A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Sitting on that park bench, I couldn’t stop myself from crying. What had I been thinking?
‘Well, Katharine,’ I muttered under my breath, ‘you’re not actually homeless, friendless, and without any possibility of gainful employment, you know. You’re doing this as an exercise in gimmicky journalism. What exactly is there to cry about?’
To go back to the beginning: Katharine Hibbert loses her job, freelance work has been drying up, and on top of that, the rent on her flat has just gone up to the point that she can no longer afford it. Boredom has set in, too (‘life had become faintly tedious,’ she admits), and she starts questioning the relentlessly consumerist world we live in. So, instead of – for instance – taking up volunteer work and thinking up inventive ways to minimize her own consumerism, she moves out of her flat, leaves her most valuable possessions in safekeeping with her mother, packs up a sleeping bag and heads off in search of a random squat to live in. Without a companion, without more than £20 on her person, and even more importantly, without much of a plan. Sounds like a great idea!
I’m very interested in books that explore – and question – our economy and the mindless waste it engenders, but for some time this particular book left a bad taste in my mouth. The very concept was, after all, ‘pretending to be poor’. Hibbert’s friends and family are concerned: what if she gets raped, or otherwise hurt, or even killed? She braves these horror scenarios, and to her luck keeps running mostly into nice or at least harmless people, but what about the many who are not so lucky? What about those for whom poverty and homelessness are not a choice, and who don’t run into such nice people? Doesn’t this kind of thing trivialise their experiences?
But as soon as Hibbert finds a group of squatters to live with, I found myself engrossed in the book, almost against my will. Did you know that squatting isn’t actually illegal in the UK? I didn’t. (It’s illegal in Finland, though: I checked. Not that I was planning to try. Honestly!) What also surprised me that most of the squatters, or at least the ones Hibbert ran into, tended to be people with anti-capitalist ideologies or foreign people in search of an adventure. The ‘real poor’ don’t really make an appearance, except in the form of elderly people who are scavenging for food – though I shudder with distaste at my own use of a term like ‘the real poor’: who am I to define anyone’s poverty for them? Sadly, however, those who are most desperately in need of this benevolent network of active squatters – such as homeless asylum seekers – fall outside it, as they try to avoid being noticed by the authorities.
As much as empty buildings, Free is about the things that are thrown away – so many things, and so much food, that a ‘hidden army’ of people can live on it, and most of it still ends up in the landfills. There’s not even an effective system of recycling or composting in place for the things that really need to be thrown away. Hibbert accurately points out that waste is actually built into the business model of the shops and restaurants we frequent, and that by avoiding the bruised apple or the slightly brown banana in the shop, and tossing yoghurt in the rubbish because it’s gone slightly past its ‘use by’ date, we are part of the problem. I’ve always known how vast quantities of food and usable things end up going to waste (that’s why I picked up this book, after all) but still I found myself startled and angry at Hibbert’s descriptions of waste bins full of perfectly good food. Even more distasteful is how protective shops can be of their rubbish. I was most angered by the deliberately ruined food: packages opened so the yoghurt is no longer edible, food sprayed with blue detergent or covered with floor sweepings; even a croissant that stings the mouth, seemingly splashed with something like bleach. The description of Marks & Spencer’s policies frankly guaranteed that I’ll never buy anything there, should I ever end up living in Britain.
At some point, the book does get a bit repetitive; the year is a merry-go-round of finding a squat, getting evicted, finding a new squat, scavenging for food, making use of the diverse things peoples, shops and even charity shops throw away (coffee-makers! televisions! chairs, shredders – anything at all!), meeting interesting anti-capitalist characters, and, eventually, hitch-hiking and even travelling abroad hardly without any money at all. Quite impressive, if you’re an adventurous spirit. (I’m not: for me, finding a new little path in the forest whilst walking the dog is an adventure.)
The spirit that carries this book is the kindness of strangers: people who choose to live outside the norms of society but stick together and help each other; even people who spend their days fixing other people’s bicycles for free. Much as I ended up liking the book, and Hibbert herself, every now and then I found myself wondering why she couldn’t have simply written a book about these people, about squatting and scavenging and the activist and anti-capitalist groups about them, instead of trying to do it all on her own, without any preparation? And then I found myself blaming myself for being so judgmental. Hibbert wanted to try something that took quite a bit of guts on her part, and she did it. Why does it rub me the wrong way? I don’t know.
I don’t know what Hibbert is doing now; at the end of the book, when the year is up, she no longer lives without money but still lives in a squatted flat and scavenges for food. Unsurprisingly, she has gained a new appreciation of life’s essentials, and a better sense of what she really needs, but strangely – or perhaps not so strangely – these new experiences have also made her eat more healthily, exercise more, and lead a less stressful life.
All in all, a flawed but interesting book that contains a lot more than just (as I thought in the beginning, rather unjustly) one person’s experiences of ‘pretending to be poor’.
Ebury Press, 2010. 320 pp. Paperback edition, ISBN: 0091932734