In 2001, Jim* moved from Bristol to Brighton to be nearer some good friends and his sister, who was ill.
As he drove down the M4 with all his belongings in a hired lorry, ready to move into the place he’d been doing up, he noticed smoke coming from the front of the van, so he pulled onto the hard shoulder and got out.
A couple of minutes later the cabin where he’d been sitting was full of smoke and flames.
The keys to the back of the lorry were in the cabin and, despite bashing at the doors, he was unable to open the lorry to pull anything out. Within a few minutes, the police arrived and told him to move away and, seemingly no time later, the whole lorry was engulfed in 60 foot flames. The M4 was closed in the direction he was travelling, as was one lane of the opposite carriageway.
In shock and not fully processing what was going on, Jim found himself “almost smiling at the situation. It seemed insane”.
Having been dropped off at the nearest tube station by the police, Jim headed for his new home with little more than the clothes on his back, his phone and the money in his pockets. He didn’t even have a front door key, though luckily he’d given one to a friend.
Over the next few days and weeks, his initial ‘crazy anger’ was compounded by the discovery that his insurance policy didn’t cover him because his belongings hadn’t been in either of his properties when they were destroyed.
Though his insurance company eventually recovered a proportion of the value of his goods from the van hire company, for many months Jim didn’t know whether he would receive any compensation.
He had to face life with almost no possessions.
To his surprise, his fury quickly faded to being ‘pissed off’ and then gradually disappeared until, only a month later, he began to feel ‘cleansed and freed up’.
Suddenly, all the physical ties to his past had disappeared. ‘All those drawers of photos and letters that you open, see and are suddenly drawn back into the past, are gone. And then you can only move forward. You’re no longer pulled back into the past’.
We accumulate stuff as we move through life and it can be hard to part with it, even though it can weigh us down. The fire took the decision-making process out of Jim’s hands.
In an instant, he was free of physical attachments to his past.
Strangely, the fire happened at a time in Jim’s life when he was already on an emotional and spiritual journey. Personal relationships and his work were changing and he’d been studying meditation and Tai Chi, and bringing stillness into his life.
He laughs at the language he still uses to describe the fire. “I always say ‘I lost everything’. No I didn’t! I lost nothing. I lost the smallest, least important things in life. They were just possessions. I realised I don’t actually need anything. We’ve all got everything we need”.
Jim says that, before the fire, his life was restricted by him being a ‘disorganised, messy hoarder’. With everything lying around anyhow, he couldn’t be productive.
While he has accumulated stuff since (particularly since he had children!), he didn’t seek to replace everything and is more organised now. He’s picky about what he acquires. “I’ll only buy something if I really like it and I’m never tempted to spend for the sake of it”.
He’s always happy to get rid of things. He and his family, particularly his seven year old, love to do car boot sales. Of his current possessions, the only thing he’d feel desperate to save from a fire would be the family photos stored on his laptop though he also thinks, “We all take too many photos anyway”.
When he reflects on what he lost, he can think of only four items he misses: cine film his parents took of him and his siblings when they were young; a chair of his father’s; some photographs; and a painting by his Granny. It’s the cine film he regrets losing most because, “It wasn’t mine to lose and I feel sad for my family. We used to enjoy watching it when we met up once a year and now our children won’t have that experience”.
The thought of losing all his stuff again doesn’t fill him with dread. “If you lose everything, so what?” In fact, he finds the idea liberating. “Suddenly you’re no longer responsible for all that stuff. It’s brilliant. Genius. Everyone should get rid of everything every ten years. Or maybe there should be a limit on the number of possessions each person can own,” he laughs. “If you hold onto something for years and then chuck it out, you can guarantee you’ll need it the following week. Better to get rid of it sooner and forget about it”.
Even despite losing the precious family cine film, he says that overall he’s delighted it happened. “I was lucky”.
(*Jim is a pseudonym. This blog post is based on an interview undertaken on Friday 10th February 2012).
How would you feel if this happened to you?
Maybe something simliar has – how did you feel?