest human genocide in history, and even into the mid-20th century were portrayed in popular fiction as villainous savages. The response of the Sixties counterculture, though, was insulting in a different direction, projecting onto Native tribes whatever ancient wisdom they wanted to hear. This was done mainly through the use of Italians and other Europeans pretending to be Natives, making up New Age teachings and passing them off as authentic.

As John Miller wrote in the National Review, “Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Americans claiming Indian ancestry on their census forms jumped by a factor of six. Neither birth-rates nor counting methodologies can account for this explosive growth. Instead, the phenomenon arises in large part from the increasingly idealistic place Indians occupy in the popular imagination. Much of it is based on harmless sentiment mixed into a hash of unverifiable family legends and wishful thinking among folks who hang dream-catchers from their rear-view mirrors. But for a distinct subset, it’s all about personal profit. They’re professional imposters who have built entire careers by putting the sham into shaman.”

In some cases people just claim to be Native when they are not: author and provocateur Ward Churchill, actor “Iron Eyes” Cody, and many others. In others Europeans claim special insight into Native culture: Carlos Castaneda, for example, wrote his entire Don Juan series with supposed interviews based on a reclusive Yaqui Indian no one else ever met, while Lynn Andrews did something similar with her Medicine Woman series. The Celestine Prophecy, Mutant Message from Down Under -- for a while it seemed every year brought more books from dead or remote peoples, offering life-coaching for upscale Westerners.

Some of these teachings are useful in their own right; Canadian ecologist “Grey Owl” married into Native American communities and wrote beautifully about protecting wilderness, even if he was originally an Englishman named Archie Blayney. “The Education of Little Tree” is a lovely story, even if it turned out to be fiction written by a white segregationist.

Decades of such romanticising, though, means that followers of the Sixties counterculture treat Native teachings with a special reverence – even fake ones, and they usually are. I know a number of people who sneered at Harold Camping’s numerous Rapture predictions who seemed to take the Mayan claims seriously – at least, as seriously as anyone takes anything these days, forwarding memes while filtering any convictions through layers of post-hip meta-irony.

The 2012 books I leafed through also yanked science-sounding terms into the discussion whenever possible, describing a “quantum leap” forward in human “evolutionary levels.” Basically, it’s the same technique used by the religious cult “scientology,” stealing bits of words from actual scientific research and using them to imbue their vague hokum with a bogus legitimacy.

Many people I talk to seem unconcerned with doomsday crazes, considering them throwbacks to an earlier age of superstition, which will die out eventually. It’s been a standard line of science and science fiction for a hundred years, recited in everything from H.G. Wells’ Things to Come to the Star Trek series, that technology would allow humans to outgrow primitive ideas. Instead, however, the opposite has happened -- as people spent more of their hours staring at electronic media, they became more susceptible to superstition, for several reasons.

First of all, news and fake news travel instantly around the world, and are increasingly difficult to escape. A year ago today, I was listening to neighbours talk about the alleged Mayan prophecy … at our local pub in rural Ireland. Locals would have been sitting at the same pub fifty or a hundred years ago -- several apocalypse scares ago -- but would not have easily known about them; until a few decades ago, few places in Ireland had electricity or modern media. Today, though, people here hear the same celebrity gossip, and watch the same blockbusters and visit some of the same internet sites as people everywhere. Instead of a dubious notion having to infect a critical mass of people in a town before spreading to the next town, a con or conspiracy theory can appear everywhere in the world – to a teenager in Saskatchewan, an old lady in Turkmenistan and an Irish farmer – simultaneously.

The modern world has made us more susceptible to superstition in other ways; when we spend most of our time staring at glowing rectangles rather than living in the real world, it becomes easy to become isolated, paranoid, or trapped in a misinformed bubble of like-minded people. Also, when we spend most of our time moving pixels on a screen for a paycheque, it becomes all the easier to fantasise about fighting zombies or some other more hands-on existence.

Finally, the very nature of our online lives means that information flits in and out of our minds quickly, leading us to forget, only a year later, that there were millions of people who genuinely thought the world would end. It leaves us singularly unprepared for the next fake Apocalypse, whose rumours are already circulating somewhere.

You might think that people are right to be alarmed, even if it takes a fake Mayan thing to alarm them. Between fossil fuels and climate change, an increasingly fragile economy and a disintegrating culture, humanity faces all kinds of problems. I’ve been writing about them for years; is it hypocritical of me, you might ask, to criticise someone else’s doomsday theory?

But here’s the thing: peak oil was never the apocalypse. When the theory of peak oil was revived around the turn of the millennium, some well-intentioned and otherwise beneficial thinkers saw in it the doomsday they had been waiting for. Ten years ago, however, when I wrote my first magazine cover story on peak oil, I said that we “won’t wake up Amish one day,” and when conventional oil peaked a few years ago, we didn’t. Rather, the promising peak oil movement dissipated somewhat after that, perhaps because the countdown had ended and the world had not collapsed. Framing peak oil as the apocalypse harmed the movement’s credibility, and undermined the very useful contributions of volunteers in local communities around the world. 
Climate change is also not the apocalypse, in that sense. Almost all scientists agree that humans are causing climate change at a geologically alarming pace, but on a human scale the change is slow and scattershot enough to leave many non-scientists unconvinced. Even when events do happen – this or that city being devastated, a record-breaking summer, droughts and floods like no one has ever seen – no one can prove that climate change caused it, and with our short modern memories we quickly move on. Claiming that “we have only ten years left” to stop climate change, as some activists have done for decades, only discredits climate science in the eyes of the public when, ten years later, the changes have been small or quickly forgotten.  

None of these crises in our culture, our economy, or in the living world constitute the Apocalypse of John of Patmos, or any of the rest of the Antilegomena. They are not the Big One people have been waiting for, and people need to stop waiting. None of them will wipe out everyone you don’t like, and leave them sorry they doubted you. None of them will eliminate all those other humans standing in front of you in the grocery queue, leaving you with all their stuff.

I do expect a great many crises in the years to come – more weather disasters, economic crashes, wars and rumours of wars. I expect that actions that were once considered unspeakable might become commonplace, just as actions fifty or a hundred years ago are unthinkable to us, and vice versa. Preparing for such long-term events, though, means working with others, making your little corner of the world more resilient in the face of change, and adhering to a consistent set of principles even when the culture shifts tectonically under your feet. It means changing your life in a thousand small and tangible ways.

At some point, of course, the world will end – for you. That sobering realisation – in Greek, Apocalypsi, or Revelation – is what most apocalyptic scriptures are really about; the commonly cited passages about the end of the world take on a very different meaning when you posit that they are not talking about a universal end, but a personal one. That’s what most religions are about: When done rightly, they help you spend your remaining years meaningfully, to think of others before yourself, to set an example the world can see, and to bring you closer to God.

Doomsday thinking, as in the Mayan 2012 belief, does the opposite. It encourages people to retreat into a bubble of believers. It discourages people from making small improvements, when everything is about to be swept away. It makes people passive in the face of predestination. It tells people that God will come to them, and they don’t need to do anything.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Latest post at Grit magazine

My latest article is up at Grit magazine; it will appear here shortly.

Friday 6 December 2013

Published at Mother Earth News

The venerable Mother Earth News has just published my first article, "How Not to Keep Chickens." Unlike Grit, Resilience or some other publications, they have requested that I not duplicate the article here except for an excerpt, like this: 

"You might think your chickens might see you as dogs do, as a god who strides among them tossing manna. You would be mistaken: chickens don’t think you are the same person who wore that different shirt yesterday. Chickens don’t think that your moving parts are part of a single life-form. Let’s be honest, chickens don’t think. What I’m getting at here is: don’t walk into a chicken run barefoot, or the birds will see your toes and give you what we in the business call 'the full Hitchcock.'"

... and go read the rest here. 

Saturday 16 November 2013

How to cope with total failure

Self-sufficiency writers have multiplied into a cottage industry, filling whole wings of the bookstore with tips on how to garden, cook, preserve food, learn traditional crafts and build community. Such sales imply an encouraging demand; millions of people really do want to learn this. I fear that many such books, however, inadvertently discourage readers with a passing interest and a full schedule. Take, for example, cookbooks.

A few decades ago a bookstore might carry a few cookbooks that everyone used; now they take up vast areas of shelf space, and whole television channels are devoted solely to cooking shows, yet people eat more fast food and pre-packaged food than ever.

The two trends are not necessarily contradictions; cookbooks are consumer products, and must distinguish themselves from their competitors by having twists, gimmicks, by getting more exotic and ambitious, and showing page after page of sculptures, science experiments and food porn that few of us could reasonably reproduce in our own kitchens, and driving the amateur away from getting started. My meals, by contrast, last a few minutes from garden to pan, and while they won’t win any awards, they don’t have to: they’re healthy, quick, free and I like them.

Most of all, though, most self-sufficiency books don’t prepare the reader for failure. Try learning how to do things at home – make jam and cheese, weave a basket, build a shed or keep chickens – and you fall on your face many times before succeeding, and after succeeding you’ll probably fail a few more times. Many failures, though, can still become something else, if you’re creative.

Take, for example, the wine from our parsnips almost two years ago. All my flower wines have turned out well – elderflower, meadowsweet, cowslip and dandelion. But these were my first vegetable wines, and when I uncorked them a year later, they tasted awful. Another year has not improved them, so Plan B has been to turn them into vinegar.

I purchased some unpasteurised vinegar from a special store in Dublin – which should still have the vinegar-creating bacteria in it -- and am mixing them together and letting them set. They’re well on their way to becoming something strange-smelling, and if it’s not vinegar, I’ve run out of plans.

Failure Number Two was the home-made cheese. All the books that claim that cheese-making is dead simple are, it turns out, correct; getting the right kind of cheese turned out to be the difficult part. My first batch of attempted cheddar became a very nice Parmesan, while the next turned into a reasonably good feta.

Failure Number Three was my compost jelly from last weekend. Compost jelly uses fruit parts we might throw away, as well as this season’s surplus of fruit that might rot on the ground, and lets us preserve the vitamins through the winter, longer than fruit would last. I took the fallen apples from the ground, as well as bowls of berries off the hedgerow and whatever rinds we were going to throw away. The flesh of the apples I pickled, so they will keep without refrigeration for the next several months.

The rest of the fruit parts were boiled for 45 minutes or so, and then strained. I put the right amount of sugar into the strained liquid, and boiled it for the right amount of time to turn it into jelly. Nothing happened. Instead of turning into a nice spreadable consistency, it stayed basically fruit juice. I boiled it for twice as long, then twice as long again, and nothing – pure juice.

Finally, I consulted a friend, who came up with a Plan B. “Boil it for an hour straight,” she said. I did so, and when I had poured the results into a jar, it hardened into … candy. Almost as hard as a lemon drop, only in one giant jar-shaped block. Inside a jar.

Plan C was pouring boiling water over it and chipping away at it, until it dissolved in liquid again … back to being juice. After much heating and stirring, I finally got the concoction to the right jelly consistency. The good news is that such difficult experiments often taste brilliant in the end, perhaps because you’re so relieved to finally be done.

Top photo: Various wines, some of which worked. 
Second photo: apples from our trees, which became  pickles and jelly. 
Third photo:  Jelly that barely let a knife through. 
Fourth photo: The final product.