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Life in a quarry

03 May 2013

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HOW would Tom and Barbara have coped with the reality of The Good Life? While Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal donned chunky jumpers and set about their back garden with suburban enthusiasm, the real pioneers of the environmental movement were slumming it in a shack at a disused slate quarry in Machynlleth. The Centre for Alternative Technology, as we heard in The Reunion (Radio 4, Sunday), was born of the same sense of excitement and urgency as inspired The Good Life, but with fewer of Barbara's blandishments.

Liz Todd had to bring up two children in the quarry settlement, which had no mains water or electricity. There was plenty of muesli to eat, but if you wanted some proper sustenance, you had to sneak off to the town and wolf down a surreptitious Full English.

There was a great deal of joking among Sue MacGregor's guests, brought together again to reminisce about this pioneering experiment, but there was no hiding the fact that this was a tough ordeal, which brought with it family tensions as well as ideological conflict.

Inevitably, the Centre attracted people with strong opinions about how the world could and should be saved, and one of the challenges for the residents was to negotiate the fine line between practicality and eco-puritanism, particularly with regard to the way they were perceived by the media.

Today, the innovations that came out of the Centre are part of the mainstream - wind- and water- turbines, solar heating, and ecological waste-management - but in the 1970s they were regarded as subversive: The Times refused the Centre's first advertisement for volunteers, on the basis that it believed the group to be anarchists.

Yet the Centre's founder was Gerard Morgan-Grenville, an Old Etonian businessman, who delivered instructions to his team on embossed writing paper. Despite a brief stint in California, from which he returned smoking joints, he was not someone who had a natural affinity with communist principles, and there was a sense of a distinct frisson between him and some of his co-pioneers. It might have been yet more entertaining had these tensions been more articulated, but this was nevertheless a splendid snapshot of the counter-culture, British-style.

While our former Archbishop gave the media just a whiff of a bardic counter-culture, the new one is being created in a very different image. In the last incumbency, the Archbishop could be found moonlighting on radio shows about poetry and Russian literature; but I have a feeling that with the new one I will be tuning into more shows such as The Week in Westminster (Radio 4, Saturday), which followed up Archbishop Welby's speech about banking ethics with an interview with George Parker from the Financial Times.

As one of the two cross-benchers on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, the Archbishop is facing many questions about God and bonuses. There was a satisfyingly hard edge to his responses on this occasion which bodes well for the future. At one point, you might have mistaken his script for that of The Sopranos: "I don't like ruffling feathers, but sometimes feathers get ruffled."

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