Monday, 26 October 2009

Urban Simplicity

Most books and newspaper or magazine articles conceptualise living simply in a rural environment – back to the land.

Living simply is popularly seen as wabi-sabi and vaguely muddy: an exercise requiring gum boots, and probably a dog.

There is a great difference between England and America here (and obviously other parts of the world too), centring mainly on the issue of space. The American tiny house websites often show pictures of enchanting little dwellings only X square feet, squeezed in impossible nooks between larger houses. In England, most ordinary people’s houses look like that anyway. Land is at a premium, because there is less of it, and what there is either belongs to an individual or the government; so you can’t build on it or camp on it or stop a trailer on it overnight.

This means that in England living in the country is not as it was in Jane Austen’s novels, what you did when you ran out of money. It is now what you do when you win the lottery.

There are people who live simply and don’t have much money in the English countryside. Some have inherited farms. Some work as volunteers in retreat houses, or are part of intentional communities or New Age groups that have won the planning consents battle to settle (like Tinker’s Bubble). Some are very old people who have lived there since before the price of accommodation was pushed sky-high by the feminist movement with its working women moving the goalposts so that house mortgages were set to factor in two incomes. Some are people who had a lump of capital to spend on a house but do not have high incomes. Some have high incomes entirely absorbed by massive mortgages.

But people who have not inherited houses in the countryside, do not have and do not aspire to have the kind of jobs that attract high wages, are plain individuals not part of an intentional community or staff of a country house, probably live in the town.

In the English villages, the shops, post offices, pubs, schools, chapels, public transport and other facilities have gradually dwindled away. So people for whom living simply has an important Earth-friendly component, and who therefore want to live without cars, almost certainly (though not always) live in the town.

When television programmes discuss Earth-friendly initiatives and lifestyles, and look at choosing to live simply, generally keeping hens and installing solar panels and large underground rain-water reservoirs and wind turbines come into the equation.

All very interesting, but involves the living-simply-by-accumulating-gadgetry-and-accessories approach that is likely to appeal in a consumer society.

Urban simplicity is a far more practical proposition for young people starting out (with no inheritance) or for people who have been divorced and lost half their assets at a stroke, or who have been made ill by the rat race and forced to drop out and seek something richer in peace and poorer in finance, or who earn only enough money for a modest home for their family and can afford either for everyone to get weekly bus tickets or run a car but not both.

For people who cannot even consider the cost of installing photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, Earth-friendly simplicity is made possible in an urban setting. Here are some of the strategies.

• Ditch the car. Walk, use public transport. In some towns bikes are really good. I went everywhere on a bike when we lived in Bromley, because the terrain was even, the roads were wide and the people lived in big houses with off-road parking. In Hastings I don’t cycle: the hills are very steep, the roads are narrow and lined with parked cars because the houses are small and close with no off-road parking. Cycling here is for the bold and intrepid and the very fit. I get a £9.50 mega-rider bus ticket once a week, which takes me anywhere in Hastings and out as far as Bexhill (the next town, five miles along the coast). If you live in a town, you don't have to run a car. If you live in the country you almost have to have one (or someone does, to give you lifts).

• Share accommodation. We have sometimes had lodgers, and are currently in process of setting up a household of 5 adults, all family members. Living by cultural norms, those people would have 4 (there is one couple) sets of rent/mortgage, 4 TV licences, 4 sets of council tax & utilities, 4 heating and water boilers running, 4 stoves on for supper, 4 computers, 4 TV sets, 4 fridges, 4 freezers. So we shall have reduced all that by 75%, except the council tax which will be a little higher than for the sort of dwelling one of us would have been able to afford – but still much lower than 4 separate ones.

• Share costs and possessions. We shall have a car (a Toyota Prius) for our household, paid for by the company one of us works for, but we probably won’t run a second one. We certainly shan’t have one each!! We shall have a little more furniture than each of us would have had alone, but nothing like as much as all of us would have had living separately. Shopping, eating, cooking and utilizing garden produce is more economical per capita as a big household than as a household of one. One Christmas tree. One wood stack. One DVD to watch in the evening. Und so weite.

• The usual mantra – repair, re-use, recycle. The towns are rich in pickings of second-hand stuff. Hastings is stuffed to the gunwales with second-hand furniture shops and charity shops, and if you live locally they will deliver your purchases free, and if you only bought a small thing – a stool or shelf – there is a bus to take it home on or home is not too far from the shop to walk.

• Wholefood shops and co-operatives tend to centre in towns, just because there are more people there to make them viable.

• I get a lot of things on ebay. Recently I got a warm winter coat with a glam faux-fur collar on ebay, for £8. When my children were small, we got almost all their clothes second-hand. Their winter coats we acquired at the end of the summer term (the end of the school year), when all the items languishing in Lost Property were put out to be claimed or moved on. Some of the wealthier children had in fact not lost but dumped the new coats their parents had bought them, because they were not fashionable. We waited for those. We never had to buy a winter coat for our children until they all moved to a school where a uniform coat was required, when I became chaplain there. So we had to buy them second-hand coats but we did get a free house, so that was OK. But the thing about second-hand clothes is you depend on what’s available more and can be less demanding about what you want (unless you are mega shrewd and patient). We found that hardwearing practical clothes came up less often – when they were little our children’s everyday wear tended to be other people’s outgrown party-dresses because the track suits never made it to the charity shops. This means it’s easier to be a Second-hand Rose in the town, where the environment doesn’t need special shoes etc.

More thoughts on same subject to come…