No one could accuse James Strawbridge of being a typical student. Alongside completing his History degree at York, he has been heavily occupied with his family’s BBC televised project “It’s Not Easy Being Green” which has involved, among other things, producing diesel out of chip fat, slaughtering pigs with his bare hands, and being propositioned by older women via email.
In an exclusive interview on Sunday with Nouse, he explained: “My family’s always tried to be green, but we moved around a lot. We had goats and chickens and things like that, but my mum and dad decided that they wanted to take it to a bigger level.”
That “bigger level”, for the Strawbridges, involved moving to Tywardreath on the South coast of Cornwall, to a derelict, roofless house previously inhabited by gypsies, and undertaking an entirely sustainable lifestyle.
On arriving at their new home, the Strawbridges were initially preoccupied with repairs: installing running water; planting vegetables, and signing up with the sustainable energy firm, Ecotricity. Their next step was to purchase some livestock. Their first buy was a set of “rescue chickens” from the local battery farm; their second were a pair of pigs, which were reared for meat, because: “buying bacon in little plastic wrapped things from Costcutter is just shit really.” The pigs were eventually killed before New Year’s Eve 2005, with the aid of what James described as “the local slaughter man.” One was consumed at a “spit-roast party” held to celebrate the end of the series, and the other was “turned into salamis, chorizos and sausages.” He described the process of helping to slaughter the pigs with his bare hands as “traumatic”.
“It was horrible butchery. It made me think a lot more about eating meat. Pigs when they die are a bit like chickens: they don’t stop moving straight away. A pig’s a powerful animal, so they were kicking and stuff. And you have to bleed them to get the blood for black pudding and stop the heart from pumping. I was up in the tractor with it hanging down, and it was disgusting. It was pretty brutal.”
The Strawbridges then set about establishing their own power supply, involving aqueduct, a watermill and a homemade generator, which now powers all the lights in the house. They recently installed a wind-turbine to provide the electricity to power household appliances such as the washing machine.
They run their cars on the diesel they produce by putting fat from the local chip shop through a small bio diesel reactor; a system which James describes as being “completely efficient, apart from a little chippie smell in one of the cars.”
They built a composting lavatory, which retains human waste for a year, after which it can be recycled to fertilise fruit trees. James claims that this lavatory is “very clean and nice and doesn’t smell.”
In order to avoid the “massive environmental cost” of using mains water, the family pipe spring water into their house, heated with solar thermal tubing. The house is insulated with recycled textiles, and heated through a ventilation system using hot air from wood burning stoves.
James describes the reality of seeing himself on television as “pretty weird” and relates tales of being stopped in the street and sent propositioning emails by female fans, one of whom offered her services as “a beautiful, experienced older woman.” At this point, a friend at the next table starts inexplicably chanting “pantyhose”, but is silenced by James, who blushingly refuses to elaborate on the matter.
While James is in York, he continues to try to live sustainably. He grows his own garlic, basil, lettuce and onions in the garden of his student house, and is planning to use the proceeds from the sale of his car to “buy a horse and build a gypsy carriage with a solar powered shower in the back.” His dissertation was entitled “Green is the New Black”, and focused on the historic relationship of Native American Indians with the environment.
When, apropos of the twenty-pack of Marlborough Reds before him on the table, I ask him how he feels about the ecological footprint of the tobacco industry, he grins and replies “That’s the great thing: being a contradiction. I love it. Yeah, I smoke Marlborough reds, and they’re bad for the environment. But I also build water mills and windmills. I’ve bought t-shirts in gap, but I wear hemp trousers. It’s really really difficult to be a classic ecowarrior. I’m not going to try and be something I’m not, I’m just trying to be the best I can be. I might fall down in some areas [he gestures at the packet of Marlborough Red] but I promise you I’m aiming to be a good person, and that’s what counts.”
James describes the process of trying to live in an environmentally friendly way as a student as “really difficult”, though he claims “everyone’s been great about it”. He tells tales of large summer gatherings of his friends at the house in Cornwall, at which “we get up very early with hangovers and start digging in the garden and building things. Then we have nice healthy lunches from the garden, and then get pissed in the evening. It’s a really relaxed atmosphere.”
Despite the wide range of friends he has apparently acquired at York, James does not reflect on his time here fondly. “I hate York. It’s a shit-hole. Students are lazy…and York’s pretty dull. It’s quite boring. On an environmental front it’s bad too, which pisses me off a little bit. And I haven’t liked my course – it’s a little bit traditional, a bit conventional. But I’ve made good friends, I’m not slagging it off completely.”
When he finishes his degree at York at the end of this term, he plans to move back down to Cornwall with his newly built, horse-driven gypsy caravan and get involved in the ongoing filming of the second series, for which the family are planning to build a “reed bedded swimming pool” and a pair of Mongolian Yurts. When asked what else the new series might entail, James replies: “I really don’t know, that’s the great thing. Anything could happen.”