The 2015 British film, The Lady in the Van, is the story of the writer Alan Bennett’s relationship with an elderly lady who lived in a Bedford van on his Camden Town driveway at his invitation for 15 years until her death. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings and the old lady by the consummate actress Maggie Smith. The film explores the mixed reactions of the middle-class residents of that street and Bennett’s burgeoning curiosity about the educated past of the cantankerous old biddy. Part of the fascination of the film is seeing just how someone can live half their life in a van. How do they wash, sleep, go to the toilet? What ploys do they use to make the most of such a minimal space? Is it safe? Can it be comfortable? And so on.
The idea of living in a van has a certain vagabond romanticism about it. Not a camper van, mind you, or even a caravan, or even a VW Dormobile – but a van. You live rent free and you can rev up and move on whenever you please, waking up to a new view whenever you want, and human encounters may well be more direct, as people express an interest in your maverick life-choice. Like the people who choose to cycle round the world with a minimum of gear, or other knights of the road.
The freedom of the open road first appealed to me when I saw the 1973 Granada TV adaptation of Howard Spring’s Shabby Tiger, the story of a millionaire’s son in 1930s Manchester who leaves home to become an artist, embracing a life of bohemian freedom, poverty and hardship. The lead role is played by John Nolan and I recall that he wears a rather fabulous green corduroy jacket – creating a mental bridge with one of my favourite books at the time, Adrian Bell’s Corduroy, a volume of autobiography in which the writer ups sticks from London to become an East Anglian farmer. The book is a cornerstone of the pre-war Back to the Land movement.
As teenagers, my friends and I would be off youth-hosteling or camping at weekends or in school holidays, walking many miles with heavy rucksacks on our backs and, I recall, singing « Heart of the Country » from Paul McCartney’s Ram album at the top of our voices. One of our favourite destinations was Tanner’s Hatch youth hostel, on the edge of the Polesden Lacey estate near Box Hill. The youth hostel was a real ramshackle cottage, every first weekend of the month would be an improvised folk festival, and we’d help the manager, Ian, with tasks like wood-chopping and pond dredging – pulling out Victorian ginger beer bottles and bits of old earthenware. This was our rural freedom, our « on the road », which we grabbed at every available opportunity.
I’m also reminded of a French couple I met a few years back who were crossing the whole of France diagonally, from Brittany to the Italian frontier, on horseback, having mapped a route that was entirely on footpaths and bridleways. Their journey was to take them several months and they lived simply and happily in a little two-person tent.
But to return to vans, and plans…
Badgers Bike Squad has hit the road several times with the gifted musician and fixed-gear cyclist Kimwei McCarthy, who is also consequently an honorary Badger. Kimwei returned from France to the UK where she now manages to perform her duties as a university lecturer while, at the same time, living in and out of a van which she shares with her cat, her guitar and her bike. She describes herself as a “digital nomad” and blogs and vlogs on the ups and downs of this experience on Facebook and a dedicated site, Symphony for Happiness. Kimwei’s ongoing record of this life is fascinating, with its voluntary minimalism and everyday survival stratagems.
She teaches by Skype and in an Exeter college and occasionally “docks” at friends’ homes when the going gets too tough. She argues that she lives totally rent-free and that minimalism gives her more free time. So far she’s lived this life for nine months. No water tap, no fridge, no fold-out bed. “Why would you want to replicate a house in a van?”
Quod erat demonstrandum…
Kimwei is a modern wandering minstrel, a traveller, an “odd hippy in the corporate world”. You can follow her blog here. A YouTube version is on the way, and here is Kimwei explaining minimal packing for the nomad lifestyle on video. And below are a couple of pictures of her van.
(Curiously, in The Lady in the Van, the Maggie Smith character also paints her Bedford van – initially grey, as in the above photo – exactly the same shade of yellow!)