Once a week I volunteer at a soup kitchen. It’s the least I can do, considering I lead quite a lazy life and shifts only take up a few hours in the evening.
Last week I was on washing-up duty with another volunteer. I started at the sink while she was collecting the dirty crockery, and after ten minutes we swapped roles so I could cool down away from the steaming water and hot ovens.
Once my brow was thoroughly wiped I asked if she wanted to swap back, but she was keen to carry on. In fact she stayed at the sink for the entire shift and powered through the washing up in record time, meaning we could get home earlier than usual.
At one point I commented on her enthusiasm. Turns out she used to work in a bar and had to endure hours of washing up as part of the job, but now that she isn’t being paid to clean and doesn’t have a tyrannical boss telling her what to do, she actually enjoys scrubbing dirty crockery.
She takes pride in making sure every dish and spoon is spotless, since she’s come to the task voluntarily.
I’ve been reading a book called Oasis of the North (1958) about Dawn MacLeod who leaves her mundane public-sector job in London to help her aunt tend to her gardens in the remotest Highlands of Scotland. The gardens are Inverewe Garden, a quirky botanical garden with diverse plant life thanks to an unusual sub-Tropical climate supported by the Gulf Steam. It is now part of the National Trust.
I’m not recommending the book here (though it’s perfectly nice) or hankering to tell you about the gardens, but I wanted to share with you the opening lines of the book, which are about her escape from comfortable mediocrity.
She receives a letter from her aunt, apropos of nothing, calling her to adventure:
A little later in the book, she starts to think about practicalities — only after escaping! The desire to leave was stronger than figuring out the details.
She takes a little audit, realises that she’ll survive in a frugal sort of way, and then realises with “a jolt” that she had forgotten about her National Insurance (healthcare and pension) contributions, a process normally taken care of by an employer (or, today, the PAYE system). Familiar!
Spoiler alert: she gets along just fine.
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!
This is Jaron Lanier on Channel 4, explaining how the “manipulation engine” behind social media is ruining our lives.
I read Jaron’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, some years ago in a hot Montreal summer and it made a great impression. It is not simply a surface-level tirade against social media but goes off into many interesting directions, notably into neurology and addiction and collective behaviour. The book struck me as a captivating and supremely well-informed insider’s perspective. The ramifications, moreover, are extremely serious and, as he says in the video, we have entered a period of “unreal and strange” politics where we “don’t know if elections are real or not”, and it’s all rooted in people sitting around “liking” things on Facebook and completing personality tests for fun.
I remember Lanier saying in his book that, as a Silicon Valley computer scientist of a certain age, he was disappointed with the way social media and the digital world in general have evolved. I feel similarly, albeit from a nerdy consumer perspective. I was an early adopter of mobile phones (I had a house brick phone in high school circa 1998 when nobody else my age had any such thing) and social media (I hassled my pals to join Friendster in 2002 to much bemusement; nobody could see the point in joining a digital network of people they already knew) and saw that they had great and exciting potentialities. I hate the way things turned out with Cambridge Analytica — surely only the first major democratic outrage of its kind that nobody seems to know how to address effectively.
This morning I was appalled to find that the nudge feature of the phoney Facebook account I use to administer the public Robert Wringham/New Escapologist Facebook page was naming people I know in real life as friend recommendations. How could it possibly know? Everything about this account — the registered name, the email address — is (I thought) completely separate to my real social media circle and address book. I have never used it to communicate directly with anyone and there are no (so far as I can tell) third party apps installed that should be capable of “listening”. This is deeply spooky and sinister isn’t it? It makes me want to raze my entire social media empire to the ground, but I worry about the ramifications for my “visibility” as an author. How did it come to this? The Internet used to be so much fun!
As you may remember, I ditched my personal Facebook account long ago and whenever I log in using the phoney account to make sure everything’s okay at the public page, I feel almost sick when I see the level of ugliness, how slow it is to load and how the nudge “service” is full of noisy (latterly sinister) claptrap. I’m really not interested in seeing such ugliness, let alone giving myself up to the mystical algorithmic forces of Zuckerberg and his moronic fratboy pals. As someone who left Facebook in the main, I can attest that life really is better without it.
So, if you are less cowardly and self-promotional than I am, learn from Jaron Lanier and salt the earth on all social media, for the good of society and for your own peace of mind.
I love Lanier’s remark in the video, by the way, that Silicon Valley are “not being evil, we’re being stupid,” which pretty much sums up most recent political and mass behaviour doesn’t it? It’s almost as if some intangible force came into the world a decade or so ago that shattered our attention spans, hacked the collective consciousness and made us all into dum-dums. I wonder what that could have been?
Owning something — locking it away in your house — doesn’t help anything. Leave it in the wild!
A Swedish artist and grandma called Margareta Magnusson has a nice way of putting this in her book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a very nice little book written to remind us that we can’t take our things with us when we die, so let’s tread lightly in the meantime.
Beautiful things such as an African wooden bird, strange things like a singing magnetic pig, and funny things like a solar-powered waving bear are all things that I adore. My vice really is things. It took me a while to understand this, but you can enjoy all these things without owning them. Even though this may sometimes seem quite hard to do, training yourself to enjoy only looking at things, instead of buying them, is very pleasing and also a good habit. You really can’t take everything with you, so maybe it is better to try not to own it all.
When I browse through an interior design magazine I sometimes get so tired! Many of these homes look as if all the furniture has been supplied by the same shop. Colourless, plain, perfect and without any charm at all. Too many pieces for decoration arranged on parade or in strange, affected compositions. Who will want to dust them I wonder.
But there are many homes that have a lot to teach. Beautiful, practical and sparsely furnished. Truly inspiring homes that are easy to keep clean. I still try to learn from these rooms. I reflect and maybe rethink my own living space, and then probably will get rid of a few more things!
And here’s a short conversation with Margareta on video. Isn’t she fab? The interviewer takes her to see her storage unit for the purposes of death cleaning and Margareta says “what are you going to do with all this crap?”
I’m reading David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. It is delicious revenge for anyone who has ever had to pretend to work for hours on end in order to be allowed to go home again, and you should all read it.
There is a thousand quotations I could make from the book that are relevant to this blog, to Escapology, and to our hatred of pointless, busy work. But I will simply leave you with this lovely story of Graeber’s first job and a lesson in not mistaking a job for useful activity:
I well remember my very first job as a dishwasher in a seaside Italian restaurant. I was one of three teenage boys hired at the start of the summer season, and the first time there was a mad rush, we naturally made a game of it, determined to prove that we were the very best and most heroic dishwashers of all time, pulling together into a machine of lightning efficiency, producing a vast and sparkling pile of dishes in record time. We then kicked back, proud of what we’d accomplished, pausing perhaps to smoke a cigarette or skarf ourselves a scampi — until, of course, the boss showed up to ask us what the hell we were doing just lounging around.
“I don’t care if there are no more dishes coming in right now — you’re on my time! You can goof around on your own time. Get back to work.”
“So what are we supposed to do?”
“Get some steel wool. You can scour the baseboards.”
“But we already scoured the baseboards.”
“Then get busy scouring the baseboards again!”
Of course, we learned our lesson. If you’re on the clock, do not be too efficient. You will not be rewarded, not even by a gruff nod of acknowledgement (which is all we were really expecting). Instead you’ll be punished with meaningless busy work. And being forced to pretend to work, we discovered, was the most absolute indignity — because it was impossible to pretend it was anything but what it was: pure degradation, a sheer exercise of the boss’s power for its own sake. It didn’t matter that we were only pretending to scrub the baseboard. Every moment spent pretending to scour the baseboard felt like some schoolyard bully gloating over our shoulders — except, of course, this time, the bully had the full force of law and custom on his side.
So the next time a big rush came, we made sure to take our sweet time.
I’ve just turned the final page of The History of Mr Polly, one of H. G. Wells’ non-sci-fi novels. It is Escapological.
Mr Polly is a member of the provincial lower-middle class. He is poorly educated (set up, like most of us, to join the workforce or else serve as cannon fodder) but likes to read and is at heart a romantic chap.
He carries a secret anger at his obvious destiny to marry his cousin (something which sends shiver down the spine of the modern reader, but all Wells really means by this is “someone nearby and of similar stock, no soulmate”) and to open a small shop. He is also frustrated by the apparent acceptance of other people to this same lot. When he laments it in public, he meets with the usual “know your station!”- and “no point thinking you’re going to escape”- and “ooh, I should be so lucky to have time for books!”- type remarks.
Polly is driven to suicide:
The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him, never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live for…
He had been a fool, a coward and a fool, he had been fooled too, for no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had ever told him of the littleness of fear, or pain, or death; but what was the good of going through it now again? It was over and done with.
I like that “safety did not matter” remark. Even today people talk about “risk” as if (a) there weren’t perfectly valid and orthodox career paths available within those apparently risky — usually artistic or entrepreneurial — lines, and (b) forgetting that “risk” is only to flirt with failure while settling for safe mediocrity is failure; it’s like deliberately throwing yourself off a cliff when you’re afraid of falling.
Cometh the hour, Polly bungles his suicide and ends up burning down his shop and some other buildings on the street. In so doing, he saves the life of the deaf old woman who lives next door and is championed a hero instead of an arsonist. He is also given insurance money for the shop.
The drama of all this and Polly’s realisation that his actions (albeit unintentionally) led to change wakes him up from his previous assumption that one’s future is already decided.
We are rewarded for sticking with him through desperate times with this lovely passage:
But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether. You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter, something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more interesting. There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and dreary. There are no circumstances in the world that determined action cannot alter, unless perhaps they are the walls of a prison cell, and even those will dissolve and change, I am told, into the infirmary compartment at any rate, for the man who can fast with resolution. I give these things as facts and information, and with no moral intimations. And Mr. Polly lying awake at nights, with a renewed indigestion, with Miriam sleeping sonorously beside him and a general air of inevitableness about his situation, saw through it, understood there was no inevitable any more, and escaped his former despair.
He could, for example, “clear out.”
It became a wonderful and alluring phrase to him: “clear out!”
Why had he never thought of clearing out before?
He was amazed and a little shocked at the unimaginative and superfluous criminality in him that had turned old cramped and stagnant Fishbourne into a blaze and new beginnings. (I wish from the bottom of my heart I could add that he was properly sorry.) But something constricting and restrained seemed to have been destroyed by that flare. Fishbourne wasn’t the world. That was the new, the essential fact of which he had lived so lamentably in ignorance. Fishbourne as he had known it and hated it, so that he wanted to kill himself to get out of it, wasn’t the world.
Wehey! I have escaped again. How’d you like that, my imaginary shareholders?
Admittedly, this particular escape involved running the clock down on something like a prison sentence more than the commitment to a clever escape plan. But an escape’s an escape and it feels good to be on the lam again, feeling the breeze around the old wosnames.
As some of you know, I put a peg on my nose and took a job when we came back to Scotland from Canada. It was to help my partner secure her visa to live here.
We won that visa in September (using the immense stack of paperwork pictured below) and we immediately set about getting our lives back on course. On my part this means a full-time return to the cheerful, frugal literary life. Much better.
Bagging the visa and escaping office life again were the key events of our 2018, though they do not feel particularly like achievements. It’s just a happy return to the status quo, to what we were doing until someone stopped us.
But hey! there was also the book deal. That was big news. The first half of the advance came in and I started writing. I’ve almost written a whole new book this year. I hope to have finished it by the end of January 2019.
At the start of the year, I set up a mailing list to try and guarantee a readership for my weekly diary. I kept up the diary itself until October (31 entries – medal please) and was rewarded with the highest numbers of visits ever to my website (even if those numbers are admittedly small potatoes). I plan to pick up the diary again in 2019, but not until the book is written, obvs.
There were seven new installments of my Idler column, bringing the total up to 17 (plus extra bits and bobs) and my longest-running gig outside New Escapologist, which hardly counts. I’ve enjoyed getting the occasional email (and Idler letters page response) about the column, none of them (yet) irate.
Tim Blanchard’s book about the novelist John Cowper Powys was published in November. I had some small editorial involvement before Tim found a publisher so I was very happy indeed to see the book come out.
In non-writerly action I spent the occasional Friday at a botanical library near to where I live. Here I have a freelance project to catalogue the collection. I spend these days handling attractive books about trees and flowers and mushrooms and the likes. Why not?
I also had the pleasure of calling the fire brigade, joining Instagram, remembering the spice girls, finding run-up-to-the-visa solace in the best ever Lego set (and reselling it – minimalism!) and taking a reaction test.
As traditional, here is my year in books. A change on previous years is that I’ve stopped recording comic books in this list. There’s too many of them and, let’s face it, it’s a completely different aesthetic experience. (If you’re interested, I enjoyed Ms. Marvel this year and the first volume of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I was surprised not to enjoy the new Multiple Man series.)
I made an effort this year to read some new fiction instead of old everything. I also made my usual effort to read more women and non-white writers.
Lest we forget, an asterisk* denotes an out-loud read while the dagger† denotes a re-read. Schwing!
Bill Bryson – Neither Here nor There
Bill Bryson – The Road to Little Dribbling
Daphne du Maurier – Not After Midnight
Alastair Bonnett – Off the Map
Bill Bryson – African Diary
Joe Dunthorne – The Adulterants
George Orwell – Coming Up for Air †
Shoukei Matsumoto – A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind
George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra Flying †
Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Sam Selvon – The Lonely Londoners
Donald Westlake – The Hot Rock
Yanis Varoufakis – Talking to my Daughter about the Economy
George Perec – W, or the Memory of Childhood
T. H. White – The Once and Future King
Clive Bell – Old Friends
Darren McGarvey – Poverty Safari
Alex Masters – A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip
Muriel Spark – The Girls of Slender Means
Helen Russell – The Year of Living Danishly
Caitlin Doughty – From Here to Eternity
Fumio Sasaki – Goodbye Things
George Saunders – Pastoralia
Limmy – That’s Your Lot
Michael Booth – The Almost Nearly Perfect People
Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain*
Matthew Crawford – The Case for Working With Your Hands
Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women
Matthew De Abaitua – Self and I
Helen Lamb – Three Kinds of Kissing
Kamin Mohammadi – Bella Figura
Tade Thompson – Rosewater
PD James – Sleep No More*
Evelyn Waugh – The Loved One
Jonathan Meades – An Encyclopaedia of Myself
Books read in substantial part but left unfinished:
Richard Sennett – Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation
Mary Beard – SPQR
Richard Gordon – Nuts in May
Robert Skidelsky – John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946
I am currently reading After the Snooter by Eddie Campbell (a comic) and Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (essays).
I end 2018 happy with my personal lot at the age of 36, though I also feel irritated and under siege for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. I might have to stop drinking. Or ideally they’ll cancel Brexit.