Friday 29 July 2016

Adventures in simple living: "Longgrassing" in Darwin

A few weeks ago, I walked for six days on the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, sleeping in a swag at night, sometimes outside under the torch-bright full moon (which outshone the outback stars, but you can't have everything).

Simple beauty: an outback sunrise
I love having a good book to read before bedtime on trips like this. I lost myself in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (one of my favourite books) in Madagascar. Alone in a cabin in Norway, I was adrift on Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl.

On the Larapinta, I had the pleasure of meeting a book I'd never heard of, brought along by one of our guides, Chelsea. It was Longgrassing with a Laptop: The Art and Science of Homelessness by James Murray.

It's a modest book, 162 pages held together by a spiral of wire, about living simply; "longgrassing" is "sleeping rough" in the Top End. But what started as a submission to the Inquiry into Homelessness in Darwin in 2012, has evolved into one man's observations of life and how he lives, and how we all live, in short pieces and poems with a few pictures.

From the back cover
Words by James Murray
And it's beautiful. Full of delight and deep insights. There are sadnesses, honestly explored, but there's also compassion, joy and a sense of fun (e.g. chapter headings such as Longgrassing for Beginners, Extreme Longgrassing and The Longgrass School of Economics).

Running through it all is a soulfulness and contentment, and inspiration for others willing to turn their backs on the conditioned, over-regulated life to find freedom, happiness and a truer, richer way to be.

James lives on the beach, in the long grass on the dunes, in Darwin in the Northern Territory. He's in his 50s, and has been doing this for about 20 years. He has a bike, a laptop, a drum, a phone, a radio, swimming goggles and a few other essentials, but no shoes (one story in the book is called The War on Feet). He uses the showers at the university, writes in libraries. When it rains, he puts stuff in plastic bags and stands out in it ("Housed, you miss out on storms," he writes, "which are about as good as you can get."). He lives this way by choice. As he explains in the book, "I believe in peace, love and understanding, rather than economic growth."

Chelsea gave me the book at the end of the trip (so kind) and when I got home I contacted James to tell him how much I loved his work and he kindly agreed to an interview. Here's our emailed conversation in 13 questions:

Where are you from, and what brought you to Darwin? 
I was born in Melbourne and grew up in Queensland. I visited Darwin lots in the 1980s, sleeping on the beach, and I came to live (with my ex and our one-year-old) in 1994. Because my kids are here I’ve been stuck here. Darwin has its good points, but it’s very expensive and is basically a redneck wonderland, a vanguard of capitalism, of the end of the world. 

Is "longgrassing" a Darwin term? I've only heard it there. 
Yes, it seems only Darwin people use the word. The vast majority of longgrassers – there must be a few thousand at any time – are Aboriginal, who hang in small groups in the bush and foreshore regions of the Darwin sprawl, much like people have lived for 60 thousand years. I’m a whitefella, and solitary, and I rarely spend any time at my sleeping spot in the day. I get there, lie down and sleep [then] I get up at dawn and go and don’t come back ‘til sleep time.

Sleeping space
Pic by James Murray
How did you get into longgrassing? 
I grew up in a house by the beach north of Brisbane and had an affinity with the ocean, with the beach, with the oceanic bush. In the mid ‘70s, when I was 14 and 15 years old, on each full moon – religiously, I see now – I’d hitchhike 50km to Bribie Island and sleep on the beach or on the dunes by the beach. I loved it, I was comfortable and there were no problems, and it’s what I do now, every night. 

You can call it "camping", but I think of it as sleeping. I’ve travelled wildly, lived rough, bushwalked heaps. I’ve never used a tent, but am happy to sleep on the ground, having a space blanket or small tarp in case of rain.

What do you love about it? 
It liberates me from the cycle of work and consumption. I live with dignity, purpose and meaning. I enjoy the sky, the bush, the sea. I take my time. 

What are the hardest things about it? 
It’s basically very easy. My current lifestyle is highly refined. I used to worry about how my kids saw me, but now they’re both adults I think they are proud of my courage, my gumption.

Is there anything you miss about a “homed” existence? 

Can anyone longgrass? What does one need, to begin? 
Anyone can longgrass. One might need to let go of one’s upbringing.

Is it harder for women (with fears about personal safety, say)? 
Women might worry more, and have more to worry about, I guess. I’ve never had any trouble, touch wood. I sleep in a quiet dark place, but I usually have my bike with me, which is harder to hide.

A few weeks ago I woke in the middle of the night and heard two men talking a few metres from me, talking about me. I felt no threat. I pretended to be asleep and was back asleep in seconds, and don’t know how long they stayed there. A lot of people, men and women, couldn’t handle that. 

Barefoot on the beach
Pic by James Murray
What are some of the misconceptions people have about longgrassing? 
People think all longgrassers are drunks or drug addicts or mentally ill, or they think they are "disadvantaged" "victims".

What would you most like people to understand about it? 
I don’t much care what people think about longgrassing. However, the world would be a better place if they lost their misconceptions/delusions about everything, if they woke up.

What’s a typical day like for you? 
I wake at dawn, shower at the Uni. I spend my day within a couple of ks of my sleeping spot, coming and going from libraries (where I write on my laptop), and my drum (I stash it in the bush and go to it to play twice a day). I go to the shops, I walk on the beach, I swim, I have a nap, I sometimes see my kids. In the evenings, if I’m not in the library, I might be somewhere watching a DVD on my laptop, or playing chess against it.

What have you learned about what you really need, by living so simply? 
I need food and water and oxygen, and a hat because I have fair skin, and shorts in public to keep the cops happy. I need to (ahem) use the toilet. I don’t need to fit in; I don’t need to run on the hamster wheel just because everyone else is. I need to not run on the hamster wheel. I need to not salute the Queen. 

A simple book about simple living
Any tips for aspiring longgrassers? 
I’ve got one word to say to you, Kimmy: Stuff minimisation. Also, work it out for yourself. And read my book – there’s a lot in there [including these three tips for downsizing demand: make a list of all the things you want, cross them off one by one (not when you get them, when you stop wanting them) and when you've crossed off everything, make a new list and start again. Simple!].

"I upgraded my contract. Initially it had me being stupid, competitive and insecure, but I upgraded to living in the bush, beholden to no one, and laughing." ~ James Murray

Longgrassing with a Laptop: The Art and Science of Homelessness by James Murray (2015) is available for $30 including postage direct from James; email him at


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Ed, make yourself at home, subscribe, always happy to be connected to like-minded souls :-)

  2. Looks great. Good work. I'll be in touch.(this is the first time I have made a comment on the internet. Hope it works.)

    1. It works! Thanks so much, James, glad you like it, and thanks for the lovely interview. Hope it brings a few more readers to Longgrassing with a Laptop :-)

  3. I only just read this book and found it enlightening.

    It had surprisingly deep insights, mixed in with the more mundane.

    It really inspired me.
    Glad it brought something to you also.

    James has a couple of other books also, that i am trying to track down.