My decision to bypass the 4th of July until the troops come home left us feeling a little flat. The Weber barbecue stayed rusting in the game larder like a piece of redundant farm machinery. The vine prunings for pan-smoking turned to tumble-weed. I figured before things got worse, we’d better have a party, so I announced that we’d celebrate Thoreau’s birthday.
When all I owned was a VW van, Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience was my rallying cry. Now that I have a few acres, it’s Walden that stirs my soul. He began writing the book On Walden Pond when he was 27 years old, determined to ‘Simplify, simplify, simplify? to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life’. I told my family the theme of our Thoreau Party would be ‘Simplify’. All the food would come from the garden, the fields, the woods, the vineyard. My husband quickly poured a whisky (road miles: 400). ‘Your idea of simplifying is to buy online from The White Company,’ said Sam. Undiscouraged, I put on my Flax apron and went out to dig the early potatoes. The first essential fact I fronted was blight. I dug them up anyhow. Still, Sam’s observation niggled. White sheets flapping on the line make me feel almost Amish. It was one of those ‘The Gift to Be Simple’ moments that led me to buy toothpaste at Marks & Spencer, seduced by the plain all-white tube with ‘Protect’ written in pale grey letters. I felt pure and simple until I read the fine print on the back.
It’s not the diethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze found in toothpastes from China sold in the US that puts me off. Not even the deaths of 51 people in Panama now blamed on Chinese-made cough syrup tainted with the same chemical. What drives me crazy is that M&S thinks I want my toothpaste made in China. I don’t know why I was surprised. I live in a little corner of England that is becoming forever China: 50 minutes from Felix-stowe Docks, a vast dockscape of cranes (all made in China) lit up like Coney Island. Every day, 22,000 containers arrive here from China, loaded with iPods, televisions, pet food, tyres, North Sea fish (caught here, processed in China), soft toys, trainers, cashmere sweaters, Waterford crystal, Wedgwood china, tennis rackets and toothpaste. Waiting lorries hook up with these containers before heaving them-selves onto the A14, a road that requires nerves of steel from mere car drivers. Every 10th vehicle is a lorry with a container marked China Shipping Line or Cosco, the Chinese shipping line whose vessels are 1,000ft long and carry 9,500 containers.
It now takes just 22 days for these container ships to get from China to Felixstowe. This year, eight million containers arrived. We don’t produce anything the Chinese want so they returned empty. By 2025, 14 million containers a year are predicted. Although I am writing this on an iMac made in China, I’d like to slow down these boats. It won’t be easy. Even when I think I’m buying stuff made in Scotland, Ireland, England, I often find that it is designed here, but made in China. It’s all happened so fast. First, everything got cheaper: clothes, computers. We all got more and more stuff. Heck, we never had it so good. And before we knew it, primary schools were offering our children lessons in Mandarin as if their lives depended on it.
Instead of fireworks on Thoreau Day (99% of all fireworks in the UK come from China), I lit a candle made in Cornwall. Call it a candle blowing in the wind.