From Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles (1968):
ESCAPEE GETS JAIL FOR LIFE. One sighs, of course–I mean, surely this man was (if anything) an escaper. The escapee was the governor of the jail.
[Lock picking is] definitely a good skill, requiring sensitivity and patience, as Philippe Petit revealed during his Film Lessons presentation, when he showed how to pick a pin tumbler lock and escape from hand-cuffs.
I recently munched my way through A Guide for the Perplexed by renegade filmmaker Werner Herzog. It’s an offputtingly humongous book, but it’s really a big slice of delicious cake. It’s essentially an autobiography, spoken aloud by Herzog in response to questions put to him by a loyal biographer.
The book is useful for Escapologists in that Herzog shows how you have the chance (even a responsibility) to GET ON WITH IT, whatever IT might be to you. He says we should ignore the nay-sayers, the ditherers, the pen-pushers and those who advise too much caution. You have one life. One life to enjoy the world and to make a contribution. Don’t let the pin-heads and the knuckle-draggers stand in your way!
The title, Guide to the Perplexed, refers to older books by George Perec and the ancient Jewish philosopher Maimonides, both of whom wrote tomes of approximately the same name. The title also offers to shine some light on the divine madness of the man who made Fitzcaraldo (which indeed the book does) and serves as an irregular self-help book. You really do go away from it feeling better, wired and armored and ready to take on the world again.
With regards to the lock picking, Herzog really does practice it. For him, it’s not a metaphor like it is here at New Escapologist. He sees it as a vital skill for creative people and he teaches it in his “Rogue’s Film School.” In the book, Herzog describes how he has lock-picked gates and doors to let him into shooting locations rather than wasting his filming time seeking out some power-tripping facilities manager with a key. He says:
When the system doesn’t respond, when it doesn’t accept what you’re doing–and most of the time it won’t–you have to become self-reliant and create your own system. There will always be periods of solitude and loneliness, but you must have the courage to follow your own path. Cleverness on the terrain is the most important trait as a filmmaker.
At his aforementioned Rogue’s Film School (where he doesn’t teach any actual filmmaking, choosing instead to hone character and fortitude in his students rather than dwell on technicalities) he gets his students to “read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the Internet or watch too much television will lose it.”
If I taught a School for Escapologists, I would say precisely the same thing. And if I offered a reading list to my students, I reckon Herr Herzog’s monster of a tome would be on it. It’s a truly exciting guide to living on your wits. A true hero of creativity and Escapology if ever there was one. He will barely even acknowledge The Trap. He just gets on with what he wants to do.
Philippe Petit was a man who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
The documentary about this crazy caper, Man on Wire, is breathtaking. The real fun was perhaps not in the walk itself but in his painstaking preparation and his hoodwinking of so many people to actually get away with it.
I wrote about this some hundred years ago in New Escapologist Issue Four:
In 1974, French high-wire artist Philippe Petit walked a wire between the towers of the World Trade Centre. The wire walk was entirely unsanctioned. To complete the feat, Philippe and Co had to secure confederates in both towers, to navigate WTC security systems, and to find a way of setting up the wire without being detected. The operation was executed with the poise, preparation and secrecy of a heist.
The documentary, Man on Wire, contains a scene (a recreation) in which Petit must hide beneath a tarpaulin for what must have seemed like hours while a security guard ate his lunch only feet away. The thrill of the operation was not the high-wire walk itself but the exhilarating sense of pulling the wool over authority’s eyes and doing something unsanctioned.
It’s the thrill of graffiti, of crop circles, of hacking, of illegal raves. There is a brilliant piece of archive footage of an NYPD officer looking up at Petit’s wire in disbelief: mission accomplished.
This is the programme on which Herzog seems to run. Astonish them if you must. Ask forgiveness, not permission. Get on with it.
20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton is a missing link of sorts between the social comedies of H. G. Wells (Kipps, The History of Mr Polly) and Orwell’s stories of creatively-inclined working stiffs (Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming up for Air). I really enjoyed it. If you’ve not read Patrick Hamilton before, I’d recommend his Hangover Square first but 20,000 Streets is rather smashing as well.
It’s a “plight of the working class” kind of book, stylishly told and with a dash of dark humour. It’s a trilogy of novels in which the three central characters’ strands interact and intertwine.
Each character has eyed the potential for escape (a sum of promised money, the support of resourceful people) and each escape is gradually undermined or foiled. It’s humorous but very much on the side of the working class; the pathos of what Hamilton once or twice refers to as “social destiny.”
Towards the end, there’s a moment in which Hamilton talks about “wage-slaves” (the hyphen is his) in a more analytical tone than elsewhere in the book. The analysis has been present all the way through, but by the end he really goes for it and speaks more directly to us through the page.
One of our three characters, a barmaid called Ella, reports to a posh house in Chiswick after hearing there might be a job for her as a nanny. It’s still a job but it’s well paid and she’s always wanted to work with children; it would also take her to India, which she finds exciting. She sees the prospect as an escape. First though, she must get to the interview:
It is in nearly all cases impossible for servants, or wage-slaves of any kind, to seek happier conditions free of charge, and the heavy tax of eightpence (fourpence there and back) was exacted by the Underground railway on her way to N. W. 3.
I’ve had similar experiences of fury. When you don’t have a lot of money, it really stings to invest some of it in simply having a chance at finding work. Which, of course, you don’t really want anyway.
When she finds the house of her prospective employers, she is almost too frightened to go in:
She found Number Five but was now in such a state of fright that she had to walk on a little way to collect herself–an affliction of the nerves common to wage-slaves, with only their labour power to sell, and the consciousness and their insignificance and powerlessness before their aloof and comfortable masters.
And when she rings the bell, a maid comes to the door. A house maid, one might imagine, would share a sense of solidarity with a barmaid but instead she is suspicious of Ella’s presence on the doorstep:
Hidden rivalry and circumspection, rather than fellow-feeling, most often exists between wage-slaves such as these, possibly because their sensitiveness to the dangerous surplus of willing wage-slaves on the market, and possibly because certain fortunate wage-slaves come to acquire some of the aloof and clannish airs of their lords above.
The interview doesn’t go very well. In fact, the lady of the house is more interested in the antics of her dog (“Bustah! Bustah! Get down, Bustah!”) than taking the opportunity that had been dangled before Ella in any way seriously.
It is a book of great insight, I think, into the life of wage slaves. To the library! You know, when they reopen next month.