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Is it time to pack — and live — lighter?

He's back home from nine months on the road, and Ben Hammersley is shocked by how many possessions he has. Time to downsize his life...
Time to downsize?
Illustration: Sean Sims

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None of my toiletries will ever be more than 100ml again

You can't go home again, they say. You're not the same person you were when you left, and home has changed too, and it's pointless to yearn for things as they once were. This is true — the world is nothing but flow and change — but there are some things that stay the same. There's always old-fashioned stuff.

A few days ago I arrived back in London after nearly nine months of constant travel, and I now find my new self in my old place. The thing that strikes me, apart from the greyness of the skies, is that I'm surrounded by just so much stuff: books I don't remember having, clothes I haven't missed, furniture barely used. From travelling around the world with a few bags, and cursing myself for carrying even that, I'm now back to full shelves and a squished-up wardrobe. It is starting to feel as oppressive as if I'd overpacked for my now-ended journey, and was realising I had to lug that extra stuff around with me. Whatever was I thinking?

There are two online communities I find endlessly fascinating: the tiny-house movement, who build themselves houses that are, well, tiny, and the go-bag enthusiasts, who photograph and compare the contents of the backpack they keep by the door in case they need to flee a disaster, whether natural or man-made. I now feel as if I should be combining the two, living in less than 50 square feet, and having so little that I can photograph each piece for online discussion.

And there's more — my technology has been suffering, too. Since last summer I've been working exclusively with an iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard, in one of those cases sold in airports. Now back home, with hundreds of pictures to add to my library, I was forced to boot up my laptop, and before I could think, it had reached out to the internet and started to sync and download and upgrade. Nine months of emails, calendar entries, drop-boxed documents and security updates came flooding in at once, like massively oversolicitous room service trying to impress. It took five hours for the machine to download and index, then calm down enough to be usable. The fan whined and shuddered with the effort, as if in pain. And it took another day for me to stop staring at all the windows and background apps I'd forgotten that I run. I'm writing this on the iPad: the laptop was threatening to overwhelm.

So there we have it, fellow traveller. A cautionary tale. What starts as a valiant attempt to pack light then becomes an obsession with travelling hand-baggage only, and finally ends with feeling that not just travelling, but living like that is the only way to be. None of my toiletries will ever be more than 100ml again and, if I can't slide it under the seat in front of me, I'm not sure I want it.

"Before undergoing a serious surgical operation," the French writer Victor Hugo once said, "put your affairs in order — you may survive." Perhaps we should learn from this when we are packing for a trip. Don't just think about what to pack — pay attention to what you're not taking with you as well. Because eventually you have to come back to it.

Ben Hammersley is a London-based technologist, author and broadcaster. His latest book is 64 Things You Need To Know Now For Then (£20, Hodder & Stoughton)

Ben Hammersley


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