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The new barbarians: confessions of a middle-class nomad

by Jeremy Atiyah

Even the middle-class and middle-aged can go wandering looking for themselves on a kind of ‘walkabout’. Jeremy Atiyah’s tale of abandoning the trappings of modern life in the first world may inspire you to bust out of your own confines. Be warned.

January 2003

I am a well-educated man approaching middle age. I am clean and respectable and have a lot of middle-class friends. But I am writing these words crouched over a keyboard in a cubbyhole at the top of a ladder above a friend’s study. For this is the place I call home – at least for tonight. You see, a year ago I let out my flat with all its contents on the grounds that I, as a poor writer, could not afford the mortgage. As I entered my 40th year, I turned myself into a vagabond.

Back then all kinds of people felt sorry for me, including my new tenants. I did nothing to encourage this: walking out of my front door in January 2002 with a rucksack on my back, I assured them that I was not sentimental about mere possessions. ‘But what about your TV?’ they gasped. ‘And your CDs? And your books? You are leaving them all behind?’

The decision did not feel like a revolution at the time. I had no family. I had plenty of prior experience of living out of small bags. I had long ago dispensed with a diary and I owned only one pair of shoes. The important thing was that I still had a bicycle, an email address and a mobile telephone. I also had a desk in the British Library. I even had a suit, albeit a creased one. I could sleep (friends assured me) in their spare rooms and homes.

I only vaguely wondered what I was. A bloke who had run out of cash? A gentleman of the road? Or the embodiment of a new Volkerwanderung? The answer seemed to hinge on how I would react to being homeless: whether I would pine for my own bed and bath or ride out across the London steppe on my bicycle, truly without a care.

At first I suffered no doubts at all. I was delighted to be in charge of nothing that could break down other than my bicycle (which I could fix for myself). And I certainly enjoyed having no pot plants to water, no bills to pay, no car to park, no windows to clean, no dishwasher to empty, no roof to fix, no drains to unblock, no boiler to service, no valuables to insure. These freedoms, I felt, were privileges for which the rich would pay millions.

Another startling realisation was that I could now live anywhere in the world at practically no cost. Friends from California to Italy began offering me rooms in their houses. I chose to spend three months in a small Russian city. I sniffed out a pension in the centre of Barcelona that offered rooms for pounds 20 a week (during an earlier phase of homelessness, I had once booked it for an entire year). I also remembered some friendly ashrams in India, where I could live healthily and comfortably on about pounds 2 per day.

It even turned out that I could afford to stay in London. To be a middle-class vagrant, in my case, meant being blessed by supportive and well-off friends. I was soon being offered spells house-sitting in properties ranging from two-up-two-downs in Stoke Newington to five-bed mansions in Kentish Town. Whole gardens came my way, with lawns to cut and hedges to clip, in case I should feel like dabbling in the obligations of the bourgeois life – for the sheer fun of it, perhaps.

Meanwhile, my abode of final resort, whenever others failed, was this cubbyhole that can be reached through a hole, via a ladder, in a friend’s flat. It is a cosy space at the top of a house. It contains a mattress, my clothes, in piles, and a window overlooking quiet gardens. I occupied it, in transit, permanently ready for my next move. The perfect solution for a man of nomadic tendencies? Not quite. But I had been up my ladder for at least six months before I began to entertain any doubts on the subject.

First, there were the normal problems of communal facilities. As the man from the cubbyhole, I did not feel entitled to lounge round the house in my dressing gown. I hardly ever seemed to watch television or listen to music. I rarely cooked. Above all, I was unable to receive guests, unless they really wanted to drink tea, crouched in a very small space staring at a wall two feet away. None did. This, it seemed, was the price I had to pay for my chosen lifestyle: to have to justify my existence to disconcerted, anxious friends.

It is hard to do this unless you feel certain of your case. I found my finances being discussed, in pitying terms, at dinner parties at other people’s houses. In panic, I took to telling people that I would soon be back in my own home. ‘It’s all a question of facilitating cash flow,’ I would bark, ‘pending future income!’

For a few weeks last summer, it got too much. I grew ashamed of my cubbyhole, which now seemed to be overflowing with dirty socks and unpaid mobile phone bills. My thoughts repeatedly focused on schemes to fund a move back into my flat. l had almost forgotten about the possibility that my lifestyle might actually suit me.

Such moments of weakness were to be expected, considering the obstacles confronting the would-be nomad. I can see this now. For much of history, I might have been locked up for the way I was living. As recently as the beginning of the 20th century books were being written on the ‘pathology’ of nomadism. The condition was treated as a sickness, and a hereditary one at that. Classifications of nomadism included ‘melancholic’, ‘somnambulistic’, ‘epileptic’, ‘impulsive and demented’ and ‘dromomanic’. Gypsies and Jews were known to be afflicted, though psychiatrists seemed surprised to unearth cases among even ‘civilised’ peoples such as the Swiss, whose symptoms included ‘tramping aimlessly from one place to another’ and ‘setting fire to haystacks’.

It was in the autumn of last year that I understood the nature of my challenge: to explain myself to people in a way that would not trigger off their deepest fears.

I needed to explain to friends that nomadic tendencies did not make me unique. My latest line at dinner-parties is to explain that man is not by instinct a sedentary species. The first hominids seem to have migrated large distances, seasonally, perhaps like birds; the human foot is designed for endless traipsing.

Does this not mean that we nomadic types epitomise the ‘unhoused, de- centred, exilic energies’, as Edward Said put it, of an ancient group longing to reassert itself in the modern world? Am I not subconsciously helping to revive the age-old struggle between wandering ‘barbarism’ and settled ‘civilisation’?

In the end, this is what I too seem to be: a nomadic revivalist, lamenting the appearance, 8,000-odd years ago, of more settled patterns of life. Just as I rely on settled people for my physical survival, so settled people rely on us vagabonds to provide them with entertainment and diversion. I cannot hold dinner-parties from my cubbyhole, but I make an interesting guest for anyone willing to invite me into their home (I believe this was also Attila the Hun’s forte).

History, it seems, has fallen kindly for me. Two thousand years ago I would have been slandered as a barbarian. A hundred years ago, I might have been forced into work as a tinker or a peddler. Today, in Blair’s Britain, I can live with friends and travel, read books by Edward Said and leave behind whatever I cannot carry.

After my year of home-free living, I look to the future with optimism. Friends have got used to my situation and I have decided to sell my flat and commit myself to this life. True, I have a slight pain in my knees from crouching, yes, it is a bit cold in my cubbyhole and no, I have not worn an ironed shirt in months. But I have certainly found my niche in life.

Copyright 2003 Independent Newspapers UK Limited

Jeremy Atiyah

About the author: Jeremy Atiyah

Jeremy Atiyah is a freelance journalist who has only one pair of shoes. He's a middle-class man who decided to abandon everything that was 'owning' him to pursue something else - a search for his soul perhaps. One day he'll meet himself and become whole again in that time honoured Aboriginal tradition of 'walkabout'.