On the morning of my 24th birthday I woke in the loft of a hay barn feeling lucky to be alive. I was on the 60-acre farm of a friend of a friend. The sole occupants of the entire farm were a small herd of special breed cows, my boyfriend and myself. Our bed of straw was itchy but also forgiving and warm, and through a gap in the rafters I saw the sun break over an expanse of green fields that swept down to the sea.
Back then, I didn’t know Selima Hill’s fantastic poem 'Cow' which so perfectly captures my lifelong need to wander mindless and unfettered in open spaces: 'I want to be a cow and not my mother’s daughter. I want to be a cow and not in love with you’. Until that loft, I was almost living that dream. Travelling untrammelled through the world, I half forgot my own birthday because counting years had no meaning. I experienced time in the same way I enjoyed space, as something limitless and without significant measure.
Neither the boyfriend nor the cows knew it was my birthday, and I realised with a start that I hadn’t expected to turn 24. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t do drugs or extreme sports and definitely had no death-wish. Life beyond 23 simply wasn’t within the sphere of my imagination.
I can’t remember why we were in the hayloft, only that we were wandering the countryside in search of work. We turned our hands to anything: painting and decorating, making and selling Christmas decorations, café-work, market gardening, boat-building (yes, I can caulk) and once I donned a Mickey Mouse costume to lead a marketing parade through a small town on a stiflingly hot day.
We had a rucksack each and various friends we stayed with. He had a house he’d built on the side of a mountain, far from the work market. I didn’t. We spent a lot of time outdoors, often sleeping in a tent when the day ended and on one occasion woke up under a pile of snow. To reinvent an old term, we were journeymen. We journeyed around the countryside selling our rather limited skills at a daily rate, or taux journalier, as they say in France.
Three decades have passed since then during which I have remained very much alive, so much so that I have two adult daughters and several careers to my name. I continue wandering from job to job but call it freelancing these days. I’m still amazed I’m here to tell the tale and delighted with the way life just carries on while I’m busy taking notes.
This way of life strikes me as ancient, natural and real. It’s also a fragile way to get your daily bread. But being a freelance writer has its advantages. One of the best is that I can still move about and work wherever I like, allowing myself whatever backdrop to my travails takes my fancy. That’s how I see it anyway.
To that end, and because I’m a little older than when I regularly slept in fields, I have a tiny campervan. Carrying a constant supply of tea, oatcakes, packet couscous and Cointreau, this is my workshop of choice. Despite a load volume of under three cubic meters, my little Romahome boasts (as they say in the property business) sink, cooker, fridge, toilet, two beds that make up one king-size, and loads of storage space. Most importantly there is a table on which to set my laptop and a giant battery beneath the bench to charge it back to life when it’s all used up. And while I’m considering my next plot point, I can rest my eyes on whatever view I’ve chosen through the giant windows which adorn both sides.
For day retreats, I favour a variety of laybys a short drive from my home. The best locations have no phone signal or internet connection and therefore no temptation to make important phone calls or get lost in the virtual surf. I know with absolute certainty that I will always be able to write as long as I have a campervan to run away in. The best thing is getting to hide out in the wilds of the west and north of this beautiful country called Scotland. I can happily be away with the birds for days on end, or even weeks.
Being 'away with the birds’, either metaphorically or actually, is a prerequisite for expansive, creative or unusual thought and therefore of any creative endeavour. It does make you a bit mad, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re in a tiny campervan and there’s no-one else to bother. The trick is to stay safe and happy, and also to feel safe and happy, otherwise no sensible (or daft) inner muse is ever going to come out to play.
There is, of course, some public opinion which opposes hanging about in laybys. There’s often fear around when anyone is doing things differently. But all over the world people sit down and eat by the side of the road when they’re hungry. They sleep in all sorts of shelters, make-shift or otherwise, when it’s time to sleep. It is natural to travel in search of work or to be with friends and family, and on a straw poll I have always found most people harbour a desire to escape from their daily lives on a regular basis.
What I’d like to suggest is that other people might find a small campervan useful, or pleasurable or productive, whatever their line of work or leisure. A larger one could hold a filing or drinks cabinet. Newer vans, even small ones, usually have TVs, sometimes more than one, and bigger tables. They have the capacity to hold small meetings and deliver powerpoint presentations. I was once served a delicious three-course meal in a friend’s van with no hassle or fuss.
One of the downsides to even fairly big vans is you can hear what’s happening in the toilet. In my current van, the toilet is under the bench, so I’d have to chuck my guests out in the rain too.
This camper is a little tatty, I’ll admit that. My overriding van philosophy is 'make do and mend’, mainly because my first van (this is the fourth) felt like a treasured extra to my life. Now, I enjoy the simplicity of lifestyle my tiny camper affords and the odd collection of mis-matching items that have accrued inside its plastic walls. I like eating simple food prepared quickly to save on gas and washing up. Having a limited choice in the wardrobe department, aka the canvas box on the shelf, means fewer decisions in the morning. The limited heating makes it easier to wash and dress quickly too, and of course there’s no commute. Writing can start five minutes into my day.
Because my van is so small, attendees at my work meeting would have to stagger their knees under the table. To give you a sense of scale, the 11 children at Applecross Primary School once fitted very comfortably inside. Children always love this van. I’ve had 11 adults in there too including three standing in the kitchen area which is probably 45cm square. Fortunately my guests all knew each other well. It was fun but they were a lot less comfortable than the kids, and there was no room to lift their drinks. Big children also love the van.
Since the publication of 'Writing on the Road: Campervan Love and the Joy of Solitude' people have been asking what I’m going to write next. I have several projects at planning stage, fiction and non-fiction, but the pressures of earning a living (which do usually force me to stay close to home) and recently moving house have meant there’s been no time or head-space to explore each idea to its natural conclusion and thereby ascertain whether these ideas are stupid or viable enough to spend a year of my life working them through.
Enter Vanessa Hotplate, my current campervan which is named for its cooker, and in whose meagre comforts I can dig and delve in my imagination, or just veg out in the back and stare at the view. I could steal odd days here and there to look at these projects but what works best with big decisions of this type is boundless space and an indefinite end to my time in it. I may only need the first half-day to make my decision, but I need the others that come after it for the first day to work. Endless time brings the present moment to life.
It’s natural to wander the world, and I still want to be Selima Hill’s cow. In her great poem, she does mention 'suspicious looking trailers park on verges’ as something she wants to be 'undisturbed by’. I’m not suspicious. I’m just lost in thought.
Sue Reid Sexton is the author of two novels about the Clydebank blitz and its aftermath, 'Mavis’s Shoe' and 'Rue End Street'. She worked in homelessness and then as a counsellor specialising in trauma and now writes fiction and non-fiction while working in various community projects. She lives in Glasgow. Her most recent book is 'Writing on the Road: Campervan Love and the Joy of Solitude', which is published by Waverley Books
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