Rise Above the Noise
On a fine Spring day last year, I rode my bicycle from the city centre of Newcastle out into the countryside. I had intended to stop in Gosforth for an appointment and then head home but when I got to Gosforth a strange impulse came over me. What if I just kept going? Tall buildings and traffic jams had already given way to suburbia. Perhaps that too would give way to open fields and empty roads. So I continued north.
It didn’t take long, perhaps forty-five minutes. Newcastle is a compact city after all. One minute I was cycling through a place called Hazlerigg, housing estates and chippies and a Post Office lining the street, and then it just, sort of, ended. Either side were grassy meadows. A herd of cows could be seen lazing in the sun. There were no cars and the silence was broken only by birdsong. I stopped to look around, slightly dazed, as if I’d been flung out of a dark room into the light. A cow mooed in my direction. “Well, I made it,” I thought to myself. And with that I turned around and headed back into the city.
This was the first of many jaunts on my bicycle to escape the big smoke. I plotted a fifteen mile loop that took me past that same herd of cows and beyond, into villages like Dinnington and Horton Grange. Of course, this was a superficial escape. The city never entirely lost its grip on me and blotches on the landscape, like Newcastle Airport, were deceptively close. Nonetheless, it felt like a small victory to see a glimpse of proper countryside, to breath clean air and smell fresh manure. That’s the stuff. And all under my own steam.
I’m now living in Manchester and such literal breakouts aren’t so easy on a bicycle thanks to the city’s sprawling nature. No bother. A more whimsical, figurative form of escape has filled the void. Allow me to explain.
The most common route I cycle is from my home in South Manchester to the city centre. It’s a five mile pedal along one flat road, which has thankfully been equipped with a segregated bike lane. There are still a few sections where one is forced to tangle with buses and cars but it’s an otherwise pleasant ride.
It takes me along Withington High Street where charity shops and estate agents mingle with hipster cafés. Next comes the nostalgic student bubble of Fallowfield. Endless fried chicken outlets and kebab shops somehow survive on the same stretch of road and students mill around in strange clothes, smoking cigarettes and generally making me cringe at the thought of once being a student too.
A brief moment of calm follows as I pedal alongside Platt Fields Park and then the madness that is the Curry Mile begins. It’s a remarkable stretch of road. About seventy restaurants, all serving an array of Asian food, are packed onto a narrow high street, emitting such a dazzling combination of smells as to make any passing cyclist a tad light-headed. Conversation flows through the crowded pavements in loud bursts, fresh vegetables tumble out of world-food supermarkets, and the constant stream of buses and honking cars add another layer of noise to this enthralling place. It really is like you’ve been plonked into the heart of a throbbing South Asian city.
I love this section of my commute. It’s hectic and exciting and the openness of a bicycle allows for true immersion in my surroundings. What’s more, with a delicate surge of speed I’m able to glide through the commotion on a higher plane. This is the new type of freedom I was alluding to – cycling down a busy street requires focus, especially if you pick up the pace, and you become blinkered. The city recedes to a pleasant background hum as you dodge stray pedestrians and murky puddles. Wind whips, blood quickens, the eyes smile. Chaos is washed away by riding right through the middle of it. And not a stitch of lycra is required.
After the anarchy of the Curry Mile I’m plunged back into student life. Cheerful undergraduates stroll to their next lecture and ever-present campaigners hand out leaflets on illegal wars and the sins of capitalism. By this point only buses and taxis are free to use the roads and there’s a tangible ebb in the tyranny of traffic. Not quite like emerging into Northumberland’s countryside, but it’s still a chance to catch my breath as the city centre looms large.
I’m nearly at the Central Library now. Bike lanes have dissolved into bus lanes, construction work presses in from both sides, trams snake through the streets. It doesn’t matter though. As long as I’m on my bicycle it’s easy to rise above the noise and pedal away.
I like your writing. I came across your column about “the Hot New Thing” in the Idler which prompted me to get your books Escape Everything! and A Loose Egg, while also subscribing to your newsletter.
I’m only 10% in to your Escape book, which is hilarious and I literally laugh out loud when reading it on the tube (a good reason to have a long commute), however I have come across a major flaw in your argument, which if you forgive me I would like to relay to you.
If we all became idlers and escapees, who would do the absolutely essential jobs that no one wants to do, like street cleaning, rubbish collecting, sewage clearing, etc.?
Surely the economic system we live under has facilitated wage slavery for this very reason – someone has to do the dirty work. The only way to reserve some people for pawn-like functions while others enjoy their kingly status is to set up an unequal, hierarchical system that keeps the poor out of pocket so that their only choice is to collect your black bin liner once a week.
I get that your writing is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, silly, and quite often ridiculous, but unfortunately it doesn’t come across as economically viable. I hope one of your later chapters will rectify this though.
Have a good day and I look forward to reading more of your witty passages.
D., a fan
Hi D. Thanks so much for buying my books. I can just about live on the strength of my book sales but I’m still in a position where every book counts, so I hugely appreciate it. Thank you. I’m glad you like the Idler column too – more of those to come!
I think I come some way to answering your question later in the book (the epilogue is literally and directly about “what if everyone was an escapologist?” – I think that might even be the title), though I appreciate that I may not have handled it fully and that the shortcoming you have detected probably remains a valid criticism of the book. Hold tight though and finish the book to see what you think. In brief:
– The sort of jobs I really take aim at are “bullshit jobs,” i.e. white collar, boring jobs that either make no difference to world or actively harm it. Toilet cleaning and the likes can be said to be “shit jobs” but hardly useless, so they don’t really attract my ire. David Graeber makes this important distinction in his brand new Bullshit Jobs book, which actually serves as a nice (if belated) preface to Escape Everything! and the sort of thing Tom writes about in the Idler.
– The “who would sweep the streets and do other sorts of dirty work” question is, I’m afraid, very common. There are ideas about automating it in various ways (not necessarily in high-tech ways but in upstreaming the problem, etc.), but you’re right that the work has to be done for now. It should also be better paid than it is, which is something social activists are working on (here in Scotland they’re doing quite well too – the living wage campaign is quite a success and should continue this way). If my writing enterprise should fail, incidentally, my plan is to become a street sweeper. I’m serious! I refuse go back to shovelling bullshit in an office. My wife has already quit her own bullshit job to become a funeral arranger.
– The idea of things being “economically viable” (i.e. making sure the economy stays strong) is a problem. I hold that the economy is a tool to make life better and more effective for us humans. It serves us, we do not serve it. So it doesn’t matter if growth decelerates a little. It might even be a good thing when overwork and environmental problems are taken into account. Might even be the moment all those anticapitalists have been agitating for. I think I probably do a better job of handling this sort of discussion in my NEXT book. It’s tentatively titled The Good Life for Wage Slaves: How to live beautifully as a white-collar drudge.
Sincere thanks again for buying my nonsense and also for writing to me. Lovely, lovely. All the best.
Friend Drew sends some pages from his copy of The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson, a two-volume book I’ve occasionally drooled over but is quite expensive. He wanted to show me the Houdini cartoon (above) but also the work-related commentary that comes with it.
Larson unpacks a question often asked of him: how long does it take you to draw a cartoon?
It’s a bit like the usual “what do you do?” icebreaker but it probably happens during the struggle to accept the sublime answer of “I’m a cartoonist!” (Incidentally, I recommend you give this answer too, even if you happen to be something more in line with the times.)
Anyway, how long does it take you to draw a cartoon?
I’ve suspected an ulterior motive from some people who ask me this question. I think they want to check to see if I’m really working. In other words, is cartooning a real job? If that’s the hidden question, the answer is easy — no, it’s not a real job.
But I’m working on an additional theory: that this kind of question is an outgrowth of American culture. We just seem to want to quantify everything.
How long did it take for me to draw an average cartoon? I can’t compute that with any real certainty. First of all, I enjoyed what I did. And when you enjoy something, time is a disconnect.
There’s also a critical part of the equation which has nothing to do with the physical execution of the cartoon, and that’s the time invested in just sitting, staring and thinking. And it’s difficult to know if you’re not, in truth, just doing the first two.
There’s more to Larson’s point than these exportable nuggets but it’s too long to reproduce here.
I think Drew also sent me this commentary because it provides an insight into the brainwaves of a fellow obsessive-compulsive humorist:
If [Houdini’s skull is] too gruesome it doesn’t work. If it’s too corny it doesn’t work. [It] has to simultaneously capture silliness and scariness, horror and hilarity, sadness and stupidity. For me this meant draw, erase, draw, erase, draw, erase … for hours. I couldn’t get it, although I think in the end I got sort of close. (I now see that the head should have been tilted forward just a little, dammit.)
Ah, shit, I’ve got to buy this book haven’t I? Someone do me a favour and buy a couple of PDF bundles from the shop, quick!