Friday, 23 November 2012



If You Can't Take Everything, Why Take Anything.

A few months ago I met a woman who'd lost everything she owned in a house fire. Everything! Did she have a chance to snatch up a few things, I asked. Was there time enough to choose what was most important to her or snatch out a few valuables? Or did she just pull clear whatever was nearest and so had at least rescued something? Did she save anything at all? Apparently not. It happened too fast, she told me and the thought that kept running through her head was; 'If you can't take everything, then why take anything?'

I can't know how traumatic it was at the time, finding herself in a London street watching everything she owned - all the things that made up and defined her life - going up in flames. But when I met her she was philosophical about this change in her fortunes. It had prompted a career change, a complete new beginning. Before the fire she had been successful in a high-flying, high-pressure, world-circling executive job. After the fire she became an artist. It was something she had always wanted to be. She said she was happy. She seemed serenely so.

Though obviously life isn't defined solely by possessions, they are invariably part of who we are. And they certainly form much of how others see us. Things own us as much as we own them. So, in losing everything, there is the sense of a life restarted from scratch. And with the sense of loss an equal sense of freedom.

The idea that one can restart ones material life is attractive on both a philosophical and a gut-feeling level. To lose everything would be an extreme de-cluttering, the ultimate simplification, a possessions re-birth. Even just thinking about having nothing allows us to ask ourselves what 'things' would we allow back into our lives if we we're starting again. What would we re-buy? Would one find things creeping back into our lives like a rising tide; or would life being a tabla rasa make one consider far more carefully every 'thing' that once allowed into one life then costs time, money and thought to own.

These are cool things to think about, but few people are going to purposefully get rid of everything in their life just to see what it's like to start again. Though artist Michael Landy did do that in his 2001work, 'Break Down.' An assembly line of workers reduced all his possessions – more than seven thousand of them, and absolutely everything he owned from his socks to his car, via his passport, his own and others' art works [to be honest one less Damien Hirst in the world is arguably a by-product win for Landy's project], letters, books, the lot – to pieces and then fed them through an industrial shredder.

Travelling, especially in the form of Slow Adventures, is a less radical way of breaking down ones dependency on possessions. To be able to walk comfortably one has to fit ones temporary world into a small rucksack. To travel by any means that doesn't involve bearers or some kind of motorised transport on call means anything more than a big wheely-case and a couple of bags ties you down as effectively as a convicts ball and chain.

When one has to physically carry the things one owns on slow adventures, those things invariably become - paradoxically - both more and less valuable. You have less things and what you do carry has been carefully chosen, adding to their value. But the very act of choosing things to take on a trip, and deciding against taking other things, has already taught one that nothing is ultimately essential.

In Tamanrasset in the deep south of the Algerian Sahara – in the early 1980s - I ended up with a bunch of people in the campsite, all waiting to travel onto West Africa. We'd pretty much all been caught out by the same unexpected and draconian piece of bureaucracy; we'd discovered that before leaving Algeria one had to show that one had officially changed and then spent an amount of around £200. Arrive at the Niger border without this proof and one would be turned back or fined an equivalent amount. For someone hitchers this amount was more than they actually had. It was about a third of my total budget for five months' travel in West Africa. But if I was looking at hassle and a bit of unwanted expense, (a combination of some artistry on an 'official' exchange form and using up the small amount of dinar I actually did exchange on incredibly expensive beers in the Tahat Hotel freed me to head on into Niger), an American was apparently in real trouble.

Nearly all of Chris' possessions and most of his paperwork and money had been stolen, and there was little sympathy from Algeria's officialdom. The most positive measure they could suggest was hitching back to Algiers to try and sort things out and so avoid being arrested and jailed. Instead Chris sat around the camp-site being upbeat and charming and playing the clarinet. 'Something will happen,' he told me over beers. 'Really, without all that stuff to worry about I've just got more freedom.' This seemed insanely positive. A few days later he swept out of Tamanrasset in the front seat of a Mercedes saloon, owned by his new friend, the Malian Ambassador, who was returning home from Algiers, driving across the desert in his new car. Travelling under the diplomatic umbrella Chris was unlikely to have any problems checking out of Algiers even without the all-important exchange certificate. Nor did he anticipate problems getting across any of the borders without paperwork. And once in Bamako he could get everything sorted out. Though, as we said goodbye, he did wonder if he need be too worried about getting all his paperwork renewed. And he certainly wasn't going to bother replacing clothes and sleeping bags and the rest of his things. He still had his clarinet, and if he was carrying little else, then he was freer and more open to 'something happening.'

It would be a brave – or strange – person who consciously chose to abandon all their gear when travelling. But often the decision is made for one. And not always by the enforced and brutal down-sizing brought about by random theft, though that's left quite a few people travelling light and finding they enjoy a less encumbered life. There are gentler ways of sloughing-off non-essential – and even important - possessions when travelling. Leaving things behind, for a start. Whether that's leaving things behind before you start on a trip, or leaving things behind when the circumstances of a trip change and dead-weight has to go.

In the attic of a small cottage in the heart of the Black Forest, where I lived for part of one freezing winter there may still be the guitar, woollen shirt-jacket, odd books, some of my own poems in a notebook and a good pair of walking boots. All were left there when I had my own 'house burning down' life changing moment, with my father's unexpected death. Perhaps I meant to go back to Emmendingen at some point and pick up my stuff. I never did. Actually, the opposite happened – nearly everything that I remembered from my childhood was sold in one extended circus-tented auction; rather than saving things from the sale I added lots from my own possessions. Another guitar – the one I’d carried across the Sahara and across West Africa - tens of books, a stuffed deer head. It was like watching ones house burn down and actually throwing stuff that one had back into the flames.

I never did return to pick up things from the Black Forest. And yet at one time those 'things' had meant a lot to me. I put hours of work into sanding down the guitar to get a matt-finish on the woodwork, but now I honestly can't recall if it was a steel-string or a nylon-string box. In other words I don't miss it that much, if at all and so it was really no loss. The books? Nope, can't remember what any of them were. I can remember quite clearly the green wool shirt-jacket, down to the tear in one chest pocket. But that's not the same as regretting its loss. And maybe I part-re-wrote those poems from memory, but made them better.

In a box in Patagonia there's my R M Williams long, waxed-cotton stock coat; it's been companion on quite a few long distance horse trips in Australia, Africa, Spain and South American but if we never meet again, well, that's the way things go. And there are plenty of things – important at the time – that I've abandoned or put into 'storage' and now can't even remember owning let alone recalling where they are.

I have one mild regret for things lost. Like a phantom limb, or more truthfully like the faint and occasional pain where an amputated little toe once was, I remember all my Moroccan walking stuff. My tyre-rubber sandals, walking stick, basic leather bag, robe, which I travelled a thousand kilometres of Atlas Mountains and pre-Sahara were left in a friend's house in Marrakech when I was away for a few months; I came back to find that they'd been thrown out 'because they looked like rubbish.' Well, indeed, they did, but.....

So, losing practical things, even those items that cost a lot or that have sentimental value, maybe isn't so bad. One gets over their loss. One replaces them. Or one doesn't. They fade from the memory. They're gone

But what if one loses, or mislays, or has stolen, or burnt or lost at sea, more personal items. Things which are genuinely unique. Things that can't be replaced. Journals. Diaries. Photographs. Something hand-made, and perfect, and more than the sum of its parts. The poems in the exercise book left in the Black Forest attic.

Well, here too, there's some hope. Writers are forever losing their original writings or their source material, or journals from a journey. How they cope with that loss and still manage to write has, arguably, given us some of our best individual travel writing. And even created whole genres of writing.

In his early twenties Ernest Hemingway lost every unpublished piece of writing he'd put on paper. That's the manuscript to every story he'd laboured over in his first Paris years. How? The same kind of bad luck and carelessness that has your house burning down. He'd cabled his then-wife, Hadley, asking her to bring a single piece of work that he wanted to edit when she came to join him skiing. She didn't know which MS in particular it was so put ALL of his writings – in the days of single-sheet typewritten originals with no back-up – into a suitcase. She forgot the suitcase on a station platform en route. It was never found. One wonders whether the increased economy of Hemingway's writing style wasn't some kind of response to that loss. It certainly is an indication of his character that he just kept on writing.

Patrick Leigh-Fermor mixed both kinds of losses – the loss of kit and the loss of uniquely personal stuff - on his extended 1930s walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he insisted on calling it). He set off into mid-winter with singularly little in the way of tramping equipment. His rucksack and its contents was stolen in Germany. He decided that he didn't need a sleeping bag, nor many of the other items he'd been carrying and kept walking east. He recreated from memory the entries in his first notebook which was stolen with the rucksack. Then lost another notebook - the 'green book,' which was left with his Romanian lover when Paddy joined up for WWII. She kept it safely through the horrifying falls in her fortunes throughout the war and then when Romania was behind the Iron Curtain.

Most fatally his other papers from his walk and extended stay and travels in Eastern Europe were stored at a friend's house in London and during the war the trunk with the papers put into storage in Harrod's Depository (presumably the big red-brick building on the Thames near Hammersmith that I used to run past in the 90s, which I called Harrod's Suppository).The storage bill racked up to the immense amount for those days of £90 and Paddy couldn't or didn't pay it; the result was that the trunk and all his original writings were sold off. (As an aside, what was the most likely outcome of those papers; are they sitting in someone's attic, and now worth a lot both monetarily and for literary reasons? Or did someone buy a nice trunk for ten bob, and burn the papers? Along with Hemingway's lost stories there's a library of lost literature somewhere in the world).

The 'green book' was finally returned to Paddy decades later when he re-met his lover. This book became a part foundation for what became his two-part trilogy of his walk from The Hook of Holland to Constantinople/Istanbul. But the Paddy L-F lost papers point up another paradox of possessions. One would expect that the loss of his journal from the actual journey would have been crushing and would have hugely detracted from his ability to write about the trip. But in fact not having the papers had the opposite effect. Using his imagination, his memory and – importantly – huge amounts of research over the following decades into the interests that first stirred on the journey, Paddy invented a new form of autobiography in which youthful innocence was layered and patina-ed by a Rococo floridity of learning and research as if the boy of his memory was shadowed on the whole journey by the ghost of an older, better-informed Paddy from the future.

If he'd had his actual journals to hand, making the reality of his trip and his teenage words inescapable, and grounding flights of fancy and lyrical joy in the dull listing of day to day plodding, he could never have written the magical realism of A Time Of Gifts, and Between The Woods And The Water.

A friend of mine, Sophie Campbell, got up one morning, and on a whim walked out of her door in London and kept on walking until, a couple of weeks later, she reached the coast at Chesil Beach in Dorset some 250 kilometres away. “I just grabbed a day pack, I wore my trainers, oh, and I forgot my toothbrush so I had to buy one on the way,” she says, “I got onto the Thames Path, then the Ridgeway and then the Macmillian Way, but none of it was planned. I just went. I wanted to see what it was like if I got up to go to work but then didn't catch my bus and instead just kept walking. It was a wonderful thing to do.”

But more, Sophie, a writer by profession didn't record her trip; that's braver than trusting one might lose ones journals."Oddly enough my walks,' she says, 'the big one to Chesil Beach, the West Highland Way, the Cotswold Way, are the one time I don't take notes. I take a diary but often find I don't write it. Somehow I want the time to be for me and just be doing it, not looking at myself doing it.'

A long walk is the way to find out what you really need in terms of actual practical stuff. If you can't carry something you can't have it. And if it's heavier and so more uncomfortable to carry than its usefulness merits, then you won't have it. And it's funny how, if you lose something midway through a trip very often one finds it doesn't need replacing.

And losing journals, letters and personal notes – or just not recording a trip - is a radical but devastatingly honest way of testing what your memory retains from an experience.

The paradox of what I carry when is travelling is that I tend to take about the same amount of stuff whether I’m off for a few weeks rambling around Europe or for six months walking, riding, kayaking and partying in South America. So, that would be; basic kit for sleeping out – hammock, poncho, sleeping bag and pot; enough clothes to stay warm, dry and comfortable in the saddle or walking in remote areas and a few more clothes that I can use to create a semblance of smartness when required; the annoyingly bulky, fragile and expensive camera, computer and other technical stuff needed for work; a guitar or at the very least a roll of harmonicas because that's what I do for fun and for work, too, on the move; and then books; minimalist running shoes; and – well, you're getting the idea.

Kayaking around Ireland I took too much stuff just because I could. I had huge storage in my Necky Narpa and so I filled it with all the things I thought might be useful. The weight made good ballast when at sea, but the pain came every time I landed and had to unload tonnes of heavy stuff and carry it – sometimes over hundreds of metres - on trip after trip to set up camp. At first I did use most of this stuff but as the trip settled down I tended to use what worked best; the same clothes, the same simple cooking kit, the same foods, the same emergency stuff. Everything else was just so much dead weight. Quite a lot of stuff I sent off by mail to get rid of it. Other stuff I abandoned along the way. Plenty of stuff I just carried a thousand miles in a kayak as so much dead-weight.

Despite all I’ve written above I’m not a crazed light-weight traveller. Perhaps that's why I’m aware of the paradoxes inherent in owning things, and aware too that sometimes it takes some external force - whether a fire, theft, or some other kind of loss - to show that there are other relationships one can have with things. Whilst the choices as to how much I own and carry are my own conscious decisions then rather than being obsessive about carrying less, I tend to just go for longer with a fair amount of stuff and make those things work harder.

Some odd thoughts and points:

  • Owning stuff is full of paradox. Solving the dichotomy between needing stuff and not wanting to be owned by stuff might just be one of the great human challenges.
  • Freedom from too-many possessions is the privilege of the very poor (in financial terms) and the very rich (in financial terms). A San bushman with little more than a bow, arrows, ostrich egg water bottle travels as light as a maverick millionaire who has enough money to buy or hire what is needed when it's needed, and so can travel with almost nothing more than a credit card.

  • The rest of us are somewhere in the middle. My experience of travelling for eight months with transhumant/nomadic Berbers is that they accumulated stuff just like the rest of us; They had the camels to carry stuff, and the complicated social lives that needed complicated stuff, and just enough comparative wealth to accumulate and horde stuff when on the move, or to leave trunks of stuff in storage with family members around the mountains.
  • In my experience there are few situations sprung on one where one can't borrow, or buy cheaply, or improvise or just do without whatever bit of kit is needed.
  • To own one really good pair of shoes or boots or even sandals is completely different from owning many pairs of footwear. When travelling one's relationship with the one pair of shoes/boots on one's feet is unique; that pair are key to comfort, peace of mine, perhaps a source of pride (any book about long walks quite obviously goes on and on about the walker's boots), and a touchstone for simplicity; one gets up in the morning and one puts on one's shoes and one walks; no choice, no worrying if they're fashionable. The same applies to coats, trousers, shirts and pretty much everything you own.

  • Here's another paradox one has to puzzle out. Is it better to get rid of an item that is still useful, or that one might need some day, or that holds good memories as a literal souvenir to save having to store it, or carry it or think about it? Or should one keep it in case it's useful, or might bring joy, at some point in the future. The former means accumulating things. The latter means you might have to re-buy something you once had, and then have to decide whether to keep or let go the replacement once you've used it.
  • Travelling light has become something of an internet meme. People set themselves challenges to travel for months carrying only hand-luggage, or less. (And airlines add to the attractions of no-luggage travel with their charges and fines and draconian and unfathomable rules on size and weight). And of course it's possible. And often rewarding. But it does depend on what kind of travelling one's thinking of doing, and having a certain amount of money. Ultra-light travel often depends on there being ample services – clothes washing, internet, roofs, heated rooms, transport, indoor entertainment, food – available for hire at your destination.
  • Ultra-light travel does depend to on a certain casualness when it comes to dress and kit for doing anything other than being a tourist. Jeans, sneakers and sweatshirts are fine pretty much anywhere in the world but sometimes you need something smart or roughly the right clothes for riding a horse, hiking, kayaking or whatever. Either one hires the right kit and clothing or one extemporises or one does without.
  • Doing without something is the lightest travel of all. There's a tendency to pack for trips – and for life – to meet all possible situations. But that means carrying an infinite amount of stuff to meet an infinite number of possible scenarios. One can't carry nor own everything one might ever need, for a trip or for life. So..

    If you can't take everything, then why take anything? 


Michael Landy:

An Adventure; The biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, by Artemis Cooper

Sophie Campbell, Blue Badge and walking guide to London:


  1. Hello Jasper:

    I’ll be teaching Contemporary Irish Travel Literature with the University of New Orleans Summer Writers Workshop Program in Cork, beginning June 10 and ending July 5, and your book Paddle is on our list. I have no idea if you are anywhere near Cork, but if you are, I was wondering if you’d be interested in coming to one of our classes (there will be 6-10 students) to talk about the writing of that book. I should add that it is among my favorites, both because I am an avid and slightly incompetent kayaker and because of the high quality of the writing, the thoughtfulness of narrator, and the tone of mild self-deprecation.

    My apologies for the late request and I understand fully if you are otherwise occupied or inconveniently located.

    Best wishes,


    John Hazlett
    Director, BA in International Studies
    Janet Dupuy Colley Professor of International Studies
    University of New Orleans
    New Orleans, LA 70148
    cell: 504-231-7751

  2. This should be a lesson to me. I'm a hoarder. I keep something for the day I may want it. Trouble is, I DO miss the things I have got rid of. A LOT. I can't work out how others don't regret getting rid of things. I wish I didn't regret them, I'd love to be able to travel light!


About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.