The Way Home

Maddy Harland | Thursday, 9th May 2019
Maddy Harland reviews Mark Boyle's latest book about living without technology and appreciates its lyricism and his honesty about how difficult it is to give up the addictive comforts of civilisation.
Author: Mark Boyle
Publisher: Oneworld
Publication year: 2019
RRP: £16.99

Where is our home and how do we travellers in space and time find our way back to it? That is Mark Boyle’s lifetime quest and this is the latest episode in his journeying.

Mark is famous for living without money for three years and for writing The Moneyless Man and The Moneyless Manifesto. He got a lot of stick for daring to make his life an experiment and then writing and speaking about it. Inevitably, as the royalties rolled in, he was branded a hypocrite. He then went on to write Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi, an uncompromising reduction of how industrial society – the Machine – destroys life at all levels, including ours, the self-reflective two-leggeds. I edited and published the two previous books and watched as he received both acclaim, denial and bitter insults.

With his royalties, Mark bought a smallholding in post-crash Ireland and started his An Teach Saor (Gaelic for 'the free house’) project, sharing the space with permanent and temporary residents. He turned a redundant pig shed into a free pub and B&B, The Happy Pig. Then he built a cabin from salvaged materials and decided to live in it with his girlfriend entirely offgrid and without modern technology (see The Way Home is his story. 

I didn’t edit or publish this book – OneWorld Publishers are larger and better resourced than us and I hope this will enable its global distribution. I therefore come to it with fresh independent eyes and I find myself deeply touched.

Mark’s writing has taken a great leap forward and has a succinct yet lyrical feel to it. The sections have a flow and logic whilst offering the reader well constructed cameos of life without technology. There is a skill to writing with a pencil by candlelight, preforming every paragraph in the mind so as not to waste energy, unlike the undisciplined diarrhoea of our word processing age. (I am old enough to have learnt how to write long essays by hand.)

Then there is his honest sense of struggle. Mark is dedicated but even he suffers compromises in his technology free life in the depth of rural Ireland. He describes those struggles, compromises and how hard it is to live without fossil fuels and digital fixes. I remember Patrick Whitefield explaining how modern agriculture uses oil to provide calorific energy whilst permaculture aims for intelligent design and human labour. Intelligent though Mark is, the reader is spared no illusions about what it is to live entirely on what Mark forages, barters, grows, fishes or hunts. He is often hungry and though rarely cold, hauling, cutting and splitting enough wood by hand for two years takes most of his first year. It is a very tough life. Let’s not pretend a noble return to hunter gatherer is possible in our polluted, species-poor ecosystems. The days of natural abundance in our post-modernist world are over. 

Throughout the book, Mark describes his life, his neighbours, and his relationship with his girlfriend, Kirsty. He also interspaces his narrative with stories from Great Blasket Island, one of the last inhabited islands off West Kerry that was finally abandoned once fishing stocks collapsed (due ironically to over-exploitation by European fishing boats in the 1950s). These hardy Islanders had an incredibly rich cultural life of poetry and song. They also had to live entirely without modern technology.

What is groundbreaking in this book are two things. Firstly, Mark has found his inner bard. Reading these flowing passages I find myself transported into his world, seeing life through his eyes, and sharing an intimacy of experience in the countryside around him. Secondly, he is unafraid to share his own inner realities: how tough this life he has chosen is, the inevitable compromises, and also the sheer loneliness. For all our romanticism about voluntary simplicity, we are shown that this is not an easy life on any level; technology is deeply addictive and giving it up requires hard work and a level of mental, let alone physical, sacrifice few of us could entertain. We can never be like the uncontacted tribes, hopefully left alone to live undisturbed and instilled from birth in survival skills. Mark’s journey is not romanticised in any way. Rather, it is politicised.

Yet there is also raw beauty here. Life pared down to this level has its own candour and magnetism. His intimacy with the rhythm of the year, the seasons, the plants and animals he depends on takes him to a place in himself that is ‘home’. This is the virtue in Mark’s experiment: By facing the addiction of modern life and its ‘conveniences’, he challenges every aspect of the system from the outside. We need people like Mark to wake us up from our terrible technological torpor. His book has got deeply under my skin. I recommend you read it.

Useful links

Watch: Mark Boyle on hijacked money and political rewilding

Wild economics - an interview with Mark Boyle

Tales from the Happy Pig - the first free pub