A couple of years ago, in the midst of COVID lockdowns, a Guardian story went viral: I’ve had the same supper for 10 years. The story was, if anything, more surprising than the clickbait headline. It was an account by Wilf Davies, a 72 year old farmer who’d barely left his Welsh farm’s valley, and had only ever left Wales once, to visit a farm in England.
Yes, Davies had the same supper for ten years (“two pieces of fish, one big onion, an egg, baked beans and a few biscuits at the end”) and as he tells it, much of his life was equally routine. He doesn’t regret any of it, being happy with feeding his sheep and seeing the seasons pass in the valley that’s “cut in the shape of my heart”. In contrast, he hears London “is a place best avoided”.
I remember reading the piece and thinking that there are all sorts in the world and at least he was happy, but as the story went viral, I was taken aback by how many praised it as a “life well-lived”, “a glimpse of enlightenment”, “seems to me to have the secret to a happy life”, and so on.
Maybe it was the stress and anxiety of lockdown, but I was surprised how angry I became at these reactions. When did the good life become one free of curiosity, never wanting to taste new food, experience different cultures, or travel to new places? Since when did we think the best thing in life is to stay in our own valley forever? I have nothing against Davies – what baffles me are people who, I assume, enjoy the fruits of travel and trade and the flow of culture, and decide, “you know what, maybe we’d all be happier if we had less.”
Davies’ story has lingered in my mind for years. I didn’t want to write about it at first, afraid I’d come across as spiteful to those who loved it. But I think it reflects a country that’s becoming more spiteful to those who want something different.
Britain has become world-leading in making a virtue out of necessity. Can’t afford to eat different food? Didn’t want to, anyway. Don’t have the time or money to travel across Europe or the world? Everything you need is at home. There is a humility to this thinking, an acceptance of limits and where we come from. There is also a meanness and smallness of mind about it, a suspicion of outsiders and the ideas they bring.
I’m the child of immigrants from Hong Kong, a former British colony. They came here to study, fuelled by ambition and opportunity and curiosity. My partner is from Canada; her father immigrated from Scotland. I grew up in a quiet town in the Wirral, just north of Wales; I imagined I would hate the noise and chaos of London, but came to love it after working there for a decade. I moved to Edinburgh, a capital city airdropped into a beautiful, miniature wilderness, which I love in a different way.
Paeans to a way of life exemplified by a man “at one with the earth’s natural rhythms” who tells us he has never eaten Chinese, Indian, or French food and never wants to, are a cut to my heart. I imagine that they’re just as baffling and vaguely insulting to anyone who has come to love the variety of the world, whether out of choice or out of necessity.
Again, good for Davies, I’m not about to make him try anything he wouldn’t want to – but I would ask others to try. No, I would beg others to try. I’d say they can only know themselves if they explore different possibilities, and that if you travel to London and Edinburgh and France and Egypt, and you meet different people and you try different foods, and you decide that, yes, my farm in my valley is the place I want to be above all, I would say that you will love it even more after all that.
I’m defined by the places I’ve walked in and the people I’ve met. I am those places and am those people.
I remember a clear night in Cornwall. I’m 14, looking up at the stars and commiserating with a friend about a cloud that’s just drifted by. “That’s the Milky Way,” he explains.
At 17, staying with a friend in Canada, I bite into a cob of corn and almost drop it in shock. “What is this?” I ask. “It’s sweetcorn. Have you never had sweetcorn?”. Never like this. I didn’t think it could be this sweet, anywhere in the world. Later, I look into why we have the fruit and vegetables we do in the UK.
19, San Diego. I spend the summer at UCSD doing synaesthesia research, bunking at a PhD student’s house in La Jolla. I can’t drive, so I have to walk 30 minutes to the nearest shops, which are in a mall. I’m the only person I can see on foot, and it takes me a while to figure out how to navigate the parking lot. I’d heard about the car culture of the US, but never believed it until that point.
Years later: we drop in to a tiny bar on the corner of a quiet street in Nagasaki. A young couple serve beers and fried food from a kitchen that would absolutely fall afoul of British health inspectors. Five – maybe six, at a push – customers can fit inside. Spending just an hour there leaves me with countless questions about how such a bar is even possible. How can they pay the rent? How cheap is the rent? Why had I never seen anything like it, anywhere in the UK? I could’ve learned about the history and economics of countless similar places from Jorge Almazán’s Emergent Tokyo, but that gets the order wrong – I bought the book because I’d seen the bar. And even if I’d bought the book, I’m not sure I would’ve understood what it meant without sitting in the bar.
Lockers in Japanese railway stations, cheap and plentiful so travellers don’t need to haul their bags everywhere. Bullet trains that aren’t just faster versions of British trains, but capacious and impossibly smooth. Cities and towns with utility poles and wires snaking everywhere, a different aesthetic approach enabling denser and more affordable rents. We can live differently, I realise.
In Hong Kong visiting my relatives, we wander through Kowloon on a hot evening. Hundreds of people are eating at tables in the middle of streets that hours earlier were busy with traffic, sharing dishes heaped with steamed chickens and vegetables and bottles of beer. Why don’t we do this? It’s not just because of the weather, I think.
Last year, I venture to an open-air public bath in the sea near Malmö. No clothes allowed. Men and women are strictly separated, but a little raft within sight of both areas lets everyone meet, if they want.
Going home from a party in Greenpoint, Brooklyn at 1am, feeling pleased with myself for staying out so late, then walking past bars packed full of surprisingly non-drunk people. Different drinking cultures are possible!
In Shanghai, I meet the artist behind an exhibition based on my book. We have a beer and trespass onto the enormous walkable artwork outside the gallery. He recounts the events of art fundraiser he went to the previous week, a tale of such excess, belying such inequality I wouldn’t have believed it of China in any other circumstance.
We have a superpower: we can see different ways of living by travelling the world.
We have to be careful about how we do it, of course; trains are better than planes, long trips better than shorter ones. And we can learn an awful lot through books and social media and TV and movies. But how do we decide who gets to travel and bring which ideas back to us? And can we really pretend we can understand the world just the same secondhand as well as firsthand?
We have made a world where we are all reliant on one another. Precious few people can stay in their valley all their lives; jobs vanished, valley obliterated, their calling in another city, their love in another land.
It is not always better to stay in the valley. It is not closer to nature. It is not more enlightened. It is not something we should imagine is better. Choice is not the same as capitalism. Variety is not always a vice.
We are all citizens of the world. We might as well get good at it.