Peter Crisp talks about the inspirational qualities of his father, Robert, and the fascinating accounts that make up Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance.
According to Robin Hanbury-Tenison writing in Country Life magazine, my father Robert Crisp’s book Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance is ‘the perfect antidote to the cares of the world and an opportunity to indulge all latent escapist desires.’
Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance is the journal of a charming rogue’s journey through a foreign land and culture in search of inner peace and happiness, originally serialized in the Sunday Express, written under the pseudonym Peter White. When I originally assembled these articles to create Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance, I was taken by the relevance his experiences had retained. In the editor’s note I write about how the ‘deceptively simple story of an older man living his dream, enjoying freedom, self-sufficiency and the simple life, contains powerful messages: It’s OK to be poor – in fact, it’s not just OK, it’s liberating. It’s all right to be alone – it’s not just all right, it’s great. It’s fine to grow old – indeed it’s the happiest time of life.’
Are these lessons still applicable to us in 2017? I would argue that the need for this source of inspiration has never been greater. With over fifty per cent of the world’s population living in urban environments, we are at our furthest away from nature than we have ever been before.
My father was an adventurous man, and found settled suburban living stifling. How many of us can identify with a need to break free from the constraints of a busy life? ‘I go now in search of a place where I can live out my dream. I want four walls and a roof. It must be near the sea and have a beach for beachcombing. It must have an acre of land and some running water on which I can attain the self-sufficiency I seek. And I hope the sea has some fish in it and that I can catch them.’
Can you imagine not living by the clock to a prescribed schedule, answerable only to yourself? ‘My watch dwindled to silent immobility at the same time as the radio. I did not miss its recurring theme of time passing … it grew light in the morning and I got up; it grew dark in the evening and I went to bed. I could state that being without knowledge of great events had made as little difference to my life as it had made to great events. It seemed to me that I had arrived somewhere.’
I believe that my father’s desire for a life lived in tune with the land is still alive in the public consciousness today. You need only look as far as television programs such as River Cottage and Jimmy’s Farm, or have a look online for the plethora of dedicated alternative living lifestyle blogs to see how living the simple life is still very much close to our hearts. It’s therefore fascinating to get a glimpse into the life of someone who put this dream into action. ‘When I raised my head from the evening table … over the tall heads of my thistles, the green promise of fig and vine, olive and orange, I lifted my eyes to the constant fulfillment of one of the loveliest panoramas of sea, mountain and sky in all Peloponnese – and that means in all the world. It was a feast to assuage any sort of hunger.’
The simple life can of course bring with it a vastly reduced income, but, for my father, there were other more important riches to be found out there ‘I climbed up on the roof and looked round my sunset domain. I felt like a king. A penniless king but rich beyond the potency of wealth.’
As well as learning to survive in his new home, my father was diagnosed with cancer just before he planned to set off on foot to make his journey with a donkey around Crete. His bravery in the face of this news has always impressed me: ‘So I had cancer. I felt curiously unshocked. What I really wanted to know, of course, was what were my chances of living and for how much longer. “If this medication is effective then the tumour will not recur and I will have no more problems?” I asked. It was not intended to be a funny question but it set him off laughing gaily. “If the medication is effective, you will be a very lucky man.”’
He even continued with his plans regardless: ‘I had no intention of altering a plan I had nurtured for more than a year: I would be in Crete looking at donkeys’ teeth as a preliminary to selecting a working companion for a walk around the perimeter of the island.’
As it turned out, he was a very lucky man, as he went on to live for over twenty more years. As for getting old, I was present at his 80th birthday when he declared that his time in Greece and Crete ‘were the happiest years of my life.’
And so we come back to my earlier question; are these lessons still relevant today? Might my father’s example inspire you to go out there and live the life you have always dreamed of? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
If you’d like to find out more about his adventures, you can buy Zen and the Art of Donkey Maintenance from all the usual online outlets, but if, like me, you’d like to support independent book shops, I urge you to visit your local one and order it!
I’ll let Robin Hanbury-Tenison have the last word: ‘Reading about his irresponsible but charmed life and the halcyon days he managed to conjure up out of almost constant struggle and adversity, the reader can only admire one who broke the bounds of life so completely … You have to buy this book!’