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.
There’s been loads of media this past twelve months about working from home (or the inexplicably sick-making acronym, WFH) and what it means for “the future of work.”
There’s so much of this material being generated and it’s always so wildly implausible or willing to commit to a specific vision of the future that I don’t usually bother mentioning it here even when I see it.
This piece in the Guardian isn’t half bad though. It recognises the usual challenges and benefits of working from home but alights on a sensible middle-ground:
[a senior investment banker says her] ideal scenario would be to meet her team of six just once a month in the office, and she would not be afraid to challenge bosses if they asked for more. “Why would we need to do that,” she said, “with everything that we’ve proved over the past year in terms of how we’re able to conduct our business, and do it much quicker?”
More than half (53%) of workers said they would prefer a hybrid model in future, splitting their time equally between their desk and a remote location.
I see this as one of the big answers for making white-collar workplaces less appalling. Why not have a small office with a meeting room and a couple of quiet work booths for when people really do need to get together or to get away from home, and just let everyone else work from home (or wherever else they like) the rest of the time. Coordinate things with a simple remote booking system.
If it’s too expensive to maintain a workplace that could be empty of staff most of the time, bin the whole idea and just rent a meeting room or a co-working space once a month. God knows there’s enough such places popping up.
Under such halfway measures, there could be a rule about replying to flagged-as-urgent email relatively quickly when you’re on the clock and a sort of “General Order 1” about delivering your projects on time regardless of your location or circumstances.
Companies should hire people they believe can work unsupervised and then trust them to do so. “The ability to work unsupervised” has been a criterion of practically every “job spec” I’ve seen, but in practice it rarely comes up as an applicable skill.
This is probably the rub. The thrill of “supervision” is just irresistible to sadist managers (and maybe a few masochist workers too). And obviously it suits paranoid employers perfectly well to have a team under the heel of their expensively hired dungeon guards. Supervision clearly stands in the way of a more humane future workplace.
A reader emailed me last month to say that he has not enjoyed WFH precisely because his company won’t trust him and have taken to supervising his paper-shuffling efforts through remote surveillance technologies in a way that they never did when he had an office to go to.
For the sake of the environment, our health, and common sense, the future workplace needs to be the compromise described by the Guardian article. If workplaces can’t square this circle, intelligent, potentially-useful people will just have to carry on escaping them.
Friend Henry is on a crusade to escape all things digital. Not just social media, but the whole shebang.
He’s deleted his blog and his profiles on Amazon, Patreon and Mailchimp. He’s even talking about scrapping his email account. “I think it will make me happier,” he says in a final BCC, “and I believe these technologies do more harm than good in the long run.”
I think he’s probably right on both counts. I took a note of his real-world address and vowed to write to him the old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, this was about a month ago and I am yet to put pencil to paper.
There’s something slightly daunting about writing a letter–a fear of doing something “wrong” by messing up a nice sheet of paper–and, if I’m completely honest with myself, something unreal about it too.
And there’s the Digital Fascism in a nutshell: the idea that if something’s not online and administered by Silicon Valley then it’s not real, which is the opposite of the truth. How utterly pathetic. They’ve done a real number on us. If even I find myself thinking this way (a person who resisted smart phones for a decade and still refuses to read e-books) then the problem must be very widespread indeed.
What is to stop us from escaping this over-reliance on (or addiction to) digital technologies and returning full-time to offline pleasures like real letters? I have some thoughts:
1. The sunk cost fallacy. The idea that you’ve invested in a system makes a person reluctant to abandon that system even if it clearly isn’t working. And we’ve invested in the digital system big-time, socially and individually. We’ve moved gradually from paper and cassettes and discs into an immaterial networked world: it took ages, lots of learning, lots of head-scratching, and decades of spending on fabulous equipment. Going back to the old ways doesn’t feel profitable now even if it were logically proved as such.
2. The network effect. There are certain people who will never write to you on paper and you’ll lose touch with them forever. Some people won’t even use anything other than their favourite app to communicate. I know someone so in thrall to WhatsApp that he won’t even send text messages any more. And there were certainly one or two people I lost touch with when I killed my Facebook account it’s not in their nature to write an email. It’s a shame to lose touch with these slaves to particular technologies but the alternative is to be slave to those technologies yourself. What a sad state of affairs.
3. Too much to throw away. Many digital technologies are easy to quit because they’re rubbish or because you fall outside their demographic catchment area (i.e. you feel too young for Facebook or too old for TikTok) but sometimes they’re so perfect that you’d experience genuine loss if you left them. For me, it’s Gmail. I have a proper email address at newescapologist.co.uk and the web mail interface that comes with the hosting service is fine, but the 15GB offered by Gmail is unbeatable and I have twelve years of searchable information stored in it. It’s become almost a substitute brain for me and I run countless searches of my Gmail account every day in search of facts, links, promises, log-in details, turns of phrase, half-forgotten nuggets. It’s too darn useful to quit. But one day, I fancy, I will.
The sensible thing is probably to half-escape the digital world, one foot in cyberspace and one on terra firma. Keep what you find useful, ditch what you can. As I’ve said before, the Internet is not the problem but rather “Web 2.0.” Be a digital minimalist.
This said, “half-escape” is what precisely what I’ve done and, as you can see, there is really no such thing. I clearly struggle to write a letter so perhaps my extremist friend is onto something. In any event, his is a noble experiment. I’ll write to him now, I think, and find out how he’s spending his time. I’ll report back to you if he allows it.
Hey, look an escape!
One early evening after supper in December 2016, the winter sun throwing parallelograms of light across the prison yard, he made a run for it. Russell was a star high-school sprinter. At 6 ft 2 in (188 cm), he easily scrambled up the nine-foot fence, and in a single bound, cleared three rounds of barbed wire and landed on the other side of the wall.
It was Christmas morning when he was captured and returned to prison, with an extra year tacked on to his sentence.
This guy, Andrew Russell, physically escaped a prison called the Work Ethic Camp.
He’d been arrested for drug dealing (after finding no solution to poverty in low-paid work) and remanded to this prison. The prison’s wacky programme was to teach inmates the inherent value of work through barely-paid 30-40 hour work weeks. Needless to say, it turned out to be boring, insulting, and useless.
The story is told by Sam Haselby in Aeon magazine as part of a broader investigation into the work ethic in America and where it comes from.
The work ethic […] is a form of resignation, a product of defeat.
Attributing our exceptional work hours to an ideology woefully mistakes cause for effect. Ideology isn’t the driver of our lived experiences, but the product of them. Our ideological commitment to work is the result of incessant and repeated activity – literally doing our jobs day in and day out. And there’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work. We rationalise our quotidian experiences by shaping belief systems to accommodate them, not the other way around.
Thanks to Reader A for directing us to this. It’s a really good piece of journalism and certainly worth your time.
Ah, yes. Readers have reminded me that And Maggie Makes Three is a prequel episode in which Homer does in fact briefly quit his job.
He quits by riding Mr Burns through the nuclear plant while playing his head like a bongo drum. This comes after clearing his debts and lining up a low-stress dream job, so he has a decent enough escape plan too. Hooray for Homer!
Alas, all does not go to plan. When he returns to Sector 7G, tail between his legs, he’s confronted by this:
YouTube is bursting with neat little pop-cultural essays, isn’t it?
I just watched a good one about Frank Grimes of The Simpsons and “the cult of work.” It explains how the capitalist workplace pits worker against worker while positioning wealthy employers as the savior.
It also points out that the conservative’s routine answer to poverty is “work harder” and, when that fails, well, hard work is good in its own right so at least you can be virtuous as well as tired.
Obviously, we’re far more like Homer* than Grimes here at New Escapologist. We have long advocated for the opposite of Grimey’s values. We say that that hard work isn’t inherently or morally valuable and that hard work evidently isn’t the answer when you consider how the rich got rich and stayed there. “Nobody earns a billion dollars,” says the essay over pictures of Mr. Burns, “they steal it from the labour of those who have no choice but to take low-wage jobs in a system that previous billionaires maintained for new billionaires.”
(*though in a key way we are not like Homer. Homer continues to work, albeit ineffectively, and reaping the consumerist “rewards” of wage slavery instead of coming up with a coherent escape plan. He does try to escape in some episodes though, doesn’t he? I might be misremembering, but in the one about Maggie’s birth, his dream was to quit the nuclear plant and work in a bowling alley; he seemed to have been maneuvering himself into this position through some sort of plan before it was scuppered.)
Check it out. If you don’t care about the exploitation of billions of people for a wealthy few, it’s still just nice to think about the golden age of Simpsons. For all the flaws of the libertarian writer’s worldview, Frank Grimes’ funeral is still a great comedy moment. “Frank Grimes… or Grimey as he liked to be called.” Ahaha.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find out if Odo on Deep Space Nine was a fascist collaborator.
That feeling of deep satisfaction at the end of a working day is rare for many workers across the world. We are alienated, and have been for centuries. We have to work in order to survive, but while we are told to love what we do and that our workplaces are our families, meaningful work that also pays the bills is harder and harder to come by.
This is a great essay from Vice magazine. Thanks to Reader V for drawing our attention to it.
The essay points out that the way we work in this century isn’t natural or historically normal. It goes on to ruminate on what, post-pandemic, will happen next.
What kind of change the pandemic brings is still up for debate. Joe Biden and the British government are both fond of the slogan “Build back better”, which appeals to politicians because it could mean absolutely anything. If you’re Boris Johnson, you might think that “building back better” means handing billions of pounds of public money to companies connected to the Conservative Party. Historical advances made by workers, including the creation of the weekend and shorter working days, were all hard won. There is no guarantee the pandemic will make anything easier.