257. Keeping still (VI)
For a brief period, about two months, I slept in my car as an experiment. There was no necessity in this action, I had oodles of cash stashed away at the time; if anything, I was driven by a desire to maximise frugality and save more. I wanted to move to London, but I also wanted to save as much money as possible; and, in London’s inflated property market, a small studio apartment—really, a single room with a built-in shower—cost as much to rent as an entire apartment in the Midlands.
So I thought I would try to save as much money as possible; and this idea had always fascinated me, at university I once wondered if it would be possible to sleep in the cubicles in the library—or the 24-hour computer labs—and wash in the gym. I liked the idea that I could live a liquid, floating life—in existence, and not in existence. A ghost in the system, almost completely free. Besides, I had never liked to own many things; possessions seem to me to be a trap, and I am most happy when I throw objects out or give them away. The idea that I could reduce my possessions to a single backpack fascinated me; it was to do with the romance I associated with nomadism, the sensation that we are overloaded—there is just too much stuff altogether. I wanted to live in an austere, contained way.
The view from life in a car is very different. Firstly, I became aware just how vulnerable man can be at night. In the daytime, you barely think about vulnerability in a car; if anything, the car seems safer than the street—and you would happily doze in it during the afternoon. At night, the car awakens the most primal fears; for you are lower than other men, and the glass which seemed so secure in the light seems very flimsy. A hand could smash through it at any moment. Admittedly, this is unlikely—and, more than this fear, there is the sensation that you are exposed. You are totally visible, without a place to hide; a man looms over you—men, perhaps. Again, it is unlikely; but your vulnerability provokes extreme alertness. Man must have his burrow or hut. I bought a large sheet to cover the car at night; but the sensation never really went away.
Aside from vulnerability, I noticed just how far everything in Britain is owned. This is especially true in a city like London; even the smallest garage or few metres of green space is owned by someone—a modest garage might be worth as much as a four-bedroom house in the North; and a square of grass easily might match a man’s annual salary. So it was always a challenge to find a place to park, to hide—let alone leave the car to use the toilet.
In the countryside, it was little better. I once parked near a remote field and lay down in a hedgerow to sleep; within a half an hour a farmer shone his light into my car. He patrolled the fields; no doubt there had been thefts from his barns. When you have to think about this problem every night—gypsy-fashion—you realise quite how far life in an over-civilised country like Britain is determined by property; everything, everything is owned down to the last detail—the last dull pinhead. I am not against private property or the free market, but this condition stifles: the country is small anyway, but also suffers from a chronic lack—no frontier, no unowned space.
This is why—aside from the better weather, a car is very cold at night—more people live in their cars in America; they live in Walmart parking lots, and so on. America is a country that is generally more mobile; people are always picking up to move clear across the continent. It is the frontier-based automative society.