Bella Figura

With chapter headings like “how to eat and not put on weight” and “how to celebrate being a woman,” it’s probably fair to say I’m not the target audience for Kamin Mohammadi’s Bella Figura but I liked it anyway. So what?

I enjoyed Kamin’s story of escape from a high-pressure London job as a fashion magazine editor and into the inexpensive good life of Florence, Italy.

It’s full of remarks about indulging in colour and taste and sensation; tactile, mammalian experiences. She successfully bottles the sense familiar to Escapologists of the anxieties (I would add exhilarations) of setting out anew, the going back-and-forth on whether escape is a sensible idea or not.

Here’s a passage concerning the first days of her escape:

I had no idea how long my redundancy money would last. With no savings and a mountain of credit cards that needed paying off, I took the irresponsible (according to my mother) decision to use the money to come to Florence instead of sinking it into my debts and starting again with another job. I had calculated that I could make it last a few months if I lived carefully, perhaps a whole year if I lived very frugally. It would be a challenge — my salary had regularly petered out before I reached the end of the month, spent at first on the designer labels my job demanded, and then on expensive diet plans, personal trainers and sessions with health gurus. I had no firm plans for Florence; the agreement with [my host] had been for me to stay for the winter and then we would see. I had bought a small notebook in which to assiduously write down every penny I spent, determined to get a grip on the art of budgeting while I was here. But anger and bitterness raged inside me alongside defeat and self-pity, the voice in my head repeatedly telling me I had achieved nothing and would now fail too at being a writer.

Target audience or not, I relate to every word of that.

Well, except for the fear of failing as a writer. That’s ridiculous.

Note the part about how a salary is too often be gobbled up by job-related expenses. Even without the need to wear high-fashion brands and the likes, there’s always train and taxi fares, lunches, drinks after work, the cost of cheer-yourself-up gifts that come from work-related unhappiness. A job can be expensive when one is not vigilant. Luckily, Kamin’s easy technique of recording expenses in a notebook saves the day every time.

A Redundancy-funded escape to Florence is seldom a bad plan. You can always come back.

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Chips With Everything

Thanks to long-time reader Percival for drawing our attention to this story. At last! Workers are being chipped! Just what the world needs!

The TUC is worried that staff could be coerced into being microchipped. Its general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “We know workers are already concerned that some employers are using tech to control and micromanage, whittling away their staff’s right to privacy.

“Microchipping would give bosses even more power and control over their workers. There are obvious risks involved, and employers must not brush them aside, or pressure staff into being chipped.”

Given the invasive forms of control already deployed in some workplaces, I can see a lot of people accepting this as inevitable.

It barely surprises us that some workers have already been chipped does it? Isn’t that weird?

“Hey, have you heard they’re putting chips in people now?”

“Yeah, that figures.”

I wonder how an employer could convince themselves that this is okay. You might be able to Bad Faith yourself into believing you’re a force for good in the world by employing people [on minimum wage], but it must be hard to keep the old self delusion going when you’re signing off on putting chips in people. Oh wait, I know how:

“It’s just the way things are going,” they’ll say, “All the new light switches and vending machines need us to have chips.”

That really is what they’ll say isn’t it? It won’t be any one person’s fault that we’re suddenly sitting around with our colleagues in the office canteen waiting to have a chip put in. It’ll feel like the day we all got ‘flu jabs, except now we’re having chips put in so that we can enjoy the privilege of opening doors without the incapacitating gas being released. It won’t be anyone’s fault. It’ll just be the new way.

Hey, you want to be able to switch the lights on don’t you?

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Millennials Throw in the Towel

The traditional concept of employment is the latest thing that the ever-contrarian millennial generation is reinventing. They’re quitting their jobs, without worrying about what they’ll do next. According to a 2018 Millennial Survey by Deloitte, 43 percent of millennials expect to leave their job within two years.

Reader Antonia sends me an article from the New York Post that describing the decisions of young people who have given up their stressful, lucrative jobs in favour of travel and generally idle loveliness.

“Nothing was wrong with the job – it was a great company, good money, six figures. I was 26 and I said, ‘Why am I going to spend my 20s sitting at a desk?'” says Mason, now 29. “We’re waiting for retirement at 67, and they keep bumping it up — who knows what age it will be for me — 70s? I thought it was foolish not to [leave].”

There’s lots of the usual inspiring material about how their good but stressful and sedentary jobs were getting them down before they decided to downsize, quit, sell up and travel. But there’s also some useful-to-read reality checks about the anxiety that can come when you quit with no plan in mind.

“I was at the point of, like, stay and wish I was dead — or leave and be full of anxiety. But at least have some sort of hope that change was a-brewing,” says Jessica.

As you know, I believe you can quit with scant planning if you’re willing to throw caution to the wind and you want an adventure, but it certainly helps to build an escape fund first and make yourself re-employable should you ever need to come back to the grind.

The article is refreshingly full of young Escapologist types and it’s worth a read if you’re having a bad time at an office desk somewhere and need a little push.

“The future is unknown and sometimes that feels scary in the West,” she muses. But “life is so short, and the world is so big … living an alternative life is possible — our narrow version of success is just that: narrow.”

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Almost Nearly Perfect

Since my last post, a few people have recommended The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth as a more even-handed, less Evangelical insight into Danish life.

I’m enjoying the book very much (Booth’s writing style in particular) and I recommend it to anyone else who happens to be belatedly obsessed with the chilled-out, asethetically superior Scandinavian lifestyle. Strangely though, the evidence of downsides to Scandie living is not entirely persuasive. When a fact emerges about how things aren’t as peachy as a visitor might think, I’m left thinking, “well, it’s still better than here and certainly better than America.”

The biggest thing people have pointed out to me is that non-workers in Denmark are somewhat socially shunned as freeloaders, which is hardly compatible with our Escapological ideals, but the fact remains that as a nation they don’t actually work a whole lot. If one has a job, it is swiss-cheese porous with holidays and early finishes and workplace socials. The work-life balance seems to be in check. If work was pleasant and undemanding, one might not want to escape it so badly. And if one still wants out and is afraid of ostracisation, you could just tell everyone that you’re self-employed.

I am yet to find the “dark energy source” I mused about in that last post (unless of course it’s all the pork consumption) and while there are certainly downsides to living Danishly, my general positive impression of Copenhagen as an egalitarian, relatively classless, cosmopolitan society remains intact. I do, of course, treat that positive impression with a pinch of salt. As Booth puts it:

I can see, though, why foreign visitors might think Denmark is classless, particularly if their impressions are gathered from a long weekend in Copenhagen or a few episodes of Borgen, but travel more widely in the country, or spend some time learning the signifiers of Denmark’s social classes, and the strata become all too clear.

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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 53. Copenhagen.

We’ve returned from a few days in Copenhagen, which seems to be a sort of Utopia.

There’s not much need for Escapology there. Work is apparently pleasant and minimal. The State seems to look after people instead of oppress and frustrate them. The culture seems liberal, expansive and geared toward trust, leisure and happiness.

The official working week in Denmark is 37 hours, already one of the shortest in Europe. But calculations from Statistic Denmark suggest that Danes actually work an average of just 34 hours a week. Employees are entitles to five weeks’ paid holiday a year, as well as thirteen days off for public holidays. This means that Danes actually only work an average of 18.5 days a month.

I’m now trying to make sense of what we saw by reading The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. I remember that this book was very popular a couple of years ago. Yes, I’m aware that I’m late to the Hygge party.

Russell’s book is well-researched and entertaining so I’m scattering some choice quotes from it alongside my subjective observations and boring holiday snaps in this here diary entry.

It seems that one of their solutions to the good life is to let the State handle all of the stuff at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid so that the people can get on with the self-actualising. Most Danes pay something like 37% income tax and a fairly steep VAT (consumption tax). It works. Remember (from New Escapologist Issue 3) that accumulated personal wealth beyond an income of £22,000 per year brings no further happiness, so why not give it up to benefit the whole?

They have an obscenely good quality of life. Yes, it’s expensive here. But it’s Denmark — it’s worth it. I don’t mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means that the person serving me doesn’t a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes

In Copenhagen, everyone seems to ride around on bicycles, looking extremely stylish — often with a carefree cigarette hanging out of one side of the face.

biking is practically a religion here, no matter what your age or your occupation. Denmark is covered with over 7,500 miles of bike paths and Danes will cycle come rain or come hail. The government recently introduced their ‘National Cycling Strategy’ to get even more Danes on their bike. Danes are so bike-obsessed that you can even opt for a tricycle hearse to end the cycle of life. Half of all commuters in Copenhagen go to work by bike and Forbes magazine recently reported that cyclists save the city £20 million a year in avoided air pollution, accidents and congestion.

A few friends who had been there already said we’d “get bored of leggy blondes” and while the British eye will boggle at so many flaxen Nordic giraffes, it’s important to mention that Copenhagen doesn’t feel tediously white. I was surprised and delighted by the African and Middle Eastern influences. Headscarves and good food abound.

To be honest, by picking up The Year of Living Danishly, I was looking for downsides because it doesn’t seem very sophisticated to go around thinking that “everything is better in Denmark,” but while a few downsides are mentioned in the book (most of which are to some degree understandable), they’re not exactly the dark energy source I was looking for.

I’d been bracing myself to find a burbling battery of racism powering the nation or that they all worship an underground slug or something. But nope. I think it’s just a good place to live.

Once they’ve had children, 78 per cent of Danish mothers return to work. This is because childcare is subsidized by the government and the famed work-life balance of Danish workplaces makes it easier to balance career and family life here than it would be elsewhere. What has traditionally been defined as ‘women’s work’ is valued as highly as traditionally-defined ‘men’s work’ here — and both sexes do a bit of each.

On the street, the high quality of life is evident. In Darren McGarvey’s book, he describes what it was like to visit the affluent West End of Glasgow for the first time, having come from the rough-and-tough suburb of Pollock. He reports marveling at how violence didn’t seem to hang in the air and people seemed relaxed until he walked by in his tracksuit. Well, I live in the affluent West End of Glasgow and this was my equivalent; I was similarly taken aback by the palpable sense of collective happiness, satisfaction and pride.

We explored the city quite intensively during our limited time and my favourite place to spend time in was probably the Design Museum, which is where I was able to look at the endless loveliness of Danish design. Samara described me as being “in a froth” by the end of it, but I felt like I’d been through some wonderful therapy.

Make your environment as beautiful as you can. Danes do, and it engenders a respect for design, art and their everyday surroundings. Remember the broken window syndrome, where places that look uncared for just get worse? The reverse also applies.

Anyway, that’s enough blowing smoke up Denmark’s bottom. It’s a good place to live. But don’t move there please, as I think the small (5.5m) population is part of the key to their success. Instead, let’s import some of their ideas for living.(There’s a “top ten tips for living Danishly” in the back of the book, which are actually quite similar to New Escapologist‘s own Things of Value).

I thought I was doing all the right things to get to this point in my [London] life — working hard to be succesful and trying to please everyone. But I never seemed to succeed nearly enough to make all the effort worthwhile. I felt tired, hungry (often literally) and ephemeral, blown about by the currents of whatever was going on around me. But now I feel safe, secure and solid.

★That really good photo at the top of this post? I didn’t take that one. That’s the work of AJ.

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Escape and Personal Responsibility

Is an issue as important as our immediate wellbeing something we can really afford to postpone until the government figures it out?

I’ve just finished reading Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey (aka, Loki the Scottish Rapper). It’s good.

McGarvey shows us how poverty is a hostile environment from which it’s difficult but not impossible to escape. Escape, he says, lies in community engagement and personal responsibility.

He explains that personal responsibility is difficult when you live in poverty. The stress and lack of headspace that come with poverty serve to perpetuate your problems (which could include addiction, malnutrition, emotional problems, domestic abuse) so it’s difficult to gather escape velocity or even to recognize that such a thing might exist. Violence breeds violence, a fact tried and tested in Glasgow where I live and where McGarvey grew up.

He also explains that personal responsibility is “taboo” on the left. We’re supposed to think about systemic, not individualist, solutions. As you probably know, the scale and complexity of this challenge is alienating to the strongest and freest of us let alone those trying to escape poverty. (McGarvey’s acknowledgement and exploration of this issue did not stop a finger-wagging reviewer from making the standard charges against him in the LRB, which was ironically what prompted me to read this book).

He writes:

Eradicating poverty would require a global political consensus of the sort we have never seen. One day it will happen, but it’s not going to be today. Or tomorrow. […] This is not a submission; this is to acknowledge the complexity of the matter.

and:

Aspiring to take responsibility is not about giving an unjust system a free pass; it’s about recognising that we are part of that system and are, on some level, complicit in the dysfunction.

and crucially:

By encouraging people to believe that their immediate problems are beyond their own expertise, the very agency poverty deprives them of is denied.

I tried to explain in my own book that accepting personal responsibility for your escape does not make you a bad leftie. If you read my book and sense hesitation in my voice, it’s because I’m all too aware that I’m middle-class (albeit a recent arrival) and concerned that to champion personal responsibility might overlook the challenges — largely not experienced by me — of those in poverty. What McGarvey gives us now is the same sort of suggestion but from the working-class, poverty-experienced perspective. Thank Christ. This is part of what makes the book so good and so worthy of its winning this year’s Orwell Prize. Read it and weep.

You don’t need an agency or a charity to parachute in and tell you what to do. It doesn’t cost a penny and you can begin right away.

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Big Willy’s Style

Ah! Useful Work versus Useless Toil by William Morris. We must have mentioned this essay here before, no?

I decided to read a few lines from this sacred text this afternoon and found myself hooked and reading on and on.

I even wondered idly if I shouldn’t self-publish a gorgeously typeset annotated edition with my own comments and research and jokes in the margins. Yes, I shall whack it on the “Someday Maybe” list. Expect it in a decade or so.

Just look at the opening paragraph:

The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it – he is “employed,” as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only “industrious” enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour. In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself – a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them not to take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

Straight to the point and with such lovely, lovely, snark.

If you, like I, are sucked in by that, you can read the whole essay online, get it from your local library, or buy the pretty Penguin edition.

Sorry about Morris’ constant use of “man” and “men” to mean “people” or “humanity”.

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Yanis

I’ve just turned the last page of Talking to My Daughter About the Economy by Yanis Varouvakis.

I’ve long admired Yanis and he’s good authorial company in this book but I ultimately found it a bit thin, especially when compared to other popular books with similar remits (Filthy Lucre by Joseph Heath being my fave).

I have a special dislike of the Guns, Germs and Steel narrative of history and I think it has influenced Yanis’ writing for the worse. I don’t see how anyone can believe in the inevitability of geographic determinism while also being an activist with “resistance is never futile” as a personal motto. Sorry Yanis. I still love you.

Anyway, Yanis does have a certain Escapological sensibility that I thought I’d share with you all today. Towards the end of the book (shortly after a sub-chapter called “Escape Hatch,” oddly enough) he writes:

Something that angers and terrifies me more than almost anything else is the thought of being the plaything of forces and people of which I am oblivious.

and

The worst slavery is that of heavily indoctrinated happy morons who adore their chains and cannot wait to thank their masters for the joy of their subservience.

I just wish he’d more successfully squared this libertarian streak with the broader socialist/democratic moral of the book. That is the challenge for intellectual Escapologists.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 52: Bank Holiday

It’s an extremely sunny bank holiday here in Scotland.

There was a nice vibe on the street this morning. “Gosh, this is alright,” I thought, “We’ve not done such a bad job of building a world.” Yes, the fine weather had a lot to do with this mood but it wasn’t only that. It was the sense of quiet industry and the leisurely getting about. I felt, unusually, that I could relate to the people I saw. They weren’t rushing everywhere. They were scrubbing steps, cycling, putting out sandwich boards, walking with a light jacket slung over one shoulder, arranging things in windows.

You’d expect a bank holiday morning to be quiet and it was, but it was hardly devoid of activity. The shops — small business and supermarket chains alike — all seemed to be open, their keepers and shelf stackers setting up as usual. Even our local Post Office was open for business, though the actual deliveries I believe have stopped until Tuesday. There were still a few white-collar commuters about (Britain’s largest employer, the NHS, does not close for bank holidays) but a far smaller number of cars than usual. This made a huge difference; it meant fewer decibels, noticeably cleaner air, less hostility and impatience, and opportunities to cross the roads in a leisurely manner instead of waiting for a light to change or for a gap in the traffic. It struck me as a pretty good pace of life and I wished it could always be this way. Things hadn’t ground to a halt but it wasn’t stupidly busy either, no harried faces, no sense of dread.

I mention this to say that a slower pace of life doesn’t mean an end to industry, an end to meaning, an end to money-making or getting from one place to another. It just means balance. It means enough people sleeping ’til 10 and having leisurely breakfasts and enough people keeping the world running. Why, we could take it in shifts! It would mean less pollution and fewer heads exploding with stress and anxiety. Wouldn’t that be good?

The art gallery my wife works for is open. The florist I pass each morning is open, as is the library. The pubs and restaurants soon will be. The universities are open. Public transit is running, albeit to a limited timetable. The Deliveroo fleet will be out and pedalling this evening.

So if all of these useful people are on duty as usual (and various street markets and the likes are opening especially for the bank holiday) why are the streets so quiet? Who exactly is off work and off the roads and in their beds? Could it be the bankers? Well, yes, it’s a bank holiday. But that can’t be so many people. The major international bank I use has only one branch (let’s generously assume 40 employees) and will surely be automated out of existence soon. So who are these people with a day off today and another on Monday?

Oh, it’s the people with bullshit jobs! The ones in jobs which aren’t really needed at all and which, in fact lead to the harried faces and the grief and the fumes and the rat-like scurrying!

The Skypark, I noticed, stands empty today. Ten or so stories of glassy desolation.

A bank holiday morning, dare I say, is a good real-time, 3D visualisation of how the world, perhaps post-UBI, could look without bullshit jobs. Cleaner, calmer, more leisurely and at peace.

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I Have Wasted My Life

Thanks to reader Brian for sending us this article from the Paris Review concerning the virtues of slowness and solitude. It contains among other things a playful analysis of a 1961 poem, “Lying in a Hammock,” by James Wright:

Over my head I see the bronze butterfly
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine, behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up like golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

Patricia Hampl, the article’s author, sees the final line as a celebration of “waste” (i.e. the glory of doing nothing) but for some reason my first reading was that it decried waste (i.e. the waste of being busy, of not enjoying life). Isn’t that interesting?

The article is worth a read and Ms. Hampl’s book, The Art of the Wasted Day, promises to be rather splendid too.

Sigh. I miss my hammock.

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