Heart’s forever in Suffolk

Alastair Sawday’s horizons stretch far and wide – from Portugal and Morocco to India and Sri Lanka – but part of his soul is forever Suffolk. He tells Steven Russell about growing up here . . . and the battle to save the planet

IT’S Budget day. But Alastair Sawday, who managed an honourable fourth place for the Greens in the 1992 General Election – behind the three main parties but streets ahead of Natural Law, the Struck off Doctors Alliance and the Anti-Federalist League – hasn’t time for the TV and national politics. In fact, he’s been home for only half an hour after returning from France. (By train, naturellement.)

It was a bit of a busman’s holiday, with some work thrown in. Wife Em (Margaret, more formally) ran a yoga course in the Alps and he went with her to enjoy four or five beautiful days in the mountains – returning to Blighty via Paris. It was a very Sawday experience: very much in the special escape/go slow vein running through his publishing business. He’s a passionate champion of local food production and employment. In the Alps – where he stayed in a hamlet of six houses – a neighbour had a herd of 40 Abondance cows that she milked twice a day and made cheese. “There are 2,500 producers doing things like that in that area. It was a real eye-opener.”

Is he tempted to have another bash at politics – through which he might be able to help small UK producers, say? “That’s the past. I quite enjoyed the campaign. I did think about a year ago of possibly going back into politics, for the Green Party, standing for the European Parliament, but I’m too old. I’d get knackered and probably want to go to bed early!

“So the answer’s firmly ‘No.’ I certainly wouldn’t want to be in Westminster. It would drive me crazy. But I hugely admire Caroline Lucas.” (Britain’s first Green MP.)

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The Commons is “our best attempt at organising ourselves, isn’t it? It flounders and struggles, and we expect too much of Westminster in many ways. We stick people in there for four years, many of whom don’t know a great deal, and expect them to sort out intractable and complicated problems other people have been wrestling with for decades or centuries.

“I do like the idea of less-centralised power, far more responsibility at the local level, and I think then we would start to take responsibility for our own lives, instead of thinking the Government’s going to do it.”

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If you’ve perused the travel section of bookshops and libraries you’ll probably know the Sawday name.

This part of his story begins a few years back. Alastair was moved to bring out his first travel guide, French Bed & Breakfast, after discovering “special” B&Bs – and extraordinary people running them – while taking groups on walking tours. Impersonal hotel chains left him cold and he wanted to highlight charming places to stay.

Copies were snapped up – the initial batch of 10,000 sold in six months – and so, in 1994, Alastair Sawday Publishing was born.

Today, more than 1.2 million copies have been sold of the various Special Places to Stay guides, covering about 5,000 properties both in the UK and abroad.

They reflect the philosophy of that first publication. As the firm’s website says: “A faded 17th-century palace run by a generous-spirited family would be chosen in preference over a slick designer hotel with all the five-star trimmings but surly staff.”

Meanwhile, Alastair Sawday’s Special Escapes website showcases characterful, comfortable, self-catering accommodation run in similar vein.

Then there’s the new Go Slow series, celebrating fascinating people, history, landscape and real food – some of the things he holds dear. Eat Slow Britain, for instance, highlights 50 places to eat that use locally-sourced, organic, freshly-foraged ingredients.

Slow Norfolk & Suffolk came out last month. Sawdays joined forces with Bradt Travel Guides to produce three new titles; each written by a local and focusing on the wildlife, walks (hand-drawn maps), the folk who live and work there, and good places to stay.

And, finally, there’s the Fragile Earth imprint. This publishes campaigning books about the environment.

But however far he travels, however much he thinks about the mess humans are making of the planet, Suffolk is never far from the thoughts of the founder.

Alastair Sawday was born in India in August, 1945. After his father was demobbed, the family came home late that year or early in 1946 – his father finding a job as a lawyer with Cross Ram & Co. in Halesworth.

“I think one of the first places we went to was Southwold, where we rented a house and I was in my pram. Then my parents found a house just north of Saxmundham, and there I grew up. The house is still there, occupied by my sister, and my mother is still there as well. A lovely old Georgian farmhouse that’s been tarted up a bit.”

Alastair’s first school was in Saxmundham – “It’s now a bed and breakfast. Appropriate. Although not in my book . . . !” – before he moved to one near Norwich – “Now offices!” – and thence to Surrey.

“Most of my focus was towards the coast,” he says of boyhood. “I was very keen on sailing, so I spent a lot of time in Aldeburgh as a child, sailing Lapwings. Then later on, when I was in my early 20s, I had an old Dragon I shared with friends.

“So the River Alde, Aldeburgh and Thorpeness were my main areas of focus. Saxmundham was the place I went to shop.

“When I was a child of five or six, I used to ride down to Saxmundham in a pony and trap. There was an old man called Mr Geater who lived in a cottage at the bottom of Clay Hills, and he kept his pony and trap in our stables. He used to take me down with him. He still wore leather gaiters.”

Alastair studied law at Oxford and then headed a VSO programme in Papua New Guinea – the international development organisation mobilises volunteers – taught French in St Lucia and ran a disaster relief team for Oxfam in Turkey.

The travel bug bit firmly, then?

“I’m not sure it’s totally the bug. It’s partly to do with doing things differently. I didn’t want to be trapped in a career as a lawyer, and I’m hugely grateful for having avoided it. I see a lot of lawyers and they don’t strike me as the world’s happiest people, although they might be quite rich.”

He taught languages for a term at Framlingham College – “rather a curious place. Quite Dickensian. Very old-fashioned. But I was totally happy there” – and moved on to a London comprehensive.

The next milestone was pioneering eco-travel via his own travel company. And then came publishing.

The centre of operations is the West Country, but Alastair pops over to East Anglia every couple of months or so. His mother is 92 and lives in a bungalow built in the grounds of the house near Saxmundham, and he‘s still got a lot of friends here.

“I’m very fond of Suffolk. When I go, I feel completely at home. Bristol somehow ceases to exist when I’m up there.

“I love the marshes around Orford, Gedgrave, Butley Creek. I spent a lot of time around there as a child, prowling the marshes in the evenings. Beautiful. Sailing up to Iken as a child, in a little boat . . . sailing up to Snape Maltings on an incoming tide . . . an old character like ‘Jumbo’, who used to guide the barges in. He had a little cottage at Slaughden and used to row out to the barges and take them up to Snape. He was a tough old character, with a big ring through his ear.

“There was a lovely old bloke on the beach at Aldeburgh: Eddie, a fisherman. He was one of these beautiful men who was lovely to everybody. Brave and kind. He was a herring fisherman and also worked in the yacht club when I was a child.”

It all puts him in mind of a line in the Laurie Lee poem Home From Abroad, which ends:

And as the twilight nets the plunging sun

My heart’s keel slides to rest among the meadows.

“I think of the boats, the marshes, and those huge open skies of Suffolk. I know it’s a bit of a clich�, but it really is the case. I definitely get a sense when I’m there that the skies are wider and vast.”

No wonder he baulks at the “grim world of corporate culture” and worries about what Man is doing to the Earth. Tell us about those concerns.

“I hardly know where to begin. We are a fundamentally exploitative society; we are myopic; we’ve developed extraordinary technologies which have enabled us to wreak havoc wherever we go. We only a long time later understand quite how dreadful the havoc is. We think our technology will enable us to solve the problems; yet, of course, it never does.”

He cannot bear the “relentless, fatuous, spread of consumerism” that stamps people first and foremost as devourers of goods rather than citizens “or family members or inhabitants of a village”.

And he does fear for that town he used to enter on a trap.

“When I see supermarkets surrounding market towns such as Saxmundham, which has got a Waitrose – which is bad enough – and where permission has now been given for a Tesco’s to set up opposite, that is the death knell for all sorts of things.

“Supermarkets will encourage the further racketing down of prices to local suppliers. There’s absolutely no reason to be glad that these things are beginning to dominate our lives, other than ‘offering us more choice’. Well, choice in itself is a somewhat fatuous ambition.”

Surely there are glints of optimism? People talk about environmental dilemmas and sustainability in ways they wouldn’t have done a decade ago – and many are taking positive action.

“There are signs of hope. But just think on this: how many people do you know who have made a fundamental shift in their living patterns and habits? The vast majority of people I know – nearly all my friends, which includes a number of people with a massive amount of environmental awareness – they still fly all over the place.”

He is encouraged by the growth of the natural food movement, citing the “delightful” farmers’ market at Snape Maltings and the increasing number of organic producers. “They are pioneers and revolutionaries in their own right. But still the vast majority of farming in Suffolk is intensive and fossil fuel-dependent. And short-sighted.”

I need to bowl some googlies. Surely not everyone can afford organic food? And don’t his books encourage tourism – and thus travel-related emissions?

“First one: yes, it’s a genuine concern, and if people are watching every penny of their budget, they’re not going to want to spend a lot of money on a chicken when they can get it for two quid. But . . . two points to make. One is that we spend less and less, as a percentage of our income, on food. There was a time, in my childhood, when we spent something like 30%, I think. So we can afford – most of us – to spend much more on food than we do, as a proportion of income.

“If we were to drop, for example, drinking, or cigarette-smoking, or some of the gadgets we have, and focus instead on the quality of the food that enables us to grow and survive, then we could probably afford it.

“I’m not saying the very poorest people could afford organic food; I’m saying far more people could afford to pay more money to eat better. I’m astonished that people are prepared to put garbage in their bodies.”

More of us could also grow our own food, he suggests. “Another thing to say is that if people learned to cook better, they would make better use of what food they have. So a big organic chicken will go a very long way if you use it properly.

“The second googly: travel. Yes, fair point. My answer is: I’m not telling people how to travel. When I first started, there was no such thing as a short-haul flight. A lot of people going to France, admittedly, were going by car, but they could go by rail or bike. I would offer them the best opportunities to get off the beaten track and meet real people, and support the rural economy.

“I’m more vulnerable talking about India, because that’s the one long-haul destination we do, and I confess I did it for slightly nostalgic reasons: I was born there. All our books except for India feature places which can be reached by train. That includes Greece, Turkey, Morocco. So you don’t have to fly.

“I wonder whether I’m encouraging more people to fly . . . If somebody were to come up with statistics to convince me I am encouraging more people to fly, that would be pretty tricky . . .”

Eco-concern is a family affair. Son Rowan – who goes under the name of Dizraeli as a rapper and performance poet – vowed never to fly again . . . which was fine, until he landed a gig in Cairo. Undeterred, he opted to travel overland, accompanied by a documentary-maker. (Their exploits are chronicled at www.unplaned.com)

His dad says: “For him, flying’s a moral choice: do it if you don’t mind possibly killing somebody. I’ve done my share of flying; given what we know now about the damage to the planet, should we not all, as a moral choice, be making quite major changes?”

Actually, here’s a third googly. Does he ever meet cynics who read the publishing-company marketing-speak and wince at phrases like “artisan producers”, or suggestions about where to find a yurt in which to stay? Does anyone say “Well, yes, you’ve got that nice, warm, post-hippie philosophy, but you’re a bit ‘Notting Hill’ and essentially part of the capitalist system”?

“No, they don’t. They’re very welcome to! I’m happy to engage with all that stuff. My knowledge of organic farming, it doesn’t go very deep but it goes wide, because I was vice-chair of the Soil Association for a while. I saw organic farmers as real pioneers getting away from the fossil fuel-dependent model. They have to make money in order to survive, but I don’t think it would be fair to call a dedicated organic farmer a capitalist.”

Capitalism is about finding ways of employing fewer people, “whereas the organic movement seeks to do the opposite”.

Alastair might get more than a little irked about what humans do, but he says he’s essentially an optimist and that his blood pressure is “mercifully ordinary”. His approach to issues such as climate change is: “Do something about it. Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle. Even if it’s guttering and may go out. What else to do, really?”

n Web link: www.sawdays.co.uk

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