Living for free

free furniture for "skipaholic"
free furniture for "skipaholic"

27-year-old Katharine Hibbert is a nice middle class girl. She writes book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, and volunteers for the Food not Bombs group which finds food in dumpsters and turns it into free meals in London.
For the last two years she has freed herself by living for free,and writtten a book about it (we hope she got an advance from Ebury Press). Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society (click to buy) describes how she walked away from all her possessions (books, music and other treasures stored in mum’s garage), found a squat, and lived on food discarded by cafes and supermarkets.
Her book begins with her first day living on the edge. Having left her flat for the last time,  vowing not to rely on friends or claim benefits,  she found herself just wandering the streets, looking out for a potential squat. Even when she found a temporary squat, she didn’t feel at home. She knew that it was possible to find fresh, edible and clean food in supermarket and cafe bins, but getting hold of it seemed to mean rummaging through rubbish.
Her exciting new life seemed scary and depressing. And it didn’t help that most people view squatters in a negative light. “I realised there is a real loathing of people who are living like this,” she says. “The knee-jerk reaction was the assumption that a squatter was not much better than a thief. I couldn’t count the times I was shouted at and called names by taxi drivers — bum, scrounger.”
But after a bumpy start, things gradually got better. Hibbert found a home in a comfortable and safe squatted house. She made helpful friends. She found clean furniture and household goods in skips and through mailing lists such as Freecycle, where people offer stuff they don’t need to anyone willing to collect it.
Through trial and error — and the advice of more experienced “freegans”, as those who live on cast-offs are known — Hibbert discovered the best and safest way to find discarded food; from pristinely packed sandwiches in Marks and Spencer bins to slightly bruised fruit at New Covent Garden market.
Her friends and family were initially dubious, if not horrified. But when they visited her cosy home and indeed sampled the delicious food she was finding in skips, they changed their minds.
“It really did affect their attitude,” she says. “Some wanted to go on a ‘skipping’ tour, so I took them along and when we found stuff they thought, ‘This is amazing, I’m never going to shop again!’ But of course, they don’t all keep it up. [Skipping] is a hassle, you have to be in the right place at the right time, so buying is just easier.”
Although Hibbert’s experiences showed her how wasteful our society can be, throwing away millions of euros’ worth of edible food and letting inhabitable buildings lie empty, she also discovered that the world isn’t as threatening as she thought.
Wherever she went, she found people willing to help her out of the kindness of their hearts.
“When you haven’t got money to pay a plumber or can’t afford a train fare and need a lift, if you have to depend on strangers to help you, you realise that they will. I really do not feel as scared of the world as I used to.”
Free is thought-provoking and polemical, but it’s not preachy. And although Hibbert clearly feels strongly about our wasteful world, she doesn’t want to push her views down other people’s throats.
“I’m just writing about my experiences in the hopes that people who read it might reconsider the way they live their own lives,” she says. “Maybe they’ll just realise that losing your supposedly indispensable stuff is not the end of the world. And maybe the next time they hear about squatters, they might think about them a little differently.”
That said, Hibbert doesn’t think she’ll be squatting forever. But she did learn a few lessons — like how unimportant possessions are. “Don’t get me wrong,” she laughs. “I’m still a material person — I like things to look nice, I like having stuff around me that works. I’m not the kind of person who doesn’t mind feeling ugly or messy.
“But, at the same time, I discovered that not having a whole wardrobe of clothes and a shelf full of records didn’t matter. What mattered was the encouragement and support and friendship of the people around me. And whatever happens, I hope that’s what I’ll hold onto in the future.”
Free: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society by Katharine Hibbert is available from Amazon

4 Responses

  1. I’m not brave enough to do what Katharine did, but once you start opening your eyes to what’s either free or low cost, there are a million ways to drastically cut down on how much you spend. I’ve belatedly discovered Freecycle (and just gave away a bath panel that’s been standing in my hallway for a year to someone who otherwise would’ve bought once from a DIY store). I buy a lot now in charity (thrift) shops and use ebay too, both cut down on buying new from regular shops. I’ve acquired an allotment so can grow veggies and soft fruit, all for a rent of about £20 a year. Libraries, museums and galleries provide free entertainment, and just not wandering aimlessly around shopping malls but rather going ‘into town’ with a specific purpose in mind stops at least 50% of shopping. A friend’s got the knack of finding stuff in skips – including a lovely Turkish-style rug and a space age looking lamp from the 50s or 60s. Most people won’t realistically do what Katharine did, but if we all cut down on the new things we buy and acquire a reasonable quantity of our clothing from charity shops and food from local market stalls we’d all save money and help local economies to flourish.

  2. I concur with elnav. You can even hit the jackpot now and the. I’ve found rare books, antiques, even Gold and Sterling. You just have to know when something is truly valuable. It’s a great education.

    I have a house full of stuff, enough to keep some people busy for a long time.

    There’s enough stuff out there to keep Civilization going for a couple of generations.

  3. Here in Canada especially the northern regions, recycling is becoming a way of life. A number of the land fill sites have set up ‘swap sheds’ where people can drop off usable but unwanted item instead of dumping it into the land fill . Some places have staff that supervise and even catalog or test the stuff, other places only make sure it stays neat and tidy. Some swap sheds charge a nominal fee to help defray the expense of staff and heatingthe shed during the winter months but others do not charge. In addition several good will organizations run well stocked stores that resell good stuff for a nominal fee. And they also have FREE BINS sometimes.
    I first heard about the swap concept from a friend who collected much of the fittings, insulation etc that he needed for building his house. He cut the logs from his own property but windows, insulation, piping etc required stuff he could not get in the woods.
    Now that I am living out here I have found I have furnished a home and equipped a shop from stuff found in a swap shed. Although I am normally running several computers all of them were diverted on their way to the dump. We also found new clothing still in the box or plastic wrapper. Boots, jackets, pants and shirts not to mention curtains towels books and even crystal stemware, plates, cups, etc. have supplied all we need. Its amazing how much new clothing gets tossed out.
    Since we do not have access to radio or TV entertainment we tend to read a lot. Sometimes I find new best sellers that are still on the best seller list and only published for a few months. There is a used book store in one town that gives credit for used books so we take the free books from the dump and build up credits that way.
    We certainly live in a wasteful society.

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