Friday 11 November 2022

From Organic Farm to a PhD in Creative Writing

By Joe Bedford

Joe Bedford, photograph by Deborah Thwaites

In some ways, I feel like an unlikely PhD candidate. My PhD journey began ten years ago in South Africa, on a commune run by a family of hippie Afrikaners. I went there to learn how to live outside of the usual parameters of society, and while this desire was probably just a product of living in central London, I was still starving for meaning. What I found in South Africa was a farm of a few dozen acres, planted in sandy ground about an hour’s drive from Cape Town and battling a tangle of invasive Port Jackson willow. The farm provided for two small families – both Afrikaner – and was worked according to the principles of permaculture (organic farming). Other than these three adults and four children, the only other visitors were farmers from other settlements, labourers from Cape Town and illegal economic migrants who lived in the nearby township. Within this limited community – off-grid and with little contact with the outside world – I thought I had found a version of the life I wanted to live.

In my experience, there are two things that motivate people to rearrange their relationship with society. In the simplest terms, the first is love of family, community and nature; the second is frustration with human behaviour. Speak to anyone who has made or wishes they could make radical changes in their relationship with society and you will often find expression of one of these two things, usually both. "I want my children to know the names of the plants in our garden." "I’m sick of the way politicians allow our environment to be trashed." "When I’m in nature, I find an inner-peace I can never find in the city." "The new development at the edge of town has destroyed that poppyfield." At its extremities, this kind of love produces people who are blissfully reconciled to their place in the natural world. But what is at the other extreme?

In South Africa, I found a group of people who had decided to escape the city, just as I had. They did so because they loved their children and wanted them to have a relationship with nature that had been unavailable to them in Cape Town. They also did so because they felt the life they were escaping from was degenerative, corrupt and void of meaning. While driving on the motorway between Cape Town and Malmesbury, we almost hit a resident of a township through which the motorway passes. Rather than walk several miles to the nearest footbridge, he had chosen to run between the highspeed traffic on his way to the other side – a common sight on that stretch of road. The farmer I was travelling with had to swerve, and without blinking shouted a common racist expletive at the top of his voice. What followed was a tirade about human stupidity, immorality, uncleanliness and poverty. This farmer’s anger came not just from the complex racial dynamics of post-apartheid South Africa but from a deep-seated frustration with how human beings cannot take care of themselves. "It is no surprise we are trashing the planet – we can’t even take care ourselves."

This might sound like the product of a damaged political system, but it may not be that simple. The seeds of misanthropy are sown widely in our cultural lexicon, including in our nature writing and nature fiction – at least, that is one argument of my thesis. In the ten years since my experiences in South Africa, I’ve seen countless examples of how the dual motivations of love and frustration drive our relationship with nature and its continued degradation. How can you not be angry when you see raw sewage contaminating our rivers? How can you not feel hatred when you see unnecessary rail projects tearing through the green-belt? When something you love is under threat, your instinct is to raise your fists to protect it. Which is exactly what activists on both the left-wing and right-wing are doing.

With the encouragement of my lead supervisor Jonathan Taylor I began to approach these themes with a creative and critical eye, which led me to Bernhard Forchtner’s work on the ecology of the far-right and to ecocritics like Jonathan Skinner. A year into working with this team has left me invigorated, writing more than ever and reading some of the most stimulating literature I’ve found in years. I write this blogpost from south London, the city I had wanted to escape from when first arriving in South Africa ten years ago. Outside the window there are schoolchildren walking back from the nearby academy and a man who circles the estate shouting in Jamaican patois. Beyond them is the corner of the park where luminescent ring-necked parakeets – a population of escapees who have thrived in the city – chase each other through the plane trees. From that corner you can see the Shard, rising up from the edge of the Thames. It is in every sense a thousand miles from Malmesbury, but it feels like a thousand times more where I am supposed to be today.  

About the author
Joe Bedford is a writer from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely, and have won various awards including the Leicester Writes Prize 2022. He is currently working on a composite novel focused on the intersections between English rural fiction and right-wing attitudes to nature, supervised by Dr Jonathan Taylor (Leicester), Dr Bernhard Forchtner (Leicester) and Dr Jonathan Skinner (Warwick). His debut novel A Bad Decade for Good People will be released by Parthian in Summer 2023. His website is here

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