A life unplugged

Review: Vivien Horler

The Way Home – tales from a life without technology, by Mark Boyle (Oneworld)

Irishman Mark Boyle is an outlier – he does things differently.

A few years ago, as an experiment, the business school graduate decided to go for a year without using any money, which resulted in a book The Moneyless Man.

Starting in 2013 his next “experiment” – one whose parameters are a little less clear  – was to give up technology. No cellphone, no computer, no car, no electricity, no fridge, no running water. The result is this book, its manuscript written entirely in pencil.

He and a couple of friends bought – by this time money was back on the radar but only just – a half-wild 1.2ha smallholding in the west of Ireland and made it home. They fixed up the existing cottage and then built a cabin; they planted trees, vegetables and an orchard, built a hen coop and acquired hens, planted a nuttery, created a pond, found old hand tools at car boot sales, chopped and stacked wood for winter, collected water from the spring, “made compost bins, composting toilets and, eventually, compost”.

Giving up technology is hard. Digging out and leveling foundations for the cabin took a week moving 20 tons of earth with nothing but a spade. If you want a hot bath you need chopped and dried wood on hand to make a fire to heat the water. If you want to get in touch with a friend you write a letter – at least Boyle has the advantage of a functioning postal system.

The smallholding had had a polytunnel, but Boyle and his girlfriend Kirsty gave it away. He says they no longer wanted to be dependent on technologies whose manufacture showed no respect for life. Also they wanted to live on an Irish diet – milk, potatoes, veggies, self-caught fish and occasionally free-range venison.

I suspect Boyle is not an easy man to live with. He spends a day trying to make fire by rubbing two sticks together (well, actually he used a bow to drill into a piece of wood to create the necessary friction). I accept he couldn’t use a lighter, but if he is prepared to use a pencil, surely he could use a match?

This question of where to draw the line on technology is a tricky one. He doesn’t drive a car, but will catch a bus, and he also rides a bicycle although he has misgivings about it. He refuses to lock his bike. He stops using a clock.

In the beginning there are evenings when he and Kirsty long to collapse on the sofa with a movie, but they find these impulses become rarer as time goes on. He has given up “news” – no radio or newspapers, obviously no TV or Twitter – but he does occasionally read old newspapers he finds in the recycling. His friends tell him it is irresponsible not to keep up to date, as otherwise politicians and big business will get away with murder, but he figures that despite all the news sources available today, politicians and big business are as culpable as ever.

The book covers a year of Boyle’s life and his musings and descriptions are interspersed with sections about the tiny community of Great Blasket Island, off the coast of County Kerry, who lived a traditional hard Irish life until the Irish government evacuated the last couple of dozen people in 1953.

Boyle is concerned that technology is both killing us and disconnecting us from reality.  His approach, he says, is not simply to give up on society, but to “live the life I want to lead, but to do so as part of the society whose ways I seek to question”.

Few of us could or would want to live as Boyle does. But as we become increasingly aware of the plight of our flaming planet, in this book we find ideas and thoughts and practical hints on how to live a different, kinder life. Every bit makes a difference.



One thought on “A life unplugged

  1. David Bristow

    Love it. Hints of the old Whole Earth Catalogue and Whole Earth Almanac. Also “The 150 Mile Diet” ditto “The Last Man in America” by Elizabeth Gilbert (yup, same Elizabeth, canya). Think I need this one.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *