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