I’ve never been a particularly materialistic person. When I was a child, I dreamed of running away with the Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, like in the old ballad. Not for me a suburban semi and a stack of debts. Oh no! I was going to live in a caravan, travel wherever I wanted, and cook over a camp fire. Later – and not long after I came to the disappointing realisation that most modern gypsies don’t in fact live in old-fashioned wagons and wear gold hoop earrings – that dream was transmuted into a burning desire to travel the world with no more than I could stuff into a backpack.
I achieved neither ambition, sadly, but I think they’ve nevertheless left their mark on my personality. I am, by nature, pretty nomadic. Every few years I get itchy feet and find myself yearning for a change of scenery.
Wanderlust. A wonderful word for a wonderful thing – and a thing that has inspired its fair share of writers and literature. I mentioned “The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy”, the old folk song in which a lady leaves her materially privileged but stifling existence for a life of (perceived) freedom and personal fulfilment. The giddy romanticism of this ballad still appeals to me, especially after a few drinks, when I’m given to bellowing out the lyrics: “What care I for my house and land? What care I for my money-o?” (Without the drinks, I’ll admit to wondering what happens next. Does “the lady” get tired of wearing rags and singing at castle gates, when she used to actually live in a castle? What happens when the novelty of sleeping in a “cold open field” begins to wear thin?)
If “the lady” of this ballad had been reincarnated in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, she might have come back as Holly Golightly, the heroine of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. On one level, Holly is a typical gold-digger: she fully intends to be both rich and famous one day, and targets wealthy men with her undeniable charms. However, what makes Holly different – and infinitely more sympathetic – is that what she really seems to crave is not money at all, but that elusive sense of belonging. At the beginning of the novella, years after the events it describes, we learn that Holly may still be searching; she, or a woman very much like her, has been seen passing through, of all places, a remote African village. Later – and rewinding a few years – we learn that she doesn’t bother furnishing her rented apartment because, as she explains, “I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together.”
Oh, Holly – I know that feeling, all right. I just wish I’d followed your example, and resisted the urge to buy stuff.
I say this because I’m currently in the midst of what is said to be the most stressful life experience, bereavement excepted: I’m moving house. And any lingering illusions I might have once harboured about being a non-materialistic hippie chick have been utterly destroyed by the sheer amount of junk I seem to have acquired over the years, and which I now have to cart off with me.
Junk. Boxes and boxes of the stuff. Junk I never use. Junk I really don’t like that much. Junk I’d forgotten I had. I swear that useless possessions breed. You start off with just a few, and before you know what’s happened they account for the bulk of your belongings. It’s like a sci-fi film where a scientist creates a new form of life in a petri dish, and then can only watch helplessly as it takes over the world…
Nowadays, there’s no way I’d get everything into a single backpack. I’d need a truck to carry it all around the world. The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies would have to lay on a few extra wagons to deal with all my rubbish. It’s the death of yet another dream, I’m telling you. I didn’t turn out to be so different after all. I’m just another grasping, self-indulgent child of Thatcher’s Britain…
…Except I’m not, damn it! When this move is over, I’m going to deal with all this useless stuff. It’ll be sold, given away, thrown away or burned, as appropriate, until one fine day I wake up with just the things that I either really want or really need. And I shan’t be buying more. Even if I never get to run away with the Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, at least I’ll be able to caterwaul my way through the lyrics without feeling like a complete hypocrite.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a modern hymn to wanderlust, sung by the incomparable Audrey Hepburn in the film adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Enjoy!