I lived in a van

Not any more
Not any more

Robert Grant bought his first van as a weekend getaway and decided to make it my home out of laziness.
” got a job in an outdoor shop,” he told The Guardian. It was there that the idea of slipping away to the margins of society began to creep around my mind. When rent was due for the room in which I felt only fidgety and bored, my frustration helped these thoughts to flourish until I could see myself following the good times and the good weather, shaking sand from my shoes and waking up exactly where I wanted to be, in my own mobile kingdom.

Convention was the only thing stopping me, until I returned from spending a few weeks in the Alps. I’d moved out of my room before I had left, but made no plans for my return. I spent a few weeks sleeping on friends’ floors until I felt I’d outstayed my welcome, then I moved into the van. Whenever anyone asked me where I lived, there was an awkward pause. “Well, nowhere really…” I would begin, while I decided the most appropriate way to explain. The usual response was of sympathetic concern – “Don’t you get cold?” Others were jealous: “Wow, that’s such a cool idea!”
Some people just didn’t understand. “You live in a van? What, like a camper van?”

“No, just a Renault 5 van.”

At first, I felt as if I’d discovered a loophole in the game of life. Without rent, I was able to work less, and the freedom was exhilarating. Of course, there were downsides. Waking on dank autumn mornings was hard, and sometimes I was burdened by a sense of social displacement, of always moving against the grain, even harbouring a desire to join commuter traffic.

I felt vulnerable to crime so worked hard to be inconspicuous, but in three years I was never bothered by anyone but for the odd policeman. The first time it happened, I awoke panicked by feet crunching on gravel, but then I heard the police radio. I relaxed and stuck my head out of the door. “Hello mate, what are you doing out here?” he asked.

“Oh. My girlfriend kicked me out,” I replied.

“Well, as long as you’re OK, I’ll leave you in peace. Women, eh?” The girlfriend yarn became standard after that.

That van broke down, and, at about the same time, I decided I’d wasted enough of my life slumped over a shop counter. I quit my job, then hung around in a jobless, homeless hinterland, hoping an opportunity would come by.

It never did, so I bought another, bigger van; a 10-year-old lightly rusty, white rectangle-on-wheels. I got a new job building climbing walls in the Peak District. The work was dirty and tedious but it finished mid-afternoon, so most days I’d drive to the dales and climb and socialise. Then I’d park in a quiet spot for the night, thankful I’d not had to drive back to the city and an evening of unfinished housework.

For a while I felt I had got things just right, but towards the middle of that summer it began to rain. After work, I’d sit cramped and festering, reading books and watching my plans for the summer trickle down the windscreen. Or I’d drive to friends’ houses and hang out, but always with a burden of guilt; or was it pride damaged by my loss of self-reliance?

The rain kept falling, midsummer came and the van was getting damp. Mildew advanced from the corners of my home and my books wilted. High summer passed beneath sagging skies and I woke each morning to increasingly stiff joints. By September I’d had enough. I paid rent that month for the first time in three years, for a small room in a sparsely furnished terraced house. I was pleased by the convenience of it – more than I’d imagined I’d be – and by being part of a social scene again.

I still lead a relatively frugal life, but now I live in a house my living standards are beginning to creep back up. I suppose that’s human nature, but if I ever feel I am becoming a slave to material desires, I can always move back into the van.


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