Against all odds, working from home [has been] more successful than anyone would have predicted, with many people reporting their productivity [levels] increased during the first two months of lockdown.
“Against all odds” indeed. Bloody hell. As if the mandatory attendance of an open-plan Hell is the only conceivable way of getting things done on the road to fulfillment and is not, as the case may be, its single biggest obstruction.
The article is admirably about the quest for other ways of working though, and how offices might be redesigned in the future to be happier and more pleasant places.
It goes into the story of Bob Probst, whom I mentioned in Escape Everything! as the de-facto inventor of the office cubicle. He invented it as modular “systems furniture” and now sees the classic “veal fattening pen” as an abuse of his system.
What I wanted to mention though, is how the photograph used to illustrate the piece (a) looks sort-of like a miniature rather than a real place, or is that my imagination?; and (b) looks oddly preferable to the offices I have known even though it’s clearly supposed to illustrate the worst excesses of dystopian workplace architecture.
Weirdly, what I like about it are those privacy dividers (splash boards?) between work spaces: actual cubicle walls. We didn’t have those in our office, so we just had to dwell in each other’s personal head space all day, trying not to read each other’s minds and unable to pick our noses. It was exhausting. Yes, I might have actually preferred a cubier cube to the one I had. Weird!
Obviously, I’d rather be at home though. Or in a library. Or on a beach. Or just impaled on a spike.
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I’d been thinking about the expression “to live on one’s wits” and its connection to “being witty.”
Just as I was having these thoughts, clever old friend Unclef gave me a book called Wit’s End: what wit is, how it works, and why we need it by James Geary. It’s a good book. Playful, brief and smart.
Its most important contribution to solving my wit-based question is the phrase “improvisational thinking.” That’s it! That is what connects ha-ha wit with living on one’s wits. Both are direct expressions of improvisational thinking.
But this paragraph explains it neatly too:
forms of wit other than the pun [can be] understood as compressed detective stories. I’m thinking in particular of people who “live by their wits,” as the saying goes. Inventors, scientists,and innovators of all kinds, people skilled in improvising fixes, finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, or making unlikely discoveries under seemingly inauspicious conditions.
Finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, by jove. Geary goes on to tell the stories of some of those scientists and inventors by way of illustration, but it’s also what Escapologists do every single day just by going about our general business. Improvisational thinking is at once the alternative to the rat race and the swiss army lock pick (if there could ever be such a thing) required to escape it.
It’s what they don’t teach you in school because they can’t teach it in school even if they wanted to. It’s a mindset that needs to be cultivated through unusual experience and by thinking constantly about the world and its mechanisms: “Why isn’t X like so? Can Y function better upside-down? Can I live this way instead of that way? Do I need as much money to do Z as they tell me?”
It’s the essence of an Escapological mindset or outlook. Things like minimalism, finding clever backdoor ways of doing exactly what you want to do (rather than what other people think you should do), and “building muscles of resistance” (see Escape Everything!) by not watching television are all ways of using or honing one’s improvisational thinking, one’s wits.
I’m happy to report that I say this in relation to minimalism in The Good Life for Wage Slaves so this isn’t a total epiphany, but I wish I’d made a little more of it because it’s so important.
I think I knew it all along: have I not said many times that our practice is “Escapology” because it comes with a sense of humour and theatrical aplomb? But the Wit’s End book really homes in on that truth.
Another useful point concerning the Escapological mindset (which comes from the same chapter of Geary’s book) is:
Now, you might wonder whether this type of wit is innate–you either have it or you don’t–or whether it might not in some form be nurtured and cultivated. Well, it turns out there is a way to hone the powers of attention and observation needed for serendipitous discovery: live in a foreign country.
He means that, abroad, everything is different and a certain “cognitive flexibility” is required (and is developed) at all times. It keeps you on your toes, which is useful. So live abroad! Or do the sort of things that might have similar effect on your brain to living abroad: walk through streets that you don’t need to walk through, read a different sort of book, write one, talk to different sorts of people, learn another language.
Cognitive flexibility and improvisational thinking, kids. It’s what’s for dinner.
I haven’t mentioned Patreon in a while, have I? I have a series of posts over there called “Running Man” (now in its sixth installment). It’s essentially all about living on your wits. Chip in at Patreon if you’d like to read it. There are other items to see there too, including older essays and the brand new “Hypocrite Minimalist” show-and-tell series.
I’m reading The Borribles. Well, strictly speaking, I’m reading The Borribles Go For Broke. The sequel. And soon I will no doubt read Across the Dark Metropolis, the third in the trilogy.
As you can probably detect (or indeed tell from the vivid cover art above), it’s a Young Adult fantasy series, but it’s so brilliantly violent and full of swearing that it could surely never be made into a family movie. As such, it willfully removes itself from becoming an annoying pop-cultural phenomenon that anyone with an imagination of their own is sick and tired of practically from the moment of its conception. Oh yes.
The titular Borribles are erstwhile London children who escaped their parents and schools and become quasi-feral in the meantime. Though they still resemble children, some of them are hundreds of years old and the tops of their ears have grown into points. I suppose they’re elves – but for people who don’t like elves.
I often wonder if the Borribles inspired City Hobgoblins by The Fall, which came out just a couple of years after the first book. Fall lyrics are quite intensely researched though, and nobody has yet connected the song to the Borribles. If the odds are defied and film is ever made though, I’d hope this song makes an appearance.
The Borribles don’t care for authority or money or possessions, preferring instead to live for the moment and on their wits. They’re Escapologists of a particular sort. I’ve known a few Borribles.
Ever on the lookout for quotations to share with you in this blog–liberating or inspiring quotes relating to work or comfort or independence or submission–I had a few marked out, but it’s hard to do better than this Borrible song. Here you go.
Who’d be a hurrying, scurrying slave,
Off to an office or bound for a bank;
Who’d be a servant from cradle to grave,
Counting his wages and trying to save;
Who’d be a manager, full of his rank,
Or the head of the board at a big corporation?
Ask us the question, we’ll tell you to stuff it,
Good steady jobs would make all of us snuff it–
Freedom’s a Borrible’s one occupation!
Our kind of liberty’s fit for a king;
London’s our palace, we reign there supreme.
Broad way and narrow way, what shall we sing–
Alleys as tangled as knotted-up string,
River than winds through the smoke like a dream;
What shall we sing in our own celebration–
Ragged-arsed renegades, never respectable,
Under your noses, but rarely detectable–
Freedom’s a Borrible’s one occupation!
Ahem. I hope I was able to adequately carry the tune. Either way, you get the idea. Borribles! Highly recommended for Escapological types with sympathies toward fantasy but an aversion to elves.
I’ve been reading Dreaming of Bablylon by Richard Brautigan. It’s wonderful, the only downer being that I’m running out of Richard Brautigan books to read. I suppose I’ll just have to read them all again.
Anyway, this popped out at me on p74:
I hadn’t had a day like this since that car ran over me a couple of years ago and broke both my legs. I got a nice settlement out of that. Even though I was in traction for three months, it beat working for a living and, oh! what times I had, dreaming of Babylon there in the hospital.
I can relate to that. Thirteen years ago, after my first ever day in an office job, I was hit by a black Hackney cab, beaking my left arm in two places. Worst luck!
I had three weeks off and then I had to go back to work with my arm dangling in a sling, still fuzzy-minded from the pain medication.
Still, those three weeks spent dreaming of Babylon and getting paid for it were not so bad. I wouldn’t have chosen it (unless, unconsciously, I did) but it was three weeks of peace and quiet while barely off the starting blocks.
Speaking of offices and how to reduce the time one spends in them, I’ve got a new book coming out. Please buy it. Your price of admission will keep me on the lam for precious moments longer.
This article is not in favour of the releasing of all office monkeys into the wild, but it contains this nicely odd moment:
As weeks become months and offices remain closed, many are predicting their permanent decline. Buildings that for decades have defined urban geography, diurnal rhythms and the meaning of work may never hum in the same way to the sounds of keyboards and fluorescent lighting.
Aw, I’m sorry. But allow me to speak for the more imaginative half of society when I say: Yaaaaaaaaaaay!
The effects of working from home have been little studied, partly because remote working was pretty rare until this spring. […] “It’s always been a pretty backwater topic,” says [economics professor] Nick Bloom.
Hey! Backwater topic indeed. Welcome to the backwater, I guess. Come on in, the water’s lovely.
The article also draws our attention to a website called The Sound of Colleagues, which offers lonely homeworkers a “playlist of workplace sounds, including keyboards, printers, chatter and coffee machines.”
What a smashing idea. Why not install a flickering fluorescent tube above your kitchen table too? Just to make sure you don’t go sane or off-edge. Or how about setting up an alarm bell to blast your eardrums at unpredictable moments, so that you don’t miss out on the fun of the fire drill? When it sounds, remember to go outside and stand in the rain for ten minutes for maximum authenticity.
Or, hey, why not go and drive your car around in a circle for forty-five minutes at 8am to simulate the commute?! If we all do it, our mornings will return to a state of genuinely pointless gridlock in no time!
I’d like to remind everyone–absolutely everyone–that my new book, The Good Life For Wage Slaves, is available to pre-order. It contains a chapter about alternative modes of working, about thinking beyond “the office.” Please order it and tell others. Clearly, the sanity of the world depends on it.
Life has no intrinsic meaning (but meaning is precious) so make some yourself.
This is from Ego’s manifesto. Everyone should write their own manifesto. Just base it on what they’ve learned in life so far. If you don’t write it all down somewhere, you’ll only forget it like a silly goldfish.
You could do worse than build your manifesto on top of the life audit (an exercise for figuring out what you really want in life) I discuss in the “Preparation” chapter of Escape Everything!
For people living in the UK: We do not need to work as much as we do if we do not wish to. We do not need to have a new car, a large house, an amazon echo, a gym membership, a new sofa (they are free second hand, this country is amazingly rich).
Every time we pay more for more comfort or enjoyment we are making a trade-off: freedom for stuff.
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Depressed by scenes of maskless Soho revelers seemingly rain-dancing for a second wave, my mind drifts in the direction of escape. I can’t help it. I’m an escape artist.
Unfortunately, my would-be escape is prevented by iron-clad reasons to stay put on Covid Island, but maybe you could act on this escape plan if you wanted to.
While the air bridges are open (act fast!), I would bugger off to Copenhagen for six months and wait the rest of the crisis out.
Denmark has suffered 600 Covid deaths to the UK’s shameful 60,000. Relatively normal life continues there if you don’t count today’s racist fish incident.
I like Copenhagen quite a bit, so I’d take a short rolling lease on a small apartment. I’d do the right thing by voluntarily quarantining my potentially asymptomatic ass for fourteen days, but after that, I’d spend 5.5 months looking at museums, walking, cycling, drooling over the urban planning solutions, drinking coffee and beer, reading and writing.
Maybe I’d even take the train to Billund to see Legoland. Come winter, I’d become acquainted with hygge. By then, one hopes, the Brits would have sorted themselves out and I could come home. If not, maybe I’d beg Denmark for asylum.
There’s probably something similar you can do if you live in America. Escape to somewhere in the Caribbean maybe? Japan?
Please send me a postcard if you do this.
Happier news in creative life. I’ve committed (emotionally, not contractually) to an idea for my next book after abandoning with a heavy heart the one I was writing before the Pandemic hit.
The new book will not be directly Escapological so I will shut up about it here and plop any more thoughts I want to communicate about it on my personal blog. I’m excited about it though, and I can’t wait to get started in August if not a little sooner. Much of the rest of July will be spent on a couple of other creative projects, not least helping to midwife The Good Life for Wage Slaves (pre-order, please!) into existence.
We’ve set up a small bird feeder in the hopes of attracting some feathered
fools friends. This is something I do periodically it seems. The feeder we found is a little plastic house-shaped seed tray with suction cups for fixing it to the window. The idea is to attract smaller, prettier birds, but so far we’ve only drawn magpies, wood pigeons, and a crow.
Being large birds, this fearsome crew tend not to use the feeder itself and make do with any seeds or mealworm that have fallen onto the ledge. This means we generally only see their heads peeking over the window frame, apparently checking to see if we’re looking at them.
The name we’ve given to our crow is Corvid-19 (well, obviously). The magpies are my favourite though because they make a lot of noise, adding something natural and woodsy to the soundtrack of everyday life. And if we ever tire of their noisy visits, we can at least have some nostalgic fun by shouting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, Out, Out!”
Lockdown is easing here in Scotland, though I’m glad our government has been more cautious than its counterpart in London. On Friday night, unless someone tells us we’ve misunderstood the rules, we’re going to visit some friends in their house. This will be the first time in three months we’ve been in anyone’s home other than our own. It’s going to be strange to see our friends’ faces without their constantly glitching. I might do some Max Headroom-type shtick just to make everyone feel more comfortable.
The Good Life for Wage Slaves is available to pre-order! This new book is the latest canonical offering from the New Escapologist stable and I’m sure you’ll agree it’s been a long time coming.
The book tells the story of my brief but tragic (tragic, I tell you!) return to office life and the subsequent escape. More importantly, it serves as a survival guide for those not yet ready or able to make a break for it.
It’s packed with the sort of practical tips and moral support you’d expect from a New Escapologist work, as well as plenty of storytelling and humour and new ways of looking at things. You can read the proper synopsis below.
Here’s that synopsis:
Are you satisfied by your job? Do you leap out of bed each morning with a song in your heart, eager to travel swiftly and painlessly to a fabulous workplace where the layout and technology are perfectly adapted to your goals and needs?
What of home life? Do you return from work each evening with time and energy to get stuck into your rewarding, creative projects? Do you have a good grasp of the sort of “home economics” mastered by your parents’ and grandparents’ generations? If so, this book is not for you.
If, on the other hand, your experience of the worker-consumer lifestyle is a screaming Hell of clueless, unsatisfying, underpaid, carcinogenic, insecure shambling that you never signed up for and is an affront to your years of difficult and expensive study, The Good Life for Wage Slaves might be the helpful volume–or at least the shoulder to cry on–you’ve been waiting for. It contains swearing. Also cats.
The book’s publication is quite a big event for me, as you might imagine. I’m very proud of it and, when the time comes, I hope you can be proud of it too.
It will be be available through the usual online retailers, but let’s see if we can sell more copies through our friendly indie publisher’s website than evil old Amaz*n, eh?
Here are those all-important links again: deluxe paperback and e-book. Get the transaction out of the way now, madam, would be my advice, and then the book will come zooming at you like a friendly meteorite in August
(If you’re not sure why pre-sales are important, here’s an explanation put my way by friend McKinley).
Dear New Escapologist,
I love your blog and newsletter. It has been making my trip from ‘desk’ (shudder) to the ‘free world’ easier since late last year. I’m laughing again. I liked this quote from the blog of Catrina Davis to which you linked us in the May 2020 newsletter:
Millions across the ‘developed’ world are having to confront the fact that the future they worked and planned for, the one they were sold over and over again, by countless teachers and politicians and estate agents, is officially a dud.
Ha ha ha. So true. Sadly, many have been so cajoled into a particular way of thinking that they believe this is life. The office is a soul-sucking environment. You are paid a sort of compensation to die quietly of all the health issues caused by sitting in a chair day after day, staring at a screen like zombie.
You are tricked into believing that ‘team spirit’ is something you need to possess. It kills your creativity and is another term for ‘following the herd’. I walked out and never looked back. The sense of freedom is amazing.
I’m enjoying my life and feeling far healthier and happier than I ever did while ‘working’.
Thanks for your wonderful blog and sense of humour,
“A group of cross-party MPs have urged the government to consider a four-day working week for the UK post Covid-19,” the Guardian reports.
Escapologists would welcome such a change, whether we happen to still be in work or if we’ve escaped and simply hope for better conditions and less work time for our incarcerated friends.
We have, of course, been here before. There have been moments where it felt like traction was being made on a four-day workweek, the idea being championed by high-level think tanks or being weighed up by eminently sensible economists. So let’s not hold our breath.
There is the fact, however, as the article points out, that “work patterns have already been dramatically altered as a result of the pandemic,” and there are many discussions taking place around post-Covid economic recovery so it seems likely that champions for a shorter working week are more likely to be listened to at this moment.
I’d point out as well that a modest reduction in weekly work is perfectly in line with historical progress. The labour movement agitated first for a cap on weekly hours worked, then for a weekend, and then for paid vacations and paid ill-health or parental leave. Another day off seems like the next reasonable step.
I’d also point out the idea that a society’s wealth might not, in a dignified future, be measured solely by GDP but also by the amount of free time a citizen is afforded.
Who knows? As ever, we watch with baited breath.