Slow down, don't move out

'Urban downshifters' have twigged that you can have a cheaper life without evacuating to the sticks.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DOWNSHIFTING sounded like such a good idea, running a vegetarian cafe in Cornwall, in hand-woven goat-haired jumpers. The problem with this dream was that it took place in the country - that vast lonely stretch between metropolitan centres where there is no public transport, no freshly- squeezed orange juice and the annual cultural highlight is the Barron Knights on tour. Time for knitting is useless to under-40s not yet ready to be put out to grass. So you stayed in the city, but you're too tired and busy to enjoy those buzzy benefits because you have to work 10 hours a day. Your experience of urban culture is confined to late-night Burger King and other people's body odour.

There is a solution to this dilemma and it is appealing to a growing number of city dwellers: urban downshifting. Take a laid-back easier job for less money, cut back on eating out and clothes shopping, and have time to enjoy yourself - and the city. The result is like living the life of a Paul Auster character. Think of all those chilled-out characters hanging around the Brooklyn tobacco shop in Smoke. Could they have been that cool if they'd had to be at work from eight in the morning through till nine at night? I don't think so. Do they spend their spare hours in retail therapy? Certainly not.

Urban downshifting is wandering around the city drinking coffee in cafes (one lasts all morning), reading, thinking and having energy to be creative. Then there are museums during the quiet periods, the cheap cinema matinees, visiting the shops during the sales during the day. And working a bit - either in a "culturally sensitive" environment where work is relaxing and one's colleagues like-minded (the second-hand bookshop, the independent video store, the alternative cafe rather than the McJob), or alternatively, in a high-pressure well-paid job but very part-time.

"I hated advertising but the push I needed to make the break came when I was made what the company call "redundant"," says Carmen Boulton, who now runs her own second-hand designer clothes shop, Catwalk, in Blandford Street, W1. "I love clothes and this is something I always wanted to do. I didn't need too much money to get started. The clothes are all sale or return. My hairdresser said she'd ask all her clients if they had clothes to sell and at first I collected them all in my flat. I am so much happier now. I earn much less money but it's easy to cut back. I don't need to spend a lot of money to cheer myself up. As long as I can keep paying my mortgage, I'm fine." The trappings of Carmen's life have changed. "I used to drive a top-of-the-range XR3 company car and now it's a second- hand Vauxhall Nova. I used to spend my spare income on clothes and now I don't have to. Because I hated my job so much before I felt like I was selling my soul. Now I don't. It's been hard work and looking back I think how brave I was to take the plunge, but it's worth it."

That people want a less complicated life is self-evident. Forty per cent of British workers believe that long working hours are putting a strain on their family and social lives according to research by Mintel, and 42% would like to switch from full-time to part-time employment. The Henley Centre says that six per cent of people voluntarily cut their income to improve their quality of life between 1994 and 1996 and just as many were planning to in the coming years - but they aren't all moving to the country.

Lucy, 30, a former solicitor earning over pounds 40,000, pushed her body to the point where it made the decision for her. "I was working 12-hour days. I was drinking a lot, going out, missing sleep. I was so run-down that I got a life-threatening virus. I was in hospital for three months, during which time I realised that I had been throwing my life away. I was like that character in Douglas Coupland's novel Shampoo Planet who has a feeling of dread because they have two years' worth of Sunday supplements to read. My whole outlook changed. I quit my job and decided to do what I wanted. Now I am researching a documentary and cleaning clubs in the morning. I can enjoy the city so much more.

"What I bought was time. My life had become so horrible, going out had become an effort. Now I cycle rather than drive. I don't need to belong to a gym because I can take exercise outdoors during the day. It is very rewarding but also quite a humbling experience. City people get an awful lot of self-confidence from what they 'do'. When people ask me now and I say I'm a cleaner they don't believe me. But work no longer defines me. Obviously I don't have financial security. I'm renting and I can't save. But the way I see it, I'm joining the majority in income terms. I still have a lot of friends who are high-earners. When I get bored of being worthy I go out with them. But I don't think the world revolves around west London."

Polly Ghazi, co-author with Judy Jones of Downshifting: The Guide to Happier, Simpler Living, is in fact an urban downshifter herself. She has recently moved from a two-bedroom flat in fashionable Islington to a five-bedroom house in distinctly less hip New Cross. After taking voluntary redundancy two years ago and taking time out to have a baby, she now lives on about half her former salary. Which, she says, is perfectly manageable in the city, when you no longer have to eat out after work and get taxis to catch up on lost time.

"We worked out that approximately 30-40 per cent of a person's spending was associated with coping with their work," she says. "Metropolitan commentators think that downshifting is all about moving to the country but a lot of people stay in the city. People have also criticised downshifting, saying it's something only wealthy people can do. In fact the majority of letters we've got have been from people earning between pounds 15,000 and pounds 25,000."

Sophie, 34, was a television producer when she persuaded her boss to let her work four days a week. "It took me a year to pluck up courage. I sat down and budgeted so carefully. Now I live on four-fifths of my former income and take the extra time as a lump period at the end of the year to write my novel. Sometimes I do feel that to stay in the city I need to live like a nun. I can't go out to dinner more than once or twice a month but at least I have time to think. We are encouraged to work and strive but for what? I am never going back to full-time work."

Maybe part of the hostility to downshifting in the city is that it challenges those who are driving their career way past the speed limit. But money can't buy cool. And when Telegraph columnist Petronella Wyatt described downshifting as "the new socialism", it was perhaps the biggest recommendation yet.

It ain't heavy, it's my lifestyle

URBAN DOWNSHIFTING: THE BENEFITS

1. What are you going to do with all that new spare time if you live in the country? At least in the city there's something to do

2. You are still near all your highly paid friends, from whom you can borrow expensive clothes and new hardbacks and with whom you can lunch (on their expense account)

3. With time on your hands, you can track down all the good second-hand shops and top hair schools the city has to offer. The country has none of these

4. If it all goes horribly wrong, at least you are in a sensible location to go back to work

5. Everyone in the country thinks downshifting means not having enough money. Only in the city could you carry it off as an attitude

HOW TO LIVE CHEAP AND CHIC IN THE CITY

1. Never buy mineral water. Blind tests prove that you can't tell the difference once the water's out of its packaging. If it's that important to you, pour tap water into old mineral water bottles

2. Don't buy new clothes until you've sorted out your wardrobe - most people buy identical clothes over and over again

3. Cultivate an eclectic group of friends - one who can get you on the guest list for clubs, another who can get you discounted books, and so on

4. Leave bread-making to the rural downshifters, who don't have any choice unless they happen to like sliced white

5. Get the shabbiest cycle possible (it won't get nicked) and laugh as you overtake the car drivers

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