Minimalism

Correct!

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Minimalism 101

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This Thursday evening, at 7pm, I’ll be teaching a class in minimalism (or ‘living with less’) at Monastiraki in Montreal.

The event is part of Monastiraki’s “School PWYC” series in which people teach classes in whatever they’re enthusiastic about.

This class will explore the idea of living with very few material possessions. We’ll look at the reasons we might want to do this: to save money, to save the planet, to save our souls. We’ll discuss some hints and tips on how to live minimally, how to benefit from a minimalist hobby, and how to appreciate the bare necessities. We’ll celebrate some of the heroes of minimalism, from 19th-Century rebel printer William Morris to future-facing digital minimalists.

I also plan to sing The Galaxy Song and Bear Necessities with ukulele accompaniment. This is a first for me so come along and witness history being made.

Here’s the event page at Ye Olde Book of Faces.

I daresay I’ll have some copies of New Escapologist to sell, and I’ll be happy to hang out and chat after the event too. Come along if you’re in the area!

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Can’t get enough minimalism

A few people emailed us recently to declare a new-found enthusiasm for minimalism. Believe me when I say that if these particular individuals are excited about minimalism now, there’s hope for the whole world yet.

There often comes a point when a fringe activity becomes adopted by the mainstream; a point when a living practice is no longer seen as eccentric. Recycling is a good example. In the 80s, my family seemed fairly alone in separating our garbage into plastic, paper, glass, and organic waste. We weren’t exactly hippies, which suggests the tipping point was already on the horizon, but our activity was certainly seen as odd by our friends and neighbours. In the 90s, recycling became seen as a responsibility, but it was still fashionable to shirk it. Today, the infrastructure to support recycling is convenient and ubiquitous, and recycling has become a matter of civic pride. What do you mean you don’t recycle?

I think minimalism (or ‘Reduction’ if you remember the most rejected of ‘The Three Rs’) is in a similar place to where recycling was in the 90s: people are becoming aware of the advantages, to stop reacting so violently to the suggestion that they voluntarily curb their consumer privileges, and to appreciate the minimalist aesthetic. Tablet computing is already encouraging a post-materialist attitude in some areas of consumption, and cloud computing promotes a certain distance between you and your stuff.

I think we’re on the brink of a third wave in terms of our attitudes to stuff. The new cycle will concern itself with empty space and quietness as the new luxury goods. Why a third wave? Peak Oil: the idea that we’ve already reached the point in time when the global production of oil reached its maximum rate, after which total global production gradually declines. We have to get used to not being able to buy cheap, disposable, largely-plastic products. We have to get used to inaccessibility due to products not being so readily and cheaply shipped.

Technology will partway solve the problem. Oil can be replaced by renewable energy resources. But to really solve the problem, we have to adjust to a new relationship between humans and stuff. It’s not a greenie fantasy anymore, but a cold necessity. Out goes the cheap and disposable, in comes the expensive and durable. Out goes lots of pointless stuff, in comes maximum utility and beauty. Out goes the idea that high-tech will save everything, in comes the balance of Brave New and Brave Old Worlds.

Space and quiet will be the new luxury goods. You’ll see. Buy shares in the quiet industries.

Criticisms of minimalism

We often talk about minimalism at New Escapologist and our interest is three-fold:

– Environmental: by reducing your consumer habits, you have less impact on the natural environment.

– Financial: by consuming less, you don’t need to spend as much money. Consequentially you don’t need to work so hard at earning money.

– Aesthetic: by reducing physical possessions, you can have a cleaner, more manageable living or working space.

In our time talking about minimalism, we’ve encountered a few criticisms. Some of them are fair, some understandably verge on the hostile (understandable because minimalism asks people to curb their consumer freedom), and others are from people who’ve completely missed the point. In this post, I respond to some of the most common or most remarkable.

I have a guest post at a blog called Skool of Life. My piece responds to six real and fairly common criticisms of minimalism.

The post has also resulted in some reasonable comments, to which I am able to respond. In particular, a bloke called Andy worries that defining one’s self as a minimalist is as bad as defining yourself as a materialist. It gave me the opportunity to say this:

1. The desire to define yourself one way or another is a piece of psychological baggage a minimalist might want to jettison. Let’s not worry about defining ourselves. Self-expression is a nonsense championed by Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. It is little more than a marketing device that minimalists should proof themselves against.

2. Even if you choose to define yourself by owning a small number of things, your doing so is certainly better than defining yourself as someone who owns a large number of things. Your reluctance to consume will help the environment and help your wallet. So, while I’d advise against defining yourself in this way, it is still outwardly and empirically better than defining yourself as a materialist.

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On resistance, minimalism, workplace tedium and cottage industry

The only real difference between an Escapologist and someone who simply hates their job is that the Escapologist has begun to take deliberate measures toward actually changing things. I think most people who hate their job don’t realise that escape is an option.

From an arrogant interview I did for Andrew Williams at his new blog, Rainy Day Wonder.

An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 51. 2017 Review.

Holy Smokes, is that the time? Ja! It’s the (eighth?) annual report to my imaginary shareholders.

Though the world’s terrifying problems continue, 2017 somehow felt like a nicer year than 2016 didn’t it? Maybe it was the encouraging resistance to evil we witnessed around the globe or perhaps it was the incompetence revealed in the devils themselves. Whatever the reason, I certainly feel happier today than I did at the end of 2016. I hope you feel similarly, dear reader.

This being said, much of my year was spent negotiating the aching bullshit of The Hostile Environment. This meant my partner and me working in day jobs again — she full-time, I part-time — and largely putting our frugal, creative lives on hold. But never mind! Things, to some extent, still happened:

In January I wrote a piece about Death and Minimalism for Caitlin Doughty’s blog. It’s only a little thing but CD (as the cool kids call her) and her blog are so phenomenally popular that I still get email about it a year later.

This loudcast also nudged some nice people into my Patreosphere, a funding system that led me to write and post some six new essays (and re-edit six old ones) this year. There will be another dollop of this in 2018, so please join in and encourage a bit more Escapological writing if you can.

In February, my silly face appeared (below) in an Alan Dimmick forty-year retrospective in Edinburgh. It felt good to be welcomed into the Hall of Fame (or Rogues Gallery) that is Alan’s collection of Glasgow hepcats. And look at the essence-capturing greatness of his work — witchcraft, I tell ye.

In May we visited Northern Ireland for the wedding of Escapologists Reggie and Aislinn. It took place in a lighthouse and we were lucky enough to spend a night in this remote (and suspiciously phallic) place.

In the summer, we flew to Montreal for another wedding. It was a beautiful outdoor event and it felt good to be back in Sin City (as nobody ever calls it). There, we lounged in the sunshine, saw Houdini’s handcuffs, and helped install an art show for Andy Curlowe. I say “helped,” but my contribution was largely to eat vegan hotdogs while watching the team hang the paintings. That’s useful, right?

On returning to the UK, we popped down to “That London” to record my online course in Escapology with the Idler gang. It was a great treat to drink beer with Tom on the side of the Thames and to pootle about in his Idler world.

In the Idler magazine itself, my column continued through 2017 with another 8 installments, making this my longest-running column.

In August, I crossed the river to see some TV producers in Govan about a possible Channel 4 documentary. I quickly got the sense that the doc wasn’t going to happen, but it was fun to travel to the meeting by boat. I might move to an island — that is, an island smaller than Montreal or, indeed, Britain — just to make this happen.

Back to Belfast in September, this time for cultural tourism. Perhaps the highlight for me was the Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition where we saw this ace crab:

In October, I caught some kid’s helium balloon in my open umbrella. I also teamed up with friends for a Wicker Man ensemble at Halloween.

In November, I got a nice essay into Canadian Notes and Queries, a favourite literary journal. This was a proper bit of writing and I have no idea where I found the time and creative juice to do it. And yet, slightly flirting with Terry Fallis on Twitter was a highlight of my year.

In December, Landis and I released a second episode of The Boring Podcast, part of an objects-based collaboration that will, I think, continue next year.

At home, we celebrated Hanukkah in the traditional way — by slightly messing up the mathematically-complicated candle-lighting ceremony. On December 25th we fled the tinselworm and insulated ourselves to Christmas Radiation by walking for an hour to the nearest Odeon to see The Last Jedi.

Throughout the year, our guest room hosted friends from far and wide. There was Emily from New York, Sofia and Drew from British Columbia, Shanti from Montreal, my family from England, Landis from Chicago. When you don’t have the freedom to travel very much, why not bring others to you instead? We also cultivated some new friendships in Glasgow, perhaps especially in Louise, Graeme, and Sven (hi!).

Despite spending a year in the horror of employment, I end 2017 feeling positive and confident. I should be able to pack the day job away in February or March. I suspect I will let you know when that happens, such will be my need to rejoice.

I already know 2018 will be a big year and I’m looking forward to telling you about it as it happens. The escape plan is drafted. The lock picks are primed. Wheels are very much in motion. Bring it on.

*

As is traditional, here is my year in books. It’s a slightly shorter list than usual thanks in part to the aforementioned day job but also in part to a subscription to the eternally-great-but-famously-destructive-to-reading-capacity LRB. Lest we forget, an asterisk* denotes an out-loud read while the dagger† denotes a re-read. Parp!

Patricia Highsmith – The Boy Who Followed Ripley
Robert Sullivan – Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
Rutger Bregman – Utopia for Realists
David Nobbs – The Death of Reginald Perrin
Ryan North/Erica Henderson – The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3
Philip Roth – The Ghost Writer
Kakuzo Okakura – The Book of Tea
Simon Barnes – How to be a (bad) birdwatcher
Ann Laird – Hyndland: Edwardian Glasgow Tenement Suburb
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes*†
Nicholson Baker – How the World Works
Ben Aranovich – The Hanging Tree*
Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea
Tom Baker – Who on Earth is Tom Baker?
Nigel Williams – 2 ½ Men in a Boat
Grant Morrison & Darrick Robertson – Happy
J. G. Ballard – Concrete Island
Walter Tevis – The Man Who Fell to Earth
Quentin Bell – Bloomsbury
Quentin Crisp – The Naked Civil Servant
Georges Perec – Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
Patricia Highsmith – Ripley Under Water
Stephen King – Doctor Sleep
Ronnie Scott – Death by Design: The True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis
Janice Galloway – Jellyfish
Roald Dahl – Someone Like You
Penelope Lively – The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories
William Golding – The Pyramid
Elaine Dundy – The Dud Avocado*
Amy Licence – Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles
Katherine Mansfield – Bliss and Other Stories
Miranda Sawyer – Out of Time
Dave Simpson – The Fallen
Simon Garfield – The Wrestling
Ben Aaronovitch – The Furthest Station
Piers Anthony – Heaven Cent*
T. E. Lawrence – The Mint

Books read in substantial part but ultimately abandoned (this year, on the unusual grounds of being, simply, shit):

Greg McKeown – Essentialism
Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Paul Merton – Silent Comedy
Chris Packham – Fingers in the Sparkle Jar
Geoff Dyer – White Sands

As the year closes, I find myself reading Mary Beard’s so-so doorstep SPQR and Richard Sennett‘s soft and bulbous Together.

Being suspicious of sound waves, I never give you a year in music. To make up for this culture dearth, here’s my friend Ian, whose taste is beyond reproach.

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Begin With the End in Mind

I’ve never read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It looks too long, too managerial, and generally like something Rimmer would read.

Doubtless it’s the sort of book to contain the odd gem or an interesting way of seeing a problem, but this is an effect that leaves me feeling like a gold prospector sifting for nuggets.

(This is precisely how I felt about the famous Getting Things Done when I finally read it last year. In this instance the useful nugget was the word “trusted”).

The 7 Habits was hugely influential and contributed significantly to the tone of modern self-help so it gets mentioned a lot. When it was came up today I found myself wondering what exactly those seven (sorry, “7”) habits are exactly so I looked them up.

Aside from the annoying discovery that I’d independently come up with Covey’s abundance mentality rather belatedly, the best truth nugget lies in the second habit: “Begin with the End in Mind”.

This struck me first as a bit “well, duh” but then it hit me like a suckerpunch.

It had never occurred to me that many people (perhaps even most people?) do not “begin with the end in mind”.

Suddenly, the behavior and decisions of so many people I’ve met over the years made sense. People who binge as soon as pay day rolls around. People who think that checking themselves into wage slavery is a sustainable solution. People who hoard. People who are disorganised. Above all, people who discount the future.

You can probably see how this applies. For example, if someone in receipt of a £1,500 pay cheque had a reasonable, pragmatic, non-punishing idea of how they want their finances to look by the end of the month (e.g. all bills paid, a reasonable amount spent on fun, a minimum of £300 left over for savings) then they wouldn’t start pissing the new income so spectacularly up the wall on Day One.

In the case of being disorganised, I’d sometimes look at a spreadsheet put together by a colleague — multiple sheets scattered across a single workbook, coloured cells, bold text, complicated filters, cells formatted so that phone numbers can’t begin with a “0” — and wonder about the decisions that led to such a mess. I’d think “is this what you wanted your system to look like?” I mean, it didn’t just happen: you clicked on “bold,” you put weird formatting on those cells.

And man oh man, does this apply to minimalism. “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” is the maxim. Having nothing in one’s home except for the useful and the beautiful is the “end” one must “have in mind”. So when looking at the range of lovely products available to buy, or when given a gift or presented with the opportunity to take something for free, one needs to wonder if it contributes to or detracts from that end.

Some of us probably do this instinctively, but many, I suspect, do not. Covey writes:

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy — very busy — without being very effective. People often find themselves achieving victories that are empty, successes that have come at the expense of things they suddenly realize were far more valuable to them.

It’s sort of bizarre that people fall into this trap so often (or, if we’re being brutal, at all). It’s as though they haven’t worked out that actions have consequences (or that the desirable consequences require specific actions) and instead allow their listing autopilot to drift them into a tempest or throw themselves into performing a host of unhelpful, unrelated actions. Why?

I had an idea a few months ago that I’d quite like to live among a few leafy houseplants so that I might feel a bit more like a monkey in Rousseau painting. What I did next was visit a florist where I acquired a couple of leafy houseplants and I took them home. What I did not do was enlist in a dance class, rub my body down with a prone Cocker Spaniel, or ring up the Natural History Museum to complement them their famous sauropod skeleton. The reason I did not do these things is because they had nothing to do with my envisioned “end” of living among leafy houseplants.

If I found myself performing all of those crazy actions “in pursuit” of fulfilling my house plant ambition, I’d like to think that at some point I’d stop the madness and say “Why am I doing this?”

Which is a good question to ask oneself quite often, really.

Maybe a fault in Escapology is that it assumes people tend to function with an end in mind where, in fact, so many do not.

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Goodbye Things

We think that the more we have, the happier we will be. We never know what tomorrow might bring, so we collect and save as much as we can. This means we need a lot of money, so we gradually start judging people by how much money they have. You convince yourself that you need to make a lot of money so you don’t miss out on success. And for you to make money, you need everyone else to spend their money. And so it goes.

So I said goodbye to a lot of things, many of which I’d had for years. And yet now I live each day with a happier spirit. I feel more content now than I ever did in the past.

Is another book about minimalism strictly necessary. NO. But never mind. There’s wisdom here and the photos are nice.

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Kipple

Watching a 1994 Arena film about Philip K. Dick and — bang — they bring up kipple.

Kipple is a word invented by Dick to describe the sort of detritus that accumulates around you almost without your notice. He means things like half-burned tea lights, light bulbs which may or may not work, and nice pens for which you long ago ran out of ink. They’re there now, haunting the backs of drawers.

In case you’re wondering, this is an ever-so-slightly different sort of clutter to dark matter.

I once started an essay for New Escapologist called War On Kipple in which I’d describe the kipple problem and offer tips on how to keep kipple at bay. I ditched it because there are topics other than minimalsm to write about in Escapology, and even within minimalism kipple is a smaller problem than, say, houses and cars and storage units. It was also too easy to come across as a fascist when talking about the abolition of kipple: does purity matter, ever? Is a maniacal purge of the kipple universe necessary? Maybe there are ways of resolving these questions but this was the line of thinking that made me ditch the essay.

Kipple struck me as an odd thing to include in a documentary about Philip K. Dick in which you’ve only got an hour to play with, so maybe minimalism and entropy have a wider appeal as subjects than I thought.

So if you’re interested in kipple, here’s the discussion about it from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?:

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.

“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives out nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody here to fight the kipple.”

“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.”

“Your place, here,” he said, “this apartment you’ve picked — it’s too kipple-ized to live in. We can roll the kipple-factor back; we can do like I said, raid the other apts. But — ” He broke off.

“But what?”

Isidore said, “We can’t win.”

“Why not?” […]

“No one can win against kipple,” he said, “except temporarily and maybe in one spot, like in my apartment I’ve sort of created a stasis between the pressure of kipple and nonkipple, for the time being. But eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 48. Artists’ Colony.

We’ve moved again. Such is the life of an Escapologist. Escape is mobility.

You may remember that we returned to Scotland from Canada and, very fortunately, were able to rent a flat quite cheaply from a friend who, making her own great escape, had left her home for pastures new. “Do you want a tenant?” I asked. For over a year we enjoyed a fine Escapological economy, our rent funding a friend’s escape and her property providing us with a hassle- and paperwork-free landing pad.

Well this was always going to be temporary. We wanted a better-situated HQ and our landlady would make more money renting her flat to real people instead of her slacker pals. So two months ago we moved to Hyndland, a part of Glasgow which, Wikipedia boasts, is home to “young bourgeois bohemians including a number of noted authors, poets, actors and footballers.”

I don’t know if I’d describe a footballer as a bourgeois bohemian (I suspect this is the result of two edits, footballers being tacked on by someone, perhaps a Hyndland estate agent, who doesn’t know what is meant by bourgeois bohemia) but you get the idea.

It’s quite posh in a tumble-down, half-reclaimed-by-nature sort of way and our neighbours all seem to be couples who, despite low incomes, won’t tolerate discomfort and ugliness. Suits us.

Almost as soon as we moved in, friend Landis came over from Chicago to live in our spare room for a couple of months. It’s been like having a pet artist. He sits at his drafting table all day long, feverishly cross-hatching and coming out, bleary-eyed, for a snack every full moon or so.

It’s been great having Landis over and our home has felt like a little artists’ colony, with he and Samara drawing and me writing at my laptop and something spicy simmering away on the kitchen stove. Not bad. Every now and then we get together and ad-lib a little project like this podcast about notebooks. We look like this:

When we moved in, all we owned was eight boxes of books and clothes, and three small pieces of furniture: even less than in our last move. The flat was unfurnished, so we had to place orders at Ikea and spend some time mooning around in thrift shops. This is all fairly contrary to my nature, so I’ve tried to see it as a creative venture — making something — rather than simply an acquisitive one.

We’ve been guided by minimalism — Is this thing necessary? How few bookshelves can we get away with? Shall we jettison these? — in an act of what in fact is a considerable expansion to our total mass.

This is a good lesson. Even in acquisition (especially in acquisition) be guided by minimalism. Also, “minimal” is relative to your needs. Just don’t kid yourself about your “needs”.

Having Landis over has been helpful in these early weeks, as he’s been able to help build our flatpacks. In fact, the whole move as been a barn-raising exercise with friends coming over to help with bits and bobs. This is nice not just in that it makes the process easier — many hands, light work — but also in that it imbues a corner of the flat with a memory. The bathroom door is now the door Alan sanded down for us. The futon is the futon Neil helped us to build. The sofa was put together by Peter and Sam. etc.

In other news, the Patreon campaign is going fairly well but perhaps not as well as I’d hoped. I think we’ll be okay but I do need more people on board. Dig deep, if you can, and subscribe to the new essay series for as little as £1.

A funny postcard arrives in the mail this morning from Sam’s parents in Canada, depicting scenes of toque-hatted Montrealers trudging through the grey slush and snowmobiles ploughing through the streets. I am so glad to be in Glasgow right now! But bless you, Canada.

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