Going Slowly

Alastair Sawday’s book Go Slow England’ captures the spirit of England’s loveliest places to stay, from cottages to castles, wild gardens to bluebell woods. It embraces Slow Food and Slow Travel ñ perfect for those who want to find a place outside the fast lane’. In this extract from the book’s introduction, Alastair Sawday explains the growing Go Slow’ movement.

Every era creates its own agents of social change. Only time will tell which are the great movements of our age but the Slow movement, born of a renewed regard for the simple pleasures of life, may well prove to be one of them. What is it? How deeply can it reach? Where is it going? What is its capacity to change the world it inhabits?

Slow Food celebrates meals prepared with love and consumed at leisure, as in Italy, where life can still grind magnificently to a halt in the middle of the day. In 1986 a food journalist, Carlo Petrini, was shocked to see that a McDonald’s was planning to open in the heart of Rome ñ on the exquisite Piazza Navona, no less ñ and resolved to fight the invasion of Fast Food with Slow Food. It took off and is still flying high. There are Slow Food enthusiasts all over the world. The movement was founded in the Piemonte town of Bra and now the town buzzes with slow activities ñ even a Food Academy.

Every November, in Turin, there is the Salone del Gusto’, a Slow Food feast of global proportions. Artisan growers come from all over the world. Part of the wider convention Terra Madre’, it brings together cooks, eco-gastronomists’, small scale producers and all those working to combat standardisation and encourage biodiversity. People talk of the event with tears in their eyes. It is the world’s greatest display of good food, they declare.

The idea of Slow Cities was such a good one that it had to go somewhere else and this it has done with Cittaslow. Urban reflections of the Slow Food concept, they are thoughtful places, which value peace and quiet, local production, pedestrians over cars, a dark night sky, artisan production, eco-friendly architecture, low energy consumption and importantly, time to enjoy all these things as a community.
The Slow City movement, formed in Italy in 1999, has spread to an international network of small towns. Ludlow, in Shropshire, was the first to win membership in Britain. Diss and Aylsham in Norfolk and Mold in Wales, have followed.

To those over 60, Cittaslow has the whiff of dÈj‡ vu. There is nothing new about shopping locally, growing your own vegetables or holidaying at home. The modern world of speed has warped our perspective. But there is help at hand, in the shape of new ways to evaluate our lives ñ for example, the United Nation’s Quality Of Life Index’.

The Index values, explicitly and implicitly, our health, life span, friendships, sense of belonging, use of spare time ñ in short, our well being. It acknowledges a truth that is so profound, it has been lost in our obsessive search for newness: money cannot buy happiness.

The Kingdom of Bhutan, in the Himalayas, has had the genius to adopt Gross National Happiness as official policy: judging the country’s progress by its happiness. They will be spared the endless search for growth and the destruction it brings. Anything that undermines the people’s health will be discouraged, as will anything that gobbles up their time. Major decisions are tested against their effect on the environment and on society.

Bhutan is so determined that its way of life not be tainted by western consumerism and alien ideas of growth that, with delicious irony, it allows only tourists who have paid a large sum to enter. Tourists are queuing up.
It is fascinating to note how such a slow society performs internationally. According to the United Nations, Bhutan is one of the world’s ten least developed countries’. Yet according to the New Economics Foundation, who have developed the Happy Planet Index, which includes ecological footprint, Bhutan is somewhere near the top. The United States is 150th out of 178, and the United Kingdom is 108th!

Another superb example of the wisdom of slow living, although it has probably never heard of the phrase, is the little ex-country of Ladakh, now part of Kashmir. Helena Norberg-Hodge, who lived there for many years, wrote of her experiences in her book Ancient Futures. Helena described how long it took her to realise that smiling was simply a reflection of happiness. For her, it was not easy to grasp that a smile was just that and disguised nothing.

The Ladakhis lack the ingredients for an insecure existence ñ a sense of never quite making it, competitiveness, inadequacy ñ so common in the west. Instead, they know how to make much of little, rather than little of much.

At a profound level, living slowly is to grasp the essential truth that happiness comes from the small, simple things: a smile from another, a kind word, picking the first blackberries, sharing supper with friends, a glimpse of a rare bird. It is easy to reduce such observations to the trite; they are none the less real.

There is an organisation in Britain called Common Ground, devoted to the survival of what is best about the country. It has produced a leaflet called Losing Your Place. Without once mentioning the word, it gloriously evokes the concept of slow’. Here is an edited passage: We sometimes forget that ours is a cultural landscape, an invisible web. It is held together by stone walls and subsidies, ragas and Northumbrian pipes, Wensleydale sheep and halal butchers, whiskies of Islay and Fenland skies, bungalows and synagogues, round barrows and rapping, high streets and Ham stone, laver bread and Devon lanes, door details and dialect. Places are layer upon layer of our history and nature’s history intertwined.’

A slow life allows time to see the distinctiveness of things: the way bushes are swept shapely by the wind, trees interweave with one another, shadows hug the ground in the winter sun. The Slow movement is born of a renewed interest in the quality of experience over the modern pressure to have more, faster and cheaper.

Slowness is, fundamentally, about happiness. The movement’s protagonists know that the faster and more materialistic society is, the less happy are its members. In fact, most of us know this. Speed usually involves competitiveness, rather than co-operation and that appears to hinder happiness too.

Being slow is acknowledging what makes for a better, happier and more connected world. Good food and conversation, music and laughter, time for family and friends ñ all will seem less elusive. Go and meet for yourself the people in this book, absorb their lives for a moment in time and find inspiration.

Alastair Sawday’s Go Slow England’ can be purchased by visiting our books pages.

Image: car-free day out, Milden Hall, Suffolk. Photos: © Rob Cousins

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