Back in the 1970s my friends and I mostly had very long hair and often, while doing what people with very long hair did in those days, we talked about moving back to the land as an ideal way of life. I remember that one summer several did. And all returned early in the ensuing winter. Well, almost all.
The end of the decade found me broke and contemplating Living the Good Life. I had always more or less carefully tailored my income to maximise my leisure-time. Leisure to me was eating gourmet food, including at restaurants (where my long hair was not always appreciated), buying and reading good books, and conversation with people who could think through things rather than merely air their prejudices and fornication.
My source of income at the time was painting landscape pictures to compete with the sterile prints sold in department stores. My long haired friends went from door-to-door selling the paintings and gaining an occasional commission for a painting from a favourite photograph. They also sold prints of my pen and ink drawings. (You can grab one here, though be warned, they look much better printed than on-screen.) The sales staff paid me for what they sold, keeping the balance in their pockets.
The sales staff kept approximately 30-35% of the money taken and each week I paid bonuses to the top salesman or woman. And that person sometimes made more than I did as I had considerable manufacturing costs. That didn’t bother me in the least. I was making several times per hour than I had as a clerk, and above all, I was happy. We were all working less hours than the ordinary Joes, approximately twenty hours per week in my case. I was particularly happy with the business model: everyone was in control of their own income.
Occasionally, sales would create demand for pictures beyond my capacity to provide, so I would pay wages to someone to help make the canvases. These were manufactured from reject linen table cloths from a laundry glued to plywood and painted with gesso and were very much cheaper than the canvas panels sold by the art suppliers. The prints were mounted on acid-free mat boards imported in bulk from the mainland.
Not everyone was happy, however. Some people were incapable of understanding how to sell the paintings. The sales staff were in essence entertainers competing with television. If the evening’s TV shows were popular, like Starsky and Hutch, sales were down. If there was shite on TV, the reverse was true. Invariably, when sales records were broken, it was a Tuesday night! When given instruction, the people who couldn’t sell very many would say, “I couldn’t say/do that! I’d feel silly.” The instruction, by the way, wasn’t in the form of scripts — just general approaches that one had to weave into a personal approach. The best sales staff were very creative people, often talented artists or musicians. Many, if not most went on to bigger and better things.
Some of the unhappiness was in the “poor starving artist” community. While the poor starving artists waited forlornly for the world to beat a path to their door, The Git beat a path to the door of his clients, many of whom became repeat customers. (God, I would have given my eye teeth for a computerised system to replace the card file I used to track customers and paper spreadsheet to keep track of my costs!) The poor starving artists and people who couldn’t sell, or be bothered selling, became increasingly vocal in their opposition to my business. They declared that I was ripping off both the public and the sales staff.
Regarding the former, I introduced a cooling-off period before it was made law for door-to-door sales. The advantage to this is well illustrated by the following. The Git had accepted a commission to paint a picture of the Arthur River from a photograph. A week or so after the sale was consummated, Terry, who was particularly good at procuring commissions, phoned me: “The client’s unhappy with the painting, but it’s a commission”.
“Give him his money back and double the price,” The Git said. The painting had taken twice as long to complete as anticipated. Such things happen when you’re having fun!
Terry was delighted with the result! Fifteen minutes later, he sold the painting to the next door neighbour who was far from annoyed when he discovered what had happened. We have no idea what the person who commissioned the painting said when he discovered he could have doubled his money. Terry went on to co-own a chain of paharmacies Australia-wide after he finished his pharmacy degree. Here’s a picture of the fast version of Arthur River:
I was losing my talented sales people to bigger and better things and finding it hard to recruit replacements. Hobart is a small community of only a couple of hundred thousand. Then disaster struck. My top three sales staff had taken my advice about drink driving and caught a cab after their Friday night celebration. The incompetent taxi driver rolled the cab, killing Kahm, breaking Andreas’s femur and Robert went into a 20 year depression as a result of Kahm dying in his arms.
Kahm was the most truly happy person we had ever met. His sister phoned and asked, “Was he laughing when he died?” Indeed he was. Kahm taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: Carpe diem! (seize the day).
The ensuing two years were a trial by fire, quite literally at times. My office/home/studio was attacked by an arsonist. The end of the decade found me wondering how I’d been suckered into “selling” $AU40,000 of my artwork to a company that immediately declared bankruptcy. I couldn’t pay my bills, so had to declare bankruptcy myself.
The business that cost me $AU300 to start and made $AU300 profit in its first five days was defunct. My wife had left me, having pocketed the last three months’ rent, and I sold my precious books for less than the four most expensive had cost me. The stamp collection returned considerably more and I managed to break even. I contemplated suicide.
One book I hadn’t read yet, I kept: Og Mandino’s The Greatest Miracle in the World. It saved my life; thanks Og, wherever you are! Ah, the power of the written word!
I still had one asset left and I decided to do something about it before my now ex-wife remembered it. We had a rather tasty collection of vintage wine and I commenced to drink it. A somewhat blurry few weeks later found me invited to a garden party by a long-time friend, Jane. As we walked along the street, I asked about the fifty dollar bill tucked between her breasts. “Oh, that’s for whoever proposes marriage to me,” she hinted. As usual, I ignored Jane’s hint, preferring her friendship to a life of mutual misunderstanding.
Also, I must have had a premonition. At the party was the most stunning woman I ever met. I don’t mean in the Hollywood Movie Star sense; it was something else. Not, I hasten to add that Marguerite is unlovely, just not boringly glamorous. Almost our first words to each other were: “Ain’t never getting married again”. It was four years before we eventually took that step.
Margie (usually SWMBO in my blogs) and I share an interest in gardening although mine was untested at that time. Curiously, I had picked up two issues of an organic gardening magazine while passing through airports that just happened to be the two missing from Margie’s collection. We decided that since I was likely to remain poor for the near future, that we would be better off living in the country. Finding just the right place took almost twelve months.
The farmlet we bought was a hovel on 10 acres of good, strong land. For two years I renovated the cottage and developed a small market garden almost entirely with hand tools. Only the initial ground-breaking was done with power machinery borrowed from neighbours. When Margie conceived The Gitling, we decided to plunge fully into “poverty” and she gave up her job in the city. Our frugal life was tough, but we frequently reflected on how sorry we felt for the poor “rich” people as we toasted each other with home-made wine, and ate a gourmet meal made entirely from food that we had grown for ourselves.
When we had dinner guests, they would invariably say: “That’s the best lamb we ever tasted”. It would amuse me to tell them that it wasn’t lamb — it was goat! But only after the meal was finished.
A particular friend, originally from America, took a trip back to the States around this time. He said that Thanksgiving was particularly hard to endure. His sister had proudly prepared the meal “from scratch”. This entailed instant mashed potatoes, frozen vegetables and frozen turkey. My friend said all he could think about was helping me slaughter the animal were were about to eat, and picking those peas, and dig those carrots, and it was all real food with real flavour.
I suspect, though this is verging perilously close to New Age bullshit, that food cooked with a wood fire is qualitatively different from that cooked with electricity. I can readily explain the flavour difference between organically grown versus conventional with hard science, but not the difference that the wood fire seems to have on the available energy from food so cooked.
When for several years I became a proselyte for the the organic farming movement, I would talk science to the farmers and agricultural scientists. But when I talked to consumers, I talked politics:
“If you grow your own potatoes, you have done several quite important things. You have removed the necessity to earn the dollars to buy those potatoes and if your income is subject to your control, you can then choose to pay less taxes. If, like me, you grew them organically, you have no need of the agrochemical inputs and so you have reduced the income of the agrochemical companies and in turn their taxes. You have had useful physical exercise that improves your health and so reduces the necessity to visit the doctor. You have saved transporting the potatoes from the farmer’s paddock, to the warehouse, to the supermarket and home, reducing the amount of fossil fuel burned. The most profoundly political act you can make is not to vote for Tweedle Dumb or Tweedle Dumber, or protest about what you can never control, but to grow your own food and take control of your own life.”
When asked about the certification of organic produce, Vermont’s Eliot Coleman said: “Get to know the first name of the person growing your food, then you won’t have to worry about how it’s grown”. A wise man.
When we took up our land and cottage in late January 1982 we were left almost penniless. Even though it cost us only $AU26,000 Marguerite had to borrow from the bank, remembering that I was still a bankrupt and therefore wasn’t able to borrow. Margie also owned a small block of land that she put up for sale, though that took several years to sell. The first priority after helping the neighbours fight bush fires, was to make a garden.
At the top end of the block, over a hundred metres from the cottage, there is a dam and immediately below that is where I made my first garden. The neighbours lent us a short length of PVC irrigation pipe to siphon water to the parched ground. We had arrived in the middle of a drought. I knew next to nothing about gardening excepting what I had read, but we managed to be moderately successful, and I began my writing career at this time. Grass Roots magazine paid me the princely sum of $AU5 per full page article and I think I managed to persuade Organic Gardening magazine to pay me occasionally too.
While I learned the gardening business, I discovered an excellent way of reducing demand on our income: brewing my own beer. While making beer from brew-kits was economical and pleasant, I set out to invent a way to extract my own malt from malted barley. The key to doing this is very careful temperature control and the usual method is with accurate, thermostatically controlled electric heating, and this was beyond our means. We purchased a very large stainless steel saucepan that justified its cost because of the wide variety of uses to which it would be put. At various times it has made stock from soup bones, jam, soup, ham and bacon among other things. Not just beer.
I made a giant “teapot cosy” for the saucepan using an old bedspread and worn out woollen pullovers. By pitching the cracked barley malt into water at the upper temperature range that the enzymes will tolerate, and leaving the saucepan snuggled up in the “teapot cosy”, conversion of the starch to maltose would complete overnight. Incomplete conversion leads to cloudy beer.
When I did a time and motion study, we were saving more than double the wage paid to labourers when I costed the beer at the same price as local normal beer. In fact, whenever we had a party, we noticed that the revellers invariably drank our beer and left the commercial beer they had brought with them. Boutique beer being double the price of normal means that in reality we were “earning” four times labourers’ wages and it was tax free. I was tempted by a wealthy friend to brew for him at normal pub prices, but the illegality of this prevented me taking him up on his kind offer.
Most of the labour cost of production was in bottle washing. Wine doesn’t need the secondary ferment to produce gas and froth that beer does, so I decided to make wine. We bottled approximately half the wine in a fermenter, and the other half we drank from the fermenter. Wine matures more rapidly in bulk than in bottles, so we usually had plenty of large food-quality plastic buckets with snap-on lids sitting quietly in the laundry. The wines were “country” wines: blackberry, rhubarb, red currant, black currant, elderberry, and plum. They have the happy characteristic of maturing more quickly than grape wine.
Robert Wright once wrote in a magazine article:
“The point where more wealth ceases to imply more happiness is around $10,000 per capita annually—roughly where Greece, Portugal, and South Korea are now. Above that point, additional dollars don’t seem to cheer up nations, and national differences in happiness hinge on the intangibles of culture. The Irish are appreciably happier than the Germans, the Japanese, and the British, though less wealthy than all of them.”
For more than two decades, our average annual income was remarkably close to $US10,000. While the popular image of our “peasant” lifestyle is one of unremitting toil, this is far from the truth. True, we did not drive a recent motor car, but we did have current generation (not cutting edge) computers, a decent home-made hi-fi music system, and a comfortable, albeit dilapidated home. Did we feel deprived? Far from it.
A little over a decade ago, we came to the conclusion that although our lifestyle worked well while we were young and fit, we needed to think about the onset of the sunset part of our lives. Few people realise that the old age pension schemes the western social democracies promise us are thinly disguised Ponzi schemes. We needed to prepare for our old age independently of government.
Initially, I went back into the conventional workforce for 16 months managing a computer training office and training end users myself. The job kept me from home for 12 hours a day (includes commute time), five days a week for $AU36,000 a year, a slightly above average income here in Tasmania. Out of the $AU36k, I was paying approximately $AU12k in taxes leaving $AU24k. Commute cost was $AU2k using public transport. Despite pressure from the boss, I refused to buy a vehicle that would have cost 5-10 times as much. That left around $A22k, or approximately $US13k at that time. I had more than doubled my time away from home for a net increase in income of around $US3k. The garden was neglected during this period and we often had to eat tired old supermarket stuff. While the cost was probably considerably less than $US1k pa, the lower quality certainly added to the decrease in happiness and overall lower feeling of wellbeing of that period.
During that employment, the business was charging my time out at $AU80/hr. So I started my own, more focussed computer training business charging a similar rate. The money accumulated in the closing years of the twentieth century enabled us to build The House of Steel. Building our dream home saved around $AU150k, money we didn’t need to earn and pay tax on. Neither did we need to borrow an enormous amount from the bank that we would have to pay interest on. We did however borrow some and that led to a realisation; you can leverage borrowings to grow more money.
After we moved in to our new home, we finished renovating the cottage we had inhabited for over twenty years and sold it and half an acre of our land for $AU140k. We now had some $AU500k in cash and assets. These assets have enabled us to purchase two rental properties that, needless to say, we manage ourselves. Unfortunately, this income falls somewhat short of what we will likely need over the next decade, or so. A brief re-entry to the salaried workforce several years left The Git grumpy and dissatisfied, leading to his decision to return to writing for an income. And a considerable elevation in his spirits.
Thought for the day:
There is a set of religious, or rather moral, writings which teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true. — Henry Fielding