mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Communication breakdown

I’m sure I did ask myself what sort of modern conveniences I would most miss most when living in a tent. It’s the sort of question it would be remiss not to ask since it is somewhat vital to the deciding-what-to-take process – but I am not sure I gave it the thought it needed. I guess I naturally assumed that I would find it difficult to live without electricity, or a loo and a washing machine, or any kind of running water. Somewhere along the line, I must have deliberately decided that I wouldn’t be able to live without my slow cooker or breadmaker – since they were in one of the few boxes clearly marked with writing big enough to stand out on an advertising hoarding.

It turns out that living without electricity in the height of summer is ridiculously easy – and fabulously freeing, removing at a stroke any stress I felt about how much time the children were spending in front of screens. We all go to bed when it’s dark, and wake up to light mornings. I missed Woman’s Hour, Sandi Toksvig and Eddie Mair – but found that life inexplicably continues without the gentle rhythm of Radio 4 programmes marking out the day.

I discovered that when you have fewer clothes you make them last longer and don’t have to wash them so often. The days when I would toss random items hung on the floor back into the wash bin regardless of whether they had been worn or not were consigned to a wasteful and profligate past. And, if it is the case that in space no one can hear you scream, is it equally possible that in a field in Mid Devon, no one can see a mud- and egg-encrusted jumper?

I loathed the portable chemical loo from the start and initially refused to do it – finding excuses to pop out for suddenly urgent provisions that could only be obtained in shops with loo facilities. But, over the weeks I became inured to it, and if I and the potty did not exactly become friends, we learnt to get along together.

No, what utterly sent me into orbit, was the inability to communicate with and receive information from the outside world. Much guff is talked about living in a digital, 24-hour age. Every so often, some media type pops up on the radio or in the Saturday newspapers gushing on about how they deliberately disconnected themselves from Twitter and their iPhone for 48 hours to rediscover their children, or tantric sex, or poetry. I used to put all this down to a media obsessed with itself and its narrow circle of compulsive information gatherers.

I had never considered myself a digital junkie. I have the lowest-grade Nokia phone it is possible to buy and view the snake game as plenty diverting enough on a train journey in the absence of a good book, knitting or a newspaper. I sneered at Twitter and used Facebook sporadically. But the truth is, that in 21st century, it’s actually bloody hard to get anything done if you are not connected to the world wide web.

The problems began early on when we stayed with my mother. My understanding is that the older generation, as well as having the temerity to have embraced free university educations and cradle-to-grave welfare, had taken to computers in droves to do whatever it is that people with time to indulge their interests and passions do. But my mother wasn’t one of these and owned neither a computer, nor a hyper-speed broadband connection. To link our laptop to the internet via the mobile phone required dongles and bits of unfathomable equipment – but without the aid of the world wide web it was difficult to know exactly what we needed or buy it.

And even when we had assembled all the dongles and bits and pieces, it didn’t work. Loading internet pages was painfully slow. Trying to carry out a Paypal transaction via a link that kept breaking resulted in my account being frozen. Buying a generator off a bloke on eBay went from being a simple click to a whole evening’s exercise in anger management.

The fact is, that if you want buy something, mug up on how to grow spuds, find out when the swimming pool is open or obtain directions to an electrical cable supplier, you need to be on the internet. In an incredibly short time, the net has become the supermarket giant of the information world. Just as once we bought our bread in the baker and our bacon at the butcher, so we obtained our information and goods from a range of sources – the library, phone directories, newspaper small ads. And just as the big supermarkets have largely killed off the small independent traders, so the internet has rendered the old ways of obtaining information if not obsolete – at least astonishingly creaky. If you want an exercise in futility, set yourself ten things to look up in a telephone directory and see how long it takes before you want to punch something.

And you find you have to talk to people too. This, clearly, has its charms – but it’s time consuming – and expensive when the only mobile provider that works in the field is the one on the crappy Nokia pay-as-you-go. The text and email allow one to master the art of brevity and succinctness. One can be short and to the point because what an email or text does is provide a no-frills preamble to future contact. A simple message – ‘need 2 use yr wsh mchine, b there 11’ – implies that I am terribly busy right now, and I suspect you are too, so this message is strictly on a need-to-know basis and we can enlarge further on world peace at some later point in time. One simply can not do that on the phone – it’s bloody rude. One has to ask after weather and health and children and hang up 10 minutes and £8.50 later having completely forgotten to ask if one can use the washing machine.

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