Two things may come to mind when approaching Simon Dawson’s memoir Pigs in Clover: Or How I Accidentally Fell in Love with the Good Life: the Richard Briers/Felicity Kendall sitcom The Good Life and the Beekman Boys, the gay couple from New York who leaves the city to live off the land. Dawson’s memoir follows a similar plot: couple has enough of the rush of the big city, with all of its artifice and superficiality, and find solace in living a more authentic life in the country. But this isn’t a pie-in-the-sky country mouse/city mouse scenario: Dawson was initially hesitant to leave his London life, and did so at the urging of his wife, who was seemingly going through some sort of midlife crisis that prompted her to leave her career as a solicitor, and become a farmer. And though Dawson misses his former life, he eventually comes around, and starts to adapt and even becomes fond of his new life, and all of its bucolic trappings.
In her commencement speech at Harvard, author J.K. Rowling warned that “poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.” Dawson doesn’t romanticize or make light of how difficult the shift in his lifestyle – namely the mighty financial toll the move takes on the couple – it’s an unfortunate theme that follows throughout the book. It’s not harped upon, nor does it omnipresence feel redundant, but when it’s not the topic of a passage, it’s still in the peripheral. Dawson and his wife assemble quite a menagerie which includes horses, goats, pigs, ducks, geese, chickens, and dogs – running a farm with all these animals give the book some of its most interesting, poignant, and frightening moments. Despite his former city slicker status, Dawson bonds with some of the animals, including a breeding sow named Kylie (named after the pint-sized pop diva from Down Under), who becomes his best friend.
The story of this move toward self-sufficiency isn’t a smooth one – once he loses his job in London that he was commuting to weekly, Dawson and his wife decide that it would be make the most financial sense to become self-sufficient. That means not only raising animals, but growing vegetables, doing their own repairs, even making their own soap and shampoo and washing their laundry in a bathtub. It was exhausting just reading it, I cannot imagine what the Dawsons went through. The work becomes time-consuming, causing strain in their marriage (though, interestingly enough, Dawson’s account never shows his marriage becoming endangered). Despite it being her idea, even Dawson’s wife starts to feel the oppressive weight of the financial strain – in fact, at one point, money’s so tight, Dawson and his wife are forced to call the utility companies to beg for more time on their bills – a pub lunch is something that must be saved up for, and Dawson can only afford one book for his iPod, and has listened to it over a dozen times. It’s a grin – and while the reader never doubts the joy Dawson gets from his life, it’s clear that the author doesn’t believe self-sufficiency is for everyone.
And even though living off the grid isn’t for everyone – this book has a wide appeal. Dawson’s a talented writer, able to get laughs from his situations, no matter how absurd they can get; but he’s also willing to go to the darker aspect of farm living (his description of a chicken massacre at the hands of a fox, is positively Stephen King-like in its ominous, bowel-shivering horror); he writes about the reality of farming – including the slaughter of the animals, including animals that he grew to love. It’s important to note, that Dawson doesn’t revert to knee-jerk vegetarianism, but instead advocates for humane farming that respects and honors the animals who give up their lives to feed us.
Readers will side with Dawson, and root for the guy because he works so hard to maintain his new life, and has put so much effort in the work. It’s not a doomed effort, but at times, readers will begin to wonder if the project isn’t Sisyphean; like a hard board game, it looks like every step forward is followed by a few steps back. Still, Dawson’s commitment to his life, his wife, his animals, and his farm, is infectious, and you’ll want him to succeed.
Click here to buy Pigs in Clover: Or How I Accidentally Fell in Love with the Good Life on amazon.com.
Click here to visit Simon Dawson’s blog, Self Sufficiency: Living cheaper, healthier and happier.