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Andy Bell

In conversation with Roman Krznaric

Andy Bell

Andy Bell has a small business growing organic vegetables on a farm outside Oxford. He runs an organic box scheme, directly delivering vegetables to over a hundred people in and around the city. Before creating this portrait, I had been a customer of his for around a year. When I visited the farm, Andy, his partner Lucy, and I harvested spring onions and shucked them while sitting in the field, surrounded by wild poppies. He then showed me his polytunnels, full of aubergines, chard and other delights. The polytunnels are named after islands that Andy has visited in Indonesia.

Having no plan

Sometimes it’s lovely not to have any plan. The times when I’ve not really known where I was going, like when I was first in East Timor and I didn’t even have a map, didn’t know much about the language. I just jumped on a truck that happened to stop for me, because I was hitching. And I didn’t even really know where he was going. It was just the most incredible feeling…the freedom and the excitement.

Being monitored

We were three kids and we used to move about every two to three years. I was sent away to boarding school. I would never send any of my children to boarding school, having done it from around 8 years old to 13, off and on, and then at the next school from 14 to 16. The whole system of the segregation, the cushioning, the pampering, the so-called ‘character-building process’. It builds the wrong kind of characters, I think - people who will always be isolated in that environment all through life. Most people I was at school with would find it quite difficult to mix socially with the kind of people I mix with now, unless they’d travelled extensively or chosen to make a point of doing it. I had a lot of friends at school, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t an inverted snob or anything like that. I didn’t stay at the last school very long. I didn’t go to classes and I used to hang out with all the bad guys. I was actually asked to leave before I took my O-levels. I didn’t pass any of the exams.

I went to the careers office in Aylesbury town centre and they’d just introduced the Youth Training Scheme. Through wanting to travel and use languages and that sort of thing, I was advised to go on the apprenticeship at Thomas Cook . I was quite lucky to be offered that. On my first day at Thomas Cook, having made the tea and stamped all the brochures and cleaned the windows, I picked up the phone and they all sort of looked at me shocked. And then I said, ‘Hold on a minute, I’ll get someone who can help you.’ And they said, ‘No, no, don’t answer the phones’. It was a brand new office and all the staff were new. The young manager obviously was very anxious to create a good impression, so he wouldn’t let me do anything.

I had to get my hair cut ’cause I had this kind of messy hairdo…dyed jet black, and I had lots of earrings. I was a bit of a punk I suppose. So I had to get my hair cut very short so the dye wouldn’t show and keep it short, but we could wear whatever we wanted to. And then they introduced this uniform and said, ‘Don’t alter it in any way’. The trousers were so flared that I couldn’t see my feet! I said to the Assistant Manager, ‘Would you mind if I just take in the trousers, just a couple of inches?’ I got in lots of trouble for that. I was closely monitored in that job. I left there after about two and a half months.

Discovering dreams

I then went to work on a building site and got more money in a day than I did in a week on the YTS scheme. It was an old barn conversion - a long job that took a whole year. I met some wonderful people who told me loads of stories about travelling. It was a real education. The crew were alternative people, mostly from Hemel Hempstead. They were all hippies who had travelled and become trades people - carpenters, plasterers, roofers, bricklayers. They were ordinary people, working people - they weren’t from pampered backgrounds or spoilt brats. For me it was great fun, getting up in the morning and going to work and just having conversations with these people. I think I found them inspiring partly because they were from a different social background than me. I used to ask them about India, Morocco, Turkey - all these places I’d never been to. The only place I’d been abroad was when I went camping for two weeks in Spain. Hearing all these wonderful stories about driving to India, being at deaths’ door with malaria, the Himalayas, going to Morocco and staying with the Berber people. It all sounded so appealing. And of course there were lots of joints going around. And the fact is that I’d never really enjoyed being inside - I’ve always worked outside. It felt free being on the site.

Certainly I was very impressionable when I was 17 or 18 working on that building site. The whole travelling thing and the class thing had a big impression on me. Enlightening really. Enlightening and at the same time getting paid for it. It definitely influenced my life. My aspirations then were to save up some money and go travelling, which is what I did for the next six years. By the time I was 22 I started to travel.

I went to work in Greece, on and off, for about two years. I did farm work, I was digging graves, unloading the frozen fish trucks, laying irrigation pipes. I did it in Israel too. I dug some graves, did furniture removal, delivering tiles. A friend and I bought one-way tickets to Bangkok for 160 quid. From Thailand I had to go somewhere to work, so I ended up going to New Zealand. I became a full-time farm hand, working for a Croatian immigrant…I’ve probably done twenty or thirty jobs in my life.

The only motivation then was to save up some money and get moving to the next destination. I wanted to travel and wanted to see out these dreams I’d had, having spoken to these guys on the building site. That was my aim in those days. And half of it was that you get embroiled in this kind of camaraderie between other tourists and they go, ‘Well, I’ve been on the road for five years’ and someone else says, ‘That’s nothing - I’ve been on the road for 12 years, jumped bail, missed out military service and got a dodgey Greek passport’. It’s all very silly now, but at the time you think ‘wow, that’s impressive’.

You come back to the village in England every year or two years or in some cases longer, and they always make a thing of it. It becomes a bit of a label - you’re a ‘travelling person’ - and you adopt it. And I suppose you exhaust it if you can [laughs].

When I got back to the UK, in 1992, it was very depressed. I ended up working for a builder again and I thought ‘this is ridiculous’ because I’d been working in Hong Kong and I’d actually been in Vietnam in a managerial position – albeit highly illegal (it was one of the best jobs I had). And here I am digging holes again in the rain in the English winter. Then I went to work in a warehouse. I read the local paper one day - I was looking for jobs - and it said ‘Organic Grower Wanted’. So I thought, ‘I know the growing bit but I don’t know the organic bit, but I’ll give it a go’. That’s how I got into it.

Knowing good people

What do you think you’ve learned about love and friendship over the years?

…I think I’ve learned to respect people a lot more, and to listen. When I left school and all I wanted to do was travel, it was on a very tight budget. I probably became a very selfish, self-preserving character. And because of the public school system, I think, I’d become quite a nasty little boy. I was sometimes a bit of a free-loader, like when I worked in Australia and was getting free accommodation with my job - maybe I didn’t need to take all the wages I was given as well. And in Israel, when all the guys agreed together that we’d only work for 9 shekels, and the next day I’d take 8 shekels if I was offered enough hours so that I would make sure I had work every day. When I came back to England I didn’t really change my attitude that much and probably continued to be selfish. I’d put myself through the mill, where you see as much as you can and use all these different encounters with different cultures and that sort of thing. I seemed to have stored up all this stuff and not really have ‘improved’.

I was away for a four-year block once and didn’t have much communication with my old friends. It was quite difficult to get back into the flow of things, to get to know them, to see them. They didn’t want to see me regularly anymore – of course, because they had different lives. That was a big smack. And then I realised that you have to consider people a bit more.

When Zsuzsa and I got married and we ended up travelling a lot in Hungary, I became the complete opposite to the person I’d been when travelling alone. I was being introduced to so many amazing Hungarians, and I think I probably learned a lot from them - to be a bit more relaxed and easygoing and thoughtful…polite…there’s just lots of things. Partly because I didn’t understand their language and culture, I often just did what they suggested we do and I found that following them was just as productive and interesting as if I’d decide what to do myself. I used to be a lot less caring, but having seen the way they get on and what a great bunch they are …you can actually see that in a lot of English people too - it’s just that I couldn’t see it before since I was wrapped up in my own world. I think if I’d had a different upbringing or if I’d had different travelling companions or if I’d travelled in a different part of the world then I would have been a different person when I came back. I probably would have valued people a bit more. It’s about knowing good people.

Making a living

Now I have a completely different life. I still love to travel, but unfortunately it’s always with a return ticket. Travelling involves escaping some of the mundane and routine aspects of life and in the past I didn’t know when I’d be returning to this.

I’ve done plenty of things that I haven’t been happy doing but I’m very happy doing this job. It’s not really a job, it’s more of a living - I enjoy the way that I make a living. The first thing I like is the freedom, because I am my own boss. I do have a routine, but it’s up to me how I plan it and I like that. My week is quite varied in a way. I spend a couple of days out in the fields cultivating stuff - I love being outside. And then I spend a whole night in London, meeting all the guys at the market, doing some shopping, going to the 24-hour Kurdish area [in Green Lanes] to have a meal and a chat. And then I have the market stall on the farm, on Thursday afternoons, and the Friday deliveries. In  my line of business I get to talk to people a lot and I like the customer contact. Occasionally I get complaints, but not that often. Most people are enthusiastic.

I’m a bit political but not very. I’m partly political because of what I do, working in the local economy and approaching things from an environmental angle. I’ve done things my way whereas I could employ loads of people and give them shit wages and be an arch-capitalist, but I don’t. I like localisation – local laws and local government for local people.

Going back to the Central European thing, they would say that if you want to do something you won’t feel tiredness, you’ll just go and do it. Sometimes I do need to say, ‘I know it’s hot, but you’ve got to go into that tunnel and weed it even if you don’t want to’. And sometimes I find myself going, ‘actually, it would nicer to hoe the onions today because it’s a nice warm day and I’d rather be outside with my shirt off hoeing the onions than streaming with sweat pulling out thistles’. You talk yourself into doing something else rather than what you really should be doing, or what would be the most sensible course of action at that time. There are definitely areas where I could improve my output but I don’t have the discipline. But I will get myself into a frame of mind where I will push myself into doing it. I corner myself and say ‘You’ve got to do this, otherwise you’ll lose the crop. Why have you invested all this time and energy into growing this stuff if you’re going to let it go? It’s a waste’. It takes that sort of realisation to go and do those things, to get the job done. On a practical level it doesn’t always work. I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly hardworking or ambitious, but I do like to set little targets for myself.

Helping each other

If you look at your life, do you think you do enough for other people?

Probably not. If Charles, my landlord, is short-staffed and needs someone to do something he’ll ask me, and I’ll go along and do it as a favour to help him. And at the same time, if he plants 20,000 onions and I plant 5,000 onions but they’re all in the same place, he will brush-hoe the onions and do mine at the same time.  I sort of feel that I owe him for that, so I try and repay him back. I often think that I don’t really do enough. Actually, helping people out off your own back is a really nice thing to do and you shouldn’t get upset if they don’t reciprocate or if they don’t even thank you. Just say, ‘OK I won’t do it again’. With other people they’ll help you back and you develop a much better relationship.

Relationship-wise my work is not always ideal because it takes long hours in the summer. It certainly affected my marriage. My wife was also working a lot and I could have [sighs] altered it a little bit I suppose. But in effect I value the time that I have on my own. It wasn’t just a job for me, it wasn’t just going to work and at five o’clock coming home. I felt I was very lucky to be able to make a living in that way. We had some problems and rather than confront them we didn’t really sort them out to the best and we ended up getting divorced.

Now I’ve met someone who is quite happy to come out to the farm. My wife would do that too now and again. But she wouldn’t rub her hands together with glee and say ‘great, let’s go’, whereas Lucy is very enthusiastic about that kind of thing. She is great at saying ‘let’s get this polytunnel weeded’. And it’s reciprocated - I help her in doing up the house. It’s quite rewarding really. Also, our social life is totally different, much better than it was with my wife. I haven’t had many long-term relationships but I feel now that there is nothing missing. I’m very happy.

Having conversations

My father died when I was about 18 and he’d already been in an alcoholic stupor for the last five years. Being a typical teenager I didn’t really settle down and have a good conversation with him. I blame myself a bit for not finding out more about him. I remember him being very open, very thoughtful, a kind, generous sort of person. But he had a weakness for whisky. I was always trying to get him to smoke marijuana because it would curtail the yearning. He almost got around to it, but he didn’t quite. If he had done, we probably would have got on better since I would have respected him more.

I don’t really talk on the level of big life questions anymore to people. I’ve got some very good old friends and there are certain things I can’t talk about to them, because they’re not interested. Two of my best friends never talk about relationships, ever. That’s something that I do like to talk about. When things are going really well in a relationship you don’t feel so compelled to talk about it, but when they’re going wrong you really want to, don’t you? And your closest friends are the people you want to talk to. Those particular guys don’t have any concept of the whole thing. But you might be working alongside someone for a couple of weeks and they’ll be very open and you feel that you can talk to them about things.

There are certain conversations that I’d like to have with people that I can’t and there are certain people that I’d like to talk about certain things with but I can’t. I’ve tried to change it. When it comes down to new acquaintances I do tend to probe quite deep, when I get a good vibe off somebody, when I feel I can.

There are always things that you’d like to talk about that you don’t know enough about. I’d like to be able to talk on a higher level about certain things that I haven’t bothered to study, like horticulture and third world problems. Having travelled a lot in that area, I can talk about it on a social level, but I can’t really go further into the problems that might occur and the reasons for them, even though I’d like to think that I know how that society works or doesn’t work. You always want to learn more. When I worked in Hong Kong I saved up some Hong Kong dollars and went into China. I had a great time but it was the first place I’d been to where I couldn’t actually communicate with anybody. Now I’ve done six years of a Mandarin degree, but I haven’t finished it and I really would like to finish that. It’s an evening course - that’s why it takes such a long time. I’ve made ten trips to Indonesia and I think I can now speak Indonesian well enough to discuss most things.

Understanding class

I do enjoy my own company. I can get quite guarded if I’m constantly with people…I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly easy-going person: in certain situations I am, but in other situations I’m definitely not.

I’m not very family orientated. I think that comes from going to boarding school. It’s a class thing too, about self-preservation. As far as I’ve witnessed, selfishness can stem from the public school-middle class-Middle England  attitudes that I know I was brought up with. I know that I’m very much a middle class person but I don’t aspire to be in any way. There are still parts of it that I would like to shake off. I know now that you can’t immediately be socially accepted - if you’re a middle class person it becomes quite difficult to be accepted in a group of working people.

Today I went to see a friend of mine, who is a really warm, open, genuine sort of bloke. If he’s got a problem, he’ll tell you. He’s also a customer but he’s more than that as well - he’s a very good friend. He asked me if I would help out a guy by taking him and his drum kit in my van up to Summertown. The guy that I’m helping out has been to exactly the same schools as me in Oxford. He’s from the typical background - a fairly well-off middle class North Oxford family. Wealthy but not rich. His parents are extremely busy in their own self-preserving lives. So I drove this guy to his house and we had a pretty good conversation. I said ‘good luck’, and he just got out of the van and said ‘oh, see you then’. He wasn’t appreciative. He wasn’t even looking at me when he said goodbye - he was looking at the front door. He said thanks, but as soon as I’d turned out of that drive, then he was finished with me. I felt, what a little brat, really [laughs]. It didn’t bother me that it took up my time, it just bothered me that his attitude was like that. It’s very much a class thing.

Thinking about the past and the future

I think about the old adage that you learn from your mistakes. You learn from looking back at things or looking at things from a different standpoint. If I’d stayed in England and completed that Thomas Cook travel and tourism course and gone off to become a member of that vast team, I would probably have been a very subservient ‘yes-man’ who would be a valuable member of the team but have absolutely nothing to say for himself. If I’d stayed at Thomas Cook I probably wouldn’t be a very nice person and I think that I’m probably a nicer person for having done what I’ve done, though I’m not saying that I’m a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination. If I’d bumped into that Central European crowd earlier on in life things might have been different. But I was probably too young and hadn’t really done enough yet to learn to appreciate them.

I have a bit of a fear of losing control over things, of not being able to fight dependency on alcohol or drugs if things changed in my life for the worse. Maybe this fear is something that comes from my father. I also find that boredom can be frightening - it can come from a lack of imagination.

The most important priority for the future is to have a family and to be able to feed them, and at the same time try and keep this kind of life - being in a situation where I’m not in a nine to five. I’d like to maintain this contented, happy-go-lucky approach. I’d also like to travel in Central Asia. Travelling is a bug, isn’t it? Half of that bug is instilled inside you, almost like competition. There’s certain places that I would love to go to before it’s too late (it’s almost a catch phrase, ‘before it’s too late’), like Moldova and Uzbekistan. I get lured by these medieval cities. Uzbekistan is supposed to be one of the only places on earth where you can see the true medieval Islamic day, because they still have these ancient traditions and the buildings are still there, and the Russians didn’t quite manage to penetrate. It will change, I’m sure. Sometimes dull daily life becomes so interesting in another part of the world.

I love the way I live. I know a lot of people who are very unhappy about the way that their lives are conducted for them or the way that they conduct their lives. It's just the way it is, isn’t it? I’d like to carry on this business. It will probably evolve through the demands of people or the demands of my family life, various influences will mould it. And then I might have more time or less time - I don’t know. I suppose I’d like to end up having my own little bit of land. Everybody would like that, wouldn’t they?