The benefits of living with less, five years in

thai lanterns at night

The evening is hot but the sky is already dark.

We’re having some beers in the outside terrace of a bar, where a reggae trio set up a few minutes ago and have now started their upbeat set. The bar owner sets down a huge steamed fish flavoured with lemon and chilli in front of us.

The atmosphere is distinctly more relaxed than in the adjoining street, where a night market has brought in the crowds. Vendors are selling tacky souvenirs, fried insects and sweet treats and fire performers are lighting up the night with blazing batons.

Later, we’ll meander back over the long beach, past night-fishermen, to our chalet which is no doubt already filling with mosquitoes.

This was the scene on our honeymoon in Thailand, exactly five years ago, just before my life was about to change. Of course, it was the start of a happy marriage (I don’t want to get in trouble for omitting to mention that) but it was also the beginning of something a little more unexpected.

My wife, Ruth, had brought along some holiday reading: a book called Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life by two guys calling themselves – a little cheesily, I thought – The Minimalists.

I found myself picking it up and reading about how life could be simpler with fewer possessions.

Having lived out of a suitcase for over a week already, I was already enjoying how easy it was to choose what to wear or, indeed, what book to read. I began to wonder how I could replicate this feeling once I got home.

And on the idea of buying less, I was sold.

At home, I’d already been making some pretty big changes in an effort to make my life less stressful.

A couple of years before, I had somehow found myself in tens of thousands of pounds of debt, having sleepless nights worrying about work. So I had changed jobs and was slowly paying back all that money I’d spent living a life I couldn’t afford.

Simplifying my possessions seemed like the natural next step in my journey to a less anxious life.

Two months later, we met The Minimalists, Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, when they visited our hometown on a book tour. They were charming and through their blog and books, I discovered a whole world of people choosing to live simpler lives.

All these years on, I’m really happy with where this all led me.

Sure, when you step into my home now, you won’t gasp and wonder who burgled me.

My wife also doesn’t quite share my enthusiasm for lifelong clear-outs, so what stays and goes is a subject of constant debate (and yes, the odd argument; we’re not perfect).

But here are the main benefits I’ve found from five years of decluttering:

1. Our home got its zen on
The house feels more airy, open and calm. All that distracting visual clutter is gone. We get compliments from guests and it’s a space I’m always happy to return to.

2. Life’s easier when it’s less messy
Tidying and cleaning takes less time, as does finding anything I’ve lost. (Apart from my bloody tweezers – like, seriously, where are they?)

3. Our unwanted possessions have helped others
I’m not naïve, a lot of the stuff I discarded was absolute crap and the best thing I could do was dispose of it responsibly. But we’ve given a lot to charity shops and have received regular updates telling us how much they have made from selling it – hundreds and hundreds of pounds. We’ve also donated to collections for refugees and sold or given away items to people in our area through online groups.

4. Shopping is no longer a hobby
Once you forget about the idea of owning the perfect set of crockery, and accept that your cheap Ikea plates are absolutely fine, you can get on with more exciting things each weekend.

5. I don’t worry about protecting my stuff
If I lost all my possessions tomorrow, I’d certainly be upset but I’d know that most of it can be replaced pretty easily and cheaply. A month or two ago, my car got written-off in an accident (American friends, read ‘totaled’). Yes, it was annoying, but in the end, who cares? It’s just a car, it was insured and now I have another one.

None of this is to say that a life with less stuff is a life free from worries. I worry about things ALL THE TIME.

But gradually they are becoming things that are actually worth worrying about.

Building a life of freedom in the woods

Meet the Frugalwoods book coverIn 2014, Liz Thames and her husband, Nate, were a conventional young couple working nine-to-five jobs in the city. But they dreamed of another life, setting up home in the woods of rural Vermont while no longer having to rely on a monthly paycheque.

Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living is the story of this transition.

Thames describes how she and her husband embrace simplicity and turn their backs on keeping up with the Joneses.

She sets out a familiar world of office job monotony, with weekends constituting “a race to prepare for the next week”, before sketching out a route towards a different way of living.

Thames’ lament, as she finds herself bogged down by the daily grind, will strike a chord with many: “When was I supposed to figure out what I was passionate about? When would I do something that mattered? Where was the space in my life to uncover deeper meaning?”

The answer the couple fix upon is to use extreme frugality to enable them to become financially independent and begin a new life in the woods.

I wouldn’t say this is a perfect book.

A thoughtful disclaimer in the introduction, in which Thames acknowledges the privileges she and her husband have enjoyed which made their financial journey easier, can sometimes jar with passages in the book striking a different tone.

“I couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting pregnant. Had the fertility gods not read the statistics? That children do better with two parents? That children do better in a home that’s financially secure? That children do better when mothers have advanced degrees?”

(I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt with this particular passage and attribute this to an attempt at a joke, rather than a genuine view that some people are more deserving of fertility than others.)

Other attempts at humour can also be a little hit-and-miss on occasion.

At one point early in the book, Thames describes at great length how she has been wanting then-boyfriend Nate to propose, to the extent that she makes a list of baby names that sound good with his last name.

He then takes her for a walk while acting strangely and carrying a mystery bag.

“Was this a sign that he was on drugs? Sweating, fast walking, a quick pulse, nervous eyes, and an unexplained backpack? I made a mental note to google it later. […] Nate said he wanted to go inside to use the restroom. To do drugs? I wondered.”

It would at least make a more interesting plot twist than what we know is inevitably coming.

But many passages are hugely evocative and skilfully woven.

“Consumerism made me into an insatiable, grabbing taker, whereas frugality transformed me into a mindful, grateful giver.

“Once I turned on this mind-set of spending less, and as a consequence using fewer natural resources, I was amazed at all the areas where I could simultaneously conserve money and fossil fuels. […]

“My frugality became about something broader and more momentous than simply the money I could save in my bank account. It was about my impact on our earth. It was about what I could do with my time and how I could interact with the world.”

Meet the Frugalwoods has come in for criticism from some in the financial blogging community. In her book, Thames does not reveal what the couple earns. Some argue that without spelling out the importance of a high wage, the reader is left in the dark about a major aspect of becoming financially independent.

Others question whether this is a true FIRE (financial independence, retire early) story when, even after the couple’s transition to a life ‘independent’ of jobs, both appear to continue working in some capacity.

I’d question both of these criticisms.

Firstly, this book’s strength lies not in its usefulness as a how-to guide but as an inspirational story. It is a memoir, not an instruction manual. What financial details Thames wants to keep to herself is her business.

Secondly, financial independence doesn’t have to mean giving up work forever. It’s about giving up the need to work.

This is at its heart a story not about the numbers but about a couple’s experience in stepping away from consumerism and finding freedom, rather than deprivation, as a result.

While in my view it has its flaws, it still has a great deal of inspiration to offer anyone who seeks a different type of life.

I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book.

Putting the ‘Becker method’ to the test: A review of The Minimalist Home

The Minimalist Home by Joshua Becker

I’ve never understood those who pooh-pooh practical advice on decluttering your home.

It’s sometimes dismissed as unnecessary guidance through a monotonous and straightforward process.

I disagree. Sure, some of us may find reducing our possessions easy and may just be able to get on with it. But others – like me – find we’ve formed bonds with the most innocuous of belongings and need to summon up the strongest willpower to say goodbye to each and every item.

The decision fatigue that results from decluttering even the smallest of spaces can be exhausting. And if you are not ruthless enough you can find that you’ve worn yourself out for nothing, realising at the end that you have simply rearranged your possessions rather than reducing them.

For those who fall into the latter category, having a friendly but – let’s face it – pushy, guide can be a huge help.

Enter Joshua Becker’s latest book, The Minimalist Home.

It takes readers through a transformation of their home using the ‘Becker Method’, a five-step approach to decluttering room by room.

The process includes the instruction to handle each object and ask yourself: ‘Do I need this?’ The phrase is the practical cousin to Marie Kondo’s whimsical ‘Does this spark joy?’ and sets the tone for what is a no-nonsense book filled with good advice, hard truths and the occasional bit of snarky humour:

“If your yard displays a lot of decorations, especially kitschy stuff of the garden-gnome or plastic-flamingo sort, rethink the wisdom of that. Please.”

However, to suggest ‘Do I need this’ is the essence of this book would be to do it a disservice.

At the heart of this book is a metaphor: of home as a harbour, offering shelter from the high seas of life while also acting as a port to head back out from.

So, if anything, Becker wants us to stop focusing on the minutiae of our possessions and instead wants us to take a step back and reflect on our home as a whole to see if it serves us, our goals and our relationships.

The first goal is to picture your ideal version of each room and create an environment that serves that vision, whether it be a home office that is an inspiring, organised space or a kitchen that brings people together over food.

Is your bedroom restful and intimate?

Does your guest room have space for people to unpack their belongings?

Does your garage offer an inviting gateway when you drive home?

The second goal is to free up money and time to allow you to live a life with more fulfilling pursuits than the accumulation of stuff.

His advice on how to make changes, then, is both straightforward and surprisingly refreshing. Got too many knick-knacks? Ditch half of them. Can’t move in your bedroom? Cut the amount of furniture. Agonising over sentimental items? Pick the most precious to keep.

Finally, Becker encourages his readers to assess the home as a whole and even consider giving it up for a smaller property.

Sure, his approach may go too far for some and he has a fondness for empty surfaces that not everyone will share.

He recommends, for instance, that you remove all small kitchen appliances from counters and store them in cupboards. The clear worktops, he argues, will be worth the minor inconvenience of getting your toaster out each morning.

Well, ever keen to try new things, I gave it a go. My other half was so unimpressed by the idea that it lasted less than 24 hours.

But the fact I tried it is testament to Becker’s infectious enthusiasm and encouragement. While I had already minimised much of my home, I often found myself putting the book down and getting up to tackle one of the remaining clutter corners with a new vigour.

Do you need to read a book before you can declutter? Of course not. But if you think some step-by-step guidance might make you a little bolder in revolutionising your home, this might just be the help you need.

Developing ‘The Museum of Me’: a sentimental person’s 5-step guide to decluttering paper mementos

aerial view of a field

Sentimental items are often the hardest things to get rid of when you’re trying to pare down your possessions.

Once you have created your capsule wardrobe, sold your DVD boxsets and ditched those trinkets you never really liked anyway, often you are left with a pile of paper mementos to somehow sort through.

Photos, concert tickets, wedding invites, hand-written letters, sketches and doodles, newspaper cuttings and perhaps the odd autograph or two. Fragments of a life well-lived.

If you’re anything like me, they’ll be found in boxes, drawers and cupboards all over the house. Sometimes they will be in some semblance of order, like that year you methodically put all your photos into an album, but more often than not they’re a bit of a jumble.

They’re also not taking up too much space, so you end up torn about whether to let them go or let them be.

Yes, you hear the argument that your memories don’t lie in these objects, they lie in your mind, and that as a result they will always be with you.

But it’s not the reality you experience when you stumble across that movie ticket from your first date with your high-school sweetheart and you are unexpectedly transported right back to the bench outside the cinema where you shared that awkward kiss.

You also hear the assertion that looking back on years gone by is unhealthy, that it stops you from looking forward.

But that’s not how you feel when you find a silly caricature drawn by one of your oldest friends and then realise you really should give them a call.

So how can you start to clear away these mementos when you still want to be able to use them to reminisce about the many twists and turns your life has taken to this point?

I’ve been trying to develop a solution.

But first, a confession: for a so-called minimalist, I’ve discovered I’m a deeply sentimental person.

I really wish I wasn’t. When I was a teenager I went as far as writing a punky fanzine called Anti-Sentimentality with a close friend. The irony isn’t lost on me that, 20 years on, I still have copies of each issue stashed in my spare room.

In fact, I’ve kept a hell of a lot from my teenage years onward. Programmes for plays I’ve seen, certificates from minor achievements in school – the kind of thing that might have been valuable had I somehow turned out to be the next John Lennon.

It’s almost as if I’ve been keeping items to display in some future Museum of Me.

So if it’s all so damn important to me, why on earth haven’t I been curating it, like a real museum would?

For the past few months I’ve been trying to set this right, and if you want to try it out for yourself, here are the steps:

  1. Find somewhere on your computer hard-drive, a cloud account or a pen drive where you have a spare few gigabytes of storage.
  2. Create a folder for each year of your life (an optional step for the ultra-nerdy like me: create sub-folders within each year for each month, labelled 01_Jan, 02_Feb, and so on. Using numbers at the beginning of the file names means they will stay in date order).
  3. Scan all your ticket stubs, party invites, letters and so on, and save each image into the relevant folder. Make sure to back up your files as you go. For safety, I have mine saved on my computer, with a back-up in the cloud and a back-up back-up on a pen drive.
  4. Add to your collection with a selection of photos, videos, music files, screengrabs of social media posts, or anything else that helps piece together the story of your life. Once your library is assembled, you can use it as a permanent archive to trawl through when you want to reminisce.
  5. Use web programs to bring the collection to life by creating digital yearbooks. Choose a few photos, images or other files from each year that really make you smile – that picture of you mid-skydive, that time you met the minor celebrity – then compile a slideshow, video or collage for each year (or each five years or decade if you prefer). A quick web search will bring up a host of free and easy-to-use programs that will take you through the process, but I personally like PhotoCollage for collages and Kizoa for slideshows.

Once your ‘Museum of Me’ is properly curated, and you have found a way of honouring all those paper keepsakes, it should be far easier to get rid of all but a select few.

Rethinking television


Ten weeks ago, we got the flooring in our living and dining room replaced.

To prepare, we had to move all our furniture out of the room, and at the time I joked that this was the look I’d been going for all along.


We managed to squeeze the sofa into the conservatory, dragged a dismantled Ikea dining table into the kitchen and carried a blanket box into the hallway.

We unhooked our television from its connections and precariously balanced it on a kitchen counter top, hoping we wouldn’t accidentally knock it and send it crashing down.

The flooring was laid and we pulled all the furniture back again. But when we reconnected the television, something wasn’t right. The colours seemed all off. I meddled with the wires, and promptly broke the connection for good.

It has stayed that way ever since. Laziness and apathy mean we have accidentally disconnected ourselves from live television.

To be clear: we can still access streaming services. But it’s been interesting to see how our habits have changed without that ready access to all those channels.

In the mornings, I no longer stick on breakfast television and lose 45 minutes to the comforting patter of the presenters. Instead, I tune into Radio 4 on my phone and get my daily briefing while I’m getting ready around the house.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been reading more, a habit I’d been meaning to get back into but had somehow not been able to make stick.

There has been one TV series we’ve actually wanted to watch on terrestrial television: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. So every week, at a time to suit us, we would watch it back on catch-up.

And there has also been one thing I really had to tune into live through my laptop: Saturday’s Eurovision. When I was a teenager I would meet up with my two closest friends for a Eurovision party each year. Now we’re dotted all over the country, we watch it while WhatsApping each other with our thoughts on the craziest songs and whether Latvia will ever top Brainstorm’s My Star from the year 2000 (answer: they won’t).

So, why cut down on television?

Often when people discuss this point, the inference is clear. TV is BAD FOR YOU AND ROTS YOUR BRAIN. Quite frankly, I fundamentally disagree with this, and not just because it’s what my mum used to say to me when I was a kid.

It’s the same argument people made about novels in the 18th century, when there was a moral panic about how many people – especially gasp, ladies – were glued to them.

In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, Steven Johnson gives a staunch defence of ‘junk’ TV and ‘mindless’ computer games. He argues that both are far more complex than they have ever been and often require pretty high levels of concentration.

Box-set watching, he says, has led to TV shows with multiple sub-plots, confusing cold-opens, highly technical jargon and vast networks of characters which represent a huge departure from the simplicity of 1970s shows like Starsky and Hutch.

While I think this is true, for me the argument is in danger of remaining a little elitist.

In all honesty, who cares if television is simplistic and trashy?

After years of pretty mediocre shows, I think this year’s Eurovision really was a fantastic television event. But I can’t pretend it was good for me. It was just pure entertainment, mixed in with some vague idea of ‘togetherness’.

I was really stressed out from work recently, and do you know what helped me calm down? Binge-watching the whole series of Queer Eye on Netflix. I feel not one iota of shame.

And I completely understand why haggard parents sit their young children down in front of Paw Patrol while they get to enjoy a quiet cup of tea in the other room for five minutes.

But it’s all about what is appropriate for you. The fact that TV had been so easy for me to access meant I had been more likely to switch it on than go and find a book to read. Making it just that one step harder meant I really had to decide whether it was something I wanted to do.

It’s why people wanting to cut down on social media often find it helpful to delete the apps from their phones and make themselves log on through their browsers. It’s still there, you just have to really want it to go and get it.

I’m not advocating that you all go and break your TV connectors. But if there’s something you feel you’re getting a little too distracted by, try to place a few hurdles in your way.

The tourist at home: seeking adventure on your own doorstep

How has another month passed?

Today is May Day, which means it’s time for me to start another month-long challenge.

But first a recap on how last month went. Thanks to everyone who followed along on Instagram this April as I shared a few things from my life which weren’t exactly Instagrammable.

My ‘veg patch’, which, with its delightful piles of dead sticks, looks more like a giant bird’s nest after it has been ransacked by egg-hungry monsters.

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This is my veg patch. Yum. #underwhelming

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My dog, who, God love him, got an upset tummy and decided to be ill in both directions all over the house for days. (The results, fortunately, were not pictured)


And while I was enjoying a hugely photogenic trip to Japan, those bits of travel that rarely make the social feeds: time in airports. More time in airports. Then unexpected delays meaning, yup, more time in airports.

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Still in transit… #underwhelming

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I love looking at beautiful photographs on Instagram as much as the next person. (Especially of Japan. Man, what a beautiful country…) But this has been a helpful reminder to myself that it’s never an accurate reflection of reality – my own or anyone else’s.

Talk of my trip, however (did I mention I’ve just been to Japan??!!) leads me nicely on to this month’s challenge.

While we were out there, my wife and I clocked up some serious mileage on foot, just wandering about the city and exploring.

It was great to head away from the big tourist sites and find ourselves sitting at the counter watching the chefs in a back-alley ramen joint, drinking sake in a wood-panelled izakaya or browsing the tat in a 100 yen shop, feeling like both complete outsiders and something resembling locals at the same time.

But it made me wonder why I don’t spend more time exploring my own neighbourhood. Adventure doesn’t have to be found half-way round the world, after all, and it’s a darn sight cheaper if you find it on your doorstep.

I’m sure we all have parts of our own neighbourhoods we’ve always meant to check out but never quite got round to because… well, it’ll still be there next week, right?

How would you think differently about where you live if you were visiting it as a holidaymaker?

So this month I aim to be a tourist in my own back yard, exploring areas of Yorkshire I’ve never been to. Again, I’ll be sharing the journey on Instagram, I’m @wantlessblog.

Instagram and the Creme Egg doughnut

Picture the scene: you’re in the world’s most hipster coffee house. Everyone except you has a beautiful, floral neck tattoo.

An array of pristine, colourful and quirky pastry goods are set out in front of you as you queue up to make your order. You know you like the plain cinnamon doughnut: you tried it one before and it was perhaps the best you’ve ever tasted in your life.

But – oh! – how beautiful these others look. There’s novelty confectionary-heaps on top of each of them. Colour swirls here, glitter there.

You plump for an icing-smothered doughnut with half a Creme Egg on top of it, because…well, it’s just so Instagrammable.

And you take the picture. You post it. You bite into the pastry with a sense of satisfaction, then realise that of course, it’s far too sugary.

You should have gone for the plain one that would look like a dried camel turd on pictures but tastes…perfect.

You’re a social meejit.

So, yes, anyone looking at my Instagram account will realise that this scenario is not exactly a random figment of my imagination.

A creme egg doughnut

Before I go any further, I want to say that railing against the imaginary ‘perfect lives’ people post on Instagram feels really old-hat.

I do think that there’s a lot of hysteria about people wanting to put a bit of gloss on the photos they send into the world. I, personally, love pretty pictures. I love looking at beautiful travel snaps, nice interiors and cute puppies. AND I DON’T CARE.

We also want to put these things out in the world, when we’re sharing our own photos. We all want to appear creative, well-travelled and stylish. Of course we do.

But the problem comes when the Instagram tail starts wagging the living-your-life dog.

I don’t particularly want to become one of those people who takes it all too far and just posts sickeningly smug pictures on my feed.

So my fourth monthly challenge will see me deliberately doing the opposite.

Every day, I will post a photo on Instagram of something in my life that is mundane, disappointing, imperfect or embarrassing.

Something I’d never usually want to post.

Not to complain about it, but just as a reminder that the monotony of life makes up 98 per cent of our existence. It can still be marvellous in its own unremarkable little way.

I will call my April challenge Hashtag Underwhelming.

Follow along: I’m on Insta @wantlessblog


Aerial view of trees

[Yawns] Hmm, what was that? No, I wasn’t. I was totally awake.

Do you ever get those months where you just feel exhausted all the time?

So, yes, I was meant to post two days ago about my latest 30-day challenge coming to an end.

The challenge involved really listening to a piece of music a day. I completed it (yay) and it was actually great fun (yay) and I was all ready to write about it.

But, ugh, quite honestly I’ve just felt too tired to bother. I’ve not had a day off work for a while and all I’ve wanted to do when I get home is watch Netflix and crash out. In fact, literally as I was writing the last sentence I paused, tilted my head to the side, closed my eyes and just turned my brain off for a few seconds.

Which brings me neatly onto my next challenge: getting some goddamn sleep.

‘Sleep hygiene’ seems to be quite the hot topic at the moment.

Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington is perhaps its most famous proponent, having passed out from sleep exhaustion at work, hitting her head on her desk and breaking her cheekbone.

Meanwhile, every podcast out there seems to be advertising super-expensive mattresses that make all sorts of promises.

And there’s so much advice out there about the rituals you should go through, as well as the many things to avoid, before hitting the hay. Quite frankly, I’ve not noticed this many nagging voices about what not to do in the bedroom since I came out.

The thing is, I think I do everything right. I don’t take my phone to bed. I always aim for the full eight hours.

I have fancy apps on my iPad and my laptop which turn off the blue light after sunset, so my brain doesn’t get all confused and think I’m sat in a brilliantly sunny piazza in Rome at noon in July.

Yet …. still …. so …. tired.

So this month’s challenge is all about the sleep. I’ll be trying out a few different techniques every few days to see what works and what doesn’t.

I began a few days ago by trying a new rule: bed before 10pm. I didn’t tell my other half and I think I must have seemed like a creepy house robot or something because I would just look at the clock, stop whatever task I was doing, turn around and march myself upstairs.

I like the idea of an early night. It’s like a lie-in, but in reverse. But in reality, it’s been a little disappointing, because just because you’re in bed, it doesn’t mean you can get to sleep.

Yesterday, I spent nine and a half hours in bed. Ridiculous. AND I’M STILL KNACKERED!

Anyone got any sleeping tips I should try out this month?

Feel free to share yo…

Oh, look at the time. 9.59pm. Bye!

The fantasy island of minimalists dreamt up by an advisor to Henry VIII

An island

There is very little that is new about minimalism.

Owning few possessions has been a tenet in many faiths for millennia.

And two thousand years ago, the Stoics were teaching that you only truly own one thing in life: yourself. Practising a healthy detachment from your belongings was a key part of the philosophy.

As someone trying to get better at owning fewer things, I take an interest when I find the idea of living with less cropping up in books, films or music from years gone by.

So reading Thomas More’s Utopia, a book now more than 500 years old, proved pretty interesting recently.

More was a public figure in 16th-century England, rising from humble roots to serve as a personal advisor for Henry VIII and Speaker of the House of Commons.

But he was charged with high treason and beheaded in 1535 after refusing to take an oath recognising the King as sole head of the church, instead of the Pope, and sanctioning his divorce from his first wife.

A grim story, no doubt, but a little book More wrote 20 years earlier while working on the continent shows his humorous side.

The comic tract imagines a fantasy island – albeit a ridiculous one at times – where human society is ordered in a near-perfect way.

Some of the workings of Utopian society haven’t dated well.

The use of slavery would sound pretty horrific to a modern reader, as would the subjugated role of women, who must kneel before their husbands once a month to confess their sins and beg forgiveness.

But other parts, which discuss the Utopians’ attitude towards wealth and possessions, are some of the same topics being discussed by minimalists today.

Here are a few passages from the book, translated from the original Latin by Paul Turner:

“In Utopia they have a six-hour working day – three hours in the morning then lunch – then a two hour break – then three more hours in the afternoon, followed by supper. They go to bed at 8pm and sleep for eight hours.

“All the rest of the twenty-four they’re free to do what they like – not to waste their time in idleness or self-indulgence, but to make good use of it in some congenial activity.

“Most people spend these free periods on further education, for there are public lectures first thing every morning. Attendance is quite voluntary, except for those picked out for academic training, but men and women of all classes go crowding in to hear them.”

“They have no tailors or dressmakers, since everyone on the island wears the same sort of clothes – except that they vary slightly according to sex and marital status – and the fashion never changes.

“These clothes are quite pleasant to look at, they allow free movement of the limbs, they’re equally suitable for hot and cold weather – and the great thing is, they’re all home-made.”

“Since they only work a six-hour day, you may think there must be a shortage of essential goods. On the contrary, those six hours are enough, and more than enough to produce plenty of everything that’s needed for a comfortable life.

“And you’ll understand why it is, if you reckon up how large a proportion of the population in other countries is totally unemployed. First you have practically all the women – that gives you nearly fifty percent for a start. Then there are all the priests, and members of so-called religious orders – how much work do they do? Add all the rich, especially the landowners, popularly known as nobles and gentlemen. Include their domestic staffs – I mean those gangs of armed ruffians that I mentioned before. Finally, throw in all the beggars who are perfectly hale and hearty, but pretend to be ill as an excuse for being lazy. When you’ve counted them up, you’ll be surprised to find how few people actually produce what the human race consumes.”

“Then think how much labour they save on clothes. Their working clothes are just loose-fitting leather overalls, which last for at least seven years.

“When they go about in public, they cover these rough garments with a sort of cloak, which is always the same colour – the natural colour of wool. Thus not only is their consumption of woollen fabric the lowest in the world, but so are their production costs for this material. Linen is even easier to produce, and therefore more often used – but, as long as the linen is white and the wool is clean, they don’t care how fine or coarse the thread is.

“So whereas in other countries you won’t find anyone satisfied with less than five or six suits and as many silk shirts, while dressy types want over ten of each, your Utopian is content with a single piece of clothing every two years. For why should he want more? They wouldn’t make him any warmer – or any better looking.”

“When the head of a household needs anything for himself or his family, he just goes to [the] shops and asks for it. And whatever he asks for, he’s allowed to take away without any sort of payment, either in money or in kind.

“After all, why shouldn’t he? There’s more than enough of everything to go round, so there’s no risk of his asking for anything more than he needs – for why should anyone want to start hoarding, when he knows he’ll never have to go short of anything.

“No living creature is naturally greedy, except from fear of want – or in the case of human beings, from vanity, the notion that you’re better than people if you can display more superfluous property than they can. But there’s no scope for that sort of thing in Utopia.”

“They’ve devised a system which, while perfectly consistent with their other conventions, is diametrically opposed to ours – especially to the way we treasure up gold. So you’ll probably think it incredible, until you’ve actually seen it for yourselves.

“According to this system, plates and drinking-vessels, though beautifully designed, are made of quite cheap stuff like glass or earthenware. But silver and gold are the normal materials, in private houses as well as communal dining halls, for the humblest items of domestic equipment, such as chamber-pots. […] In fact they do everything they can to bring these metals into contempt. This means that if they suddenly had to part with all the gold and silver they possess – a fate which in any other country would be thought equivalent to having one’s guts torn out – nobody in Utopia would care two hoots.

“It’s much the same with jewels […] If they happen to come across one, they pick it up and polish it for some toddler to wear […] This curious convention is liable to cause some equally curious reactions, as I realised most vividly in the case of the Flatulentine diplomats. […]

“Oh, but you should have seen the faces of the older children, who’d grown out of things like pearls and jewels, when they saw the ones on the envoys’ hats. They kept nudging their mothers and whispering: ‘I say, mother, just look at that great baby! Fancy wearing jewellery at his age!’”

“In Utopia, where everything’s under public ownership, no-one has any fear of going short, as long as the public storehouses are full. Everyone gets a fair share, so there are never any poor men or beggars. Nobody owns anything, but everyone is rich – for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?”

It makes interesting reading, even though I remain very sceptical of the idea of an ideal society.

While I would probably be content wearing only clothes that are “the natural colour of wool”, I recognise that it would be other people’s idea of hell. I also dislike his puritanical streak and scorn for “idleness or self-indulgence”.

But just as it was designed to make 16th-century Europeans reflect on their own society and its shortcomings, I think it can still have the power to do the same for us now.

30-day challenge: close your eyes and really listen to one piece of music each day

Aerial photograph of the sea and rocks

Thank you to those who helped choose my second 30-day challenge of 2018.

After spending January battling with a shopping ban, I was ready for something fun.

So I put a few options together and let the people of Twitter decide.

Option one was spending a month trying to get to grips with Japanese: I’m off there in a few months but my efforts to learn the language have so far been halting to say the least.

Option two was to rediscover the art of writing real, proper letters – with no dog-turd emojis or anything – by writing and posting one a day.

And option three was a suggestion from my wife, a musician, who said I could put on some headphones each day and really listen to one piece of music.

Just like any good race, this one was decided in the final furlong. Option two had long been in the lead (to the extent that I had already accepted the inevitable and written the first letter) but then at the final straight, option three pulled off a daring overtaking manoeuvre and clinched the title by one vote.

So two days ago I settled down to properly listen to one piece of music, with eyes closed.

I really recommend the exercise. Focusing on one sense, just for a few minutes, felt like an act of meditation.

Like many people, I struggle to focus on just one thing these days, so it was interesting to notice how many times my mind started to wander in the middle of a track or I began to itch to do something else while I listened.

But on the whole I’ve been enjoying the experience – it’s pulled me right back to my teenage years, listening to cassettes on my Walkman in the dark when I should have been asleep.

I think setting aside some time each day to choose a new song to devote a few minutes to will be a really nice habit to get into.

If anyone is interested in the tracks I’ve listened to so far, day one was Shake Em Off, a track from Syd’s album Fin (my most recent download), day two was Lights On by FKA twigs (which I found surprisingly troubling for some reason) and today I’ve just sat down in my favourite armchair to listen to Billie Holiday’s charming I Get Along Without You Very Well.

They have all been female artists so far and I think I’ll stick with the theme.

Looking through my music collection, I was struck by how many of the albums are by male musicians. It feels apt, somehow, and very ‘2018’, to take the time to really listen to some lesser-heard voices for a while.