Setting myself free was no deliberate move. Circumstances and a sudden turn of events at the coldest time of year forced this upon me and as I begin to get some perspective four months on, this enforced shift in lifestyle might just prove to be the biggest gift of this year.
Part of me had always hankered after a more itinerant lifestyle, a flexibility that gave me a chance to be more mobile, more adaptable, more spontaneous. In January this year, I looked set to complete on the sale of my house and move to Hay on Wye to await exchange and completion on a flat and shop in this small Welsh borders market town. But a week before my move, I was strongly advised to abort the purchase process, due to complex logistics relating to the deeds and paperwork. I followed my solicitor’s advice and immediately realised I’d be out on my ear with a only few days grace.
My friends were sympathetic and many asked what I’d do next. “I don’t know, but something will turn up,” was my stock reply, usually uttered unconvincingly. Something did turn up, in fact several offers of space and one particularly exciting proposition that allowed me my own place for a couple of months in the town of Lewes, somewhere I’d always wanted to get to know.
Suddenly I was free as the wind, unsettling as that felt. I could have panicked and gone for something more permanent, some security. But I decided to embrace the moment and open myself up to a few unknowns. The journey so far has been fascinating and something of a rollercoaster, but above all I’ve started to challenge myself and push myself out of any predictable comfort zone in way I haven’t done for years. And I’m not only learning from the experience but having an exciting adventure which feels liberating, although I’m not yet sure exactly from what.
The first thing I learned was a big step towards that all-important living in the moment. It’s hard to plan more than a few weeks ahead when you don’t know what is coming or where your base might be. The most irritating part of coming to terms with my new status was the realisation that when I told the truth about my lack of a fixed address it exposed the inflexibility of the organisational systems and databases which much of the UK’s infrastructure runs on – insurance history, car registration, ability to vote, tax records, bank statements. At least I was lucky enough to possess a motorhome, which gave me a fallback. But insurers don’t like the idea of a mobile ‘no fixed’ address. I got there in the end, but only after being given an almighty runaround.
The storage arrangement didn’t delight my insurers either. They insisted on four metre high walls around the farm and security cameras, which it didn’t have. So I had to spend day chasing around to find a company willing to accept my money without this level of requirement. The fact that many insurers still avoid email and do everything on paper didn’t help. My five boxes of ‘stuff’ certainly didn’t include a printer or, lord forbid, a fax machine, for example.
Then there was the matter of logistics. Whereas I’d been able to pop out into the garden and fill up my van with water, charge its batteries and load it with clean bedding andprovisions, I now had to grapple with being up to 150 miles from the farm I’d found to store it in.
But all this logical headfuck was soon swept aside. I was mobile, portable and the world was my oyster. And it fitted in perfectly with my current project. I set up Campfire to be flexible and portable and it was important for me to live that ethos too. To not be weighed down by admin and paperwork, to be able to visit specific places and do events. This sudden freedom of the road prompted me to explore the ideas of taking Campfire out into the wide blue yonder and the perfect vehicle for this.
I’m lucky enough to have a well-equipped camper van which I have owned for a couple of years and again, the timing has been fortuitous. My main responsibilities were to my two children but they are now at an age where they are working and supporting themselves as best they can on the sort of zero hours contracts and mac-job wages which are so prevalent in today’s post-Thatcherite Britain.
To be mortgage-free and not to have dependent children were two liberating factors, to be able to keep my costs as low as possible means that I have the flexibility to roam and adapt my situation, to live and work wherever the wind blows me.
There are responsibilities that come with this lifestyle. If I have been invited to share space with others, I am always aware that it is their space and their goodness has extended to having me at large in their household. That means chipping in with house work, feeding pets regularly, watering plants, cooking and washing up and making myself as invisible as I can without being seen to be insular or rude. It’s a balance I’m still working on, as I’m aware that I can’t just retreat to my room when I feel like it. It’s about developing empathic qualities and trying the read what expectations are and what I am expected to do. The secret to a long life, wisdom says, is knowing when it’s time to go. Never outstay your welcome.
It has meant that I have been forced into bringing out my more sociable side, which has made me more outgoing. As a person who values privacy, reflection time, reading time, thinking time and creative space, there have been moments where the sociability of households has presented challenges. This was especially the case at my most intensive ‘on a mission’ moments where I find myself caught up with organising a new event or a breakthrough chapter in the long, unfolding Campfire software development process.
It has also given me a chance to re-appraise my attitude to belongings. I don’t wear a watch or jewelery, I’ve probably watched ten hours of TV in four months and my indulgences have extended to a loudspeaker and my laptop, my sole ‘work and entertainment centre’. Going into department stores, with their miles of aisles, piles of china and reeking perfumery departments has left me close to gagging, not just on account of the cloying smell, more because of the putrid rampant consumerism that they espouse and promote.
I’ve kept belongings to a minimum - two suitcases (winter clothes aren’t much use after March), four pairs of shoes including the luxury of slippers, a dressing gown (helps in a shared house), a couple of boxes of paperwork which I haven’t even looked at, some home comforts such as Marmite (I seem to have amassed three jars!) and a box of gadgets such as a Bose speaker, a Sonos speaker, chargers, mifi and a backup device I haven’t even been able to set up. At the centre of my technological armoury is my trusted MacBookPro, phone and and mifi device
The true symbolism of being without ‘stuff’ came home to roost one cold, wet night in a friend’s shepherd’s hut a few miles from Hay in early spring. Despite the Cameron associations, these huts can still be warm and cosy and when I lay there late at night warming up in my bed listening to the rain cascading down on the tree next to the hut as a gale whipped up, I realised that all my worldly possessions (apart from my case and computer) were just two miles down the road in a big warehouse, the bulk of which was around 50 boxes of records and CDs – the idea of which seemed faintly ridiculous! I might get the occasional yearning to play a track I have on some obscure vinyl, and anyway these days, I’m learning to love the sound of the wind, the waves or the birds around me.
What the ‘location-independent’ (thanks @lili free (Freedom)@ for that term) lifestyle does teach you is an understanding of the humility involved in accepting that many aspects of the old property-related 'safety net’ have gone. Whilst the maxim “property is theft” might be contentious, owning a slab of the earth or the investment value of some bricks and mortar is ultimately merely temporary, only as valuable as the paper that holds the watermark of whatever local currency you are basing your daily routines around this week, or next week.
Being mobile it’s hard to have routines, though I do meditate at certain times of the day and find that sleep usually comes easy, once I’ve decided to ‘take the batteries out’, as one friend beautifully describes it. I’m certainly less in control of my immediate environment - I aim for a more zen-like state of mind where I’m not worrying about what’s around the corner, just accepting gratefully that I’m healthy and happy, relatively carefree and abandoning myself to the forces of randomness.
I’ve come to realise more than ever that home is a state of mind, a focusing on the present and putting your heart and soul into making the most of where you find yourself, rather than allowing worry about potential future outcomes or hazards get the better of you. Home is, as they say, where the heart is.
The joys are often unexpected. Like waking up suddenly at 5.30am parked up on as beautiful , wild and natural Northumbrian beach in mid June and deciding to draw the curtains and check the weather rather than go back to sleep. Within minutes I was in the sea, sun already warm, scarcely able to take in the beauty of my situation.
Notions of ‘retirement’ don’t enter into this. In many ways I’m “working” harder than ever before but when that “work” takes in bringing people together, being mobile and meeting people and talking to them and having the option to pull up and enjoy a variety of views in different locations, some of them breath-taking. I've come to realise that the idea of settling down to a life that is pre-ordered, that is designed to keep people in check, one that builds and peaks around work and home ownership and which releases you into a long slow retirement fade (with ‘death tax’ attached) isn’t for me.
In fact, doing the Campfire Conversations all over the UK has given particular focus to my travels, taking me to far-flung destinations ranging from Ashburton in Devon to Edinburgh. It has been fascinating to tap into the local mood and hear what is concerning people, what is motivating and exciting them and how Campfire might be able to play a small part in bringing things together at micro local level. The sea-change that was observed after the general election was quite something.. a sense of hope prevails.
I have been able to opt-out of more conventional lifestyles due to the financial cushion that selling my shares in my last business provided. There’s been much discussion in the Campfire community in recent months about ‘stepping off the hamster wheel’ and I’m lucky enough to have been able to venture off-piste without coming unstuck too often. I know I’m fortunate whilst others are struggling without the routine and regular income.
Hitting the road and being free, for now, feels like a glorious transience, a celebration of embracing the random, the uncertain and celebrating being alive in all of its perfect imperfection. Throwing caution to the wind and opening myself up to chance.
Ultimately, I’m ‘just passing through'. In so many ways, that might just be the most accurate metaphor of life itself and time spent in this glorious chaotic world.