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.
Ah, there’s no time like Christmas to feel sentimental about a load of old crap.
I went to visit my parents last week (not this week, mind you. Our Christmas will be spent in our actual home, watching They Live and possibly Terminator 2!).
Sleeping in my old room — the centre of my cosmos for so long — is always a nice experience. I enjoy the nostalgia of being there, of course, but I also enjoy how the room has become less “my room” with every visit. My stuff has gradually moved out and my mum’s new decor and the sundries of a guest room have moved in.
The closet that held my clothes from birth to 21 is now a linen chest for visitors, my old desk a sort of display surface of ornaments to impress or entertain guests. Sweetly, there are framed posters on the walls of Forbidden Planet and Metropolis, little nods to things I liked as a teenager.
In the bottom of said closet is a small stack of comic books (the very last things of mine to still be there) but most evocatively for me, a floor of green shagpile from when this room really was mine — my childhood bedroom. That carpet had been replaced twice before I’d even moved out and it now brings back memories of playing with toys and wrestling with my sister. We once hid in that closet from a friend who’d come to play, eventually bursting out on her like monsters. I think that if my parents ever sell the house, a square inch of that carpet might, weirdly, be the souvenir I request.
Anyway, here is a funny piece from the Guardian about returning to the old hatching grounds and encountering “the family stuff,” which also makes me glad that I have so little of it.
One of the more sobering aspects of returning home for Christmas is encountering all the junk in the parental home which it has proved impossible to throw away. For years my dad ran a low-level campaign against my A-level notes and this was, in the end, successful. But after they went into the skip, the dust merely cleared to reveal mountains of other stuff – bits of old clothes, 30‑year‑old birthday cards, work diaries from the 1990s – all of which have survived several house moves and carry the air of the cockroach no manmade event can destroy.
I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos by young minimalists lately. I’ll post some faves here soon.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
Is an issue as important as our immediate wellbeing something we can really afford to postpone until the government figures it out?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sorry about Morris’ constant use of “man” and “men” to mean “people” or “humanity”.