Escape and Personal Responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

He writes:

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

and:

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

and crucially:

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

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

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

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Big Willy’s Style

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

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

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

Just look at the opening paragraph:

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

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

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

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

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Yanis

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 52: Bank Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Have Wasted My Life

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

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

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

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

Sigh. I miss my hammock.

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Start ’em Early

Spotted on social media — the Fisherprice Soul-crushing Meeting. “Now your kids can suffer just like you!”

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Merlyn, Badger, Ants.

People seemed to enjoy the extended quote about pigeons taken from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, so here are three other tidbits I marked in my copy with little sticky notelets.

The Once and Future King is actually four books in one volume, the first of which, The Sword in the Stone is the most famous and concerns young Arthur’s education by Merlyn.

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing that the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

Arthur’s education often takes the form (as with the pigeon) of animal metaphor and fable. This, I think, is down to T. H. White and his introvert’s love of natural history. Usually, the fables are experienced up close ad personal with the animals when Arthur is routinely transformed by magic into one of their number and sent to visit their societies.

“So Merlyn sent you to me,” said the badger, “to finish your education. Well, I can teach you only two things — to dig and love your home. These are the true end of philosophy.”

The badger is right. The point of philosophy is to live well and a love for your “home” (one’s house, but also society and one’s own mind) is both the result of living well and the means. Digging, to me, refers to a life spent investigating, experimenting, quiet husbandry, maintenance, learning, and not infringing.

My favourite chapter so far (or at least the chapter I’ve found most remarkable) is one in which Merlyn transforms the boy into an ant and sends him into an ant nest. It’s a strange chapter and stands apart from the rest of the book. It feels just like an H.G. Wells or Jules Verne story in both tone and the depth of imagination.

The ants have a work-orientated society and White does not find this admirable. The ants see everything through the lens of productivity, describing everything as either “done” or “not done,” the former being inherently good and the latter inherently bad. A delicious morsel is considered “done” and the same morsel, if found to be contaminated with poison, is “not done.” They see everything in these binary terms, their lives an unending sense of getting things “done”.

There’s a nice satire of the “what do you do?” question versus the Escapologist:

“What are you doing?” The boy answered truthfully: “I am not doing anything.” [The ant] was baffled by this for several seconds, as you would be if Einstein had told you his latest ideas about space. Then it extended the twelve joints of its aerial and spoke past him into the blue. It said: “105978/UDC reporting from square five. There is an insane ant on square five. Over to you.”

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Pigeon

I’ve always had a soft spot for pigeons. There were present in my childhood, circling the skies, as various local people kept racing pigeons. Our family even had three “adopted” pigeons — Walter, Snowdrop and Zoomer — who would report to our garden on-schedule every evening for feed. Walter even took to a bird house my dad installed outside my bedroom window.

It turns out that the pigeon may even be the bird of Escapologists. I came across this lovely passage today in The Once and Future King, written by T. H. White who knew his birds:

“The pigeon”, said Archimedes, “is a kind of Quaker. She dresses in grey. A dutiful child, a constant lover, a wise parent, she knows, like all philosophers that the hand of man is against her. She has learned throughout the centuries to specialize in escape. No pigeon has ever committed an act of aggression nor turned upon her persecutors: but no bird, likewise, is so skillful in eluding them. She has learned to drop out of a tree on the opposite side to man, and fly low so that there is a hedge between them. No other bird can estimate a range so well. Vigilant, powdery, odorous and loose-feathered — so that dogs object to take them in their mouths — armoured against pellets by the padding of these feathers, the pigeons coo to one another with true love, nourish their cunningly hidden children with true solicitude, and flee from the aggressor with true philosophy — a race of peace lovers continually caravanning away […] They are loving individualists surviving against the forces of massacre only by wisdom in escape.”

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You’re Doing It Wrong

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life!”. Or so we’re told. Usually by some kind of nauseating lifestyle blog or motivational poster.

These days it’s not enough just to turn up, work hard and bring home a wage; we should all be following our passions, chasing that dream job, and waking up every morning raring to get to the office. If your job is tedious, you hate your boss, and Monday mornings make you want to cry, it’s probably YOUR FAULT for not being ambitious enough.

This radio show and podcast (the podcast is five minutes longer) by Emily Knight and Adam Buxton is rather good. The first episode is about attitudes to work and the potential alternatives to the nine-to-five.

There’s an especially good chat with Ross, a poet and entertainer who talks about his “fake front as an office worker” while writing poetry into a spreadsheet and gradually transitioning into subsisting on his art.

There’s also Sophie, who discusses how she quit her stressful, job-based London life in favour of creative work and more time with friends and family in Margate.

The show reminds me of Richard Herring’s Bad Habits but with more Doctor Buckles.

Is the idea of a ‘dream job’ – one that inspires and fulfills us and makes our lives worth living – really possible? Or idealistic nonsense designed to make you feel guiltier, work harder, and complain less? Can we really be happy at work and should we be?

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Mortimer’s Plastic Briefcase

Do you ever wonder what your former colleagues would make of your escape?

I just watched a 1997 Omnibus film about comedians Reeves & Mortimer in which the filmmakers took the unusual step of interviewing Bob Mortimer’s old boss.

It’s fairly common knowledge that Bob was working unhappily and fairly incompetently as a solicitor when he joined Vic Reeves on stage. Apparently, he took ten weeks off from his job to make their first television series Big Night Out and never came back.

To be honest, his old boss is a good sport and where she’s disparaging of Bob’s conduct I get the impression she’s playing along somewhat and giving the filmmakers what they want.

“We always called him Robert, never Bob,” she says.

She has on the desk in front of her a briefcase left at the office by Bob. It is, apparently, plastic. “I think probably the fact that it’s plastic says more about his legal career than anything.”

What we he like in the office?

“Scatty, a bit disorganised. He would not always be in at the time he aught to have been in, usually because he’d had a heavy night the night before. As I later discovered, I think a lot of the time when he was up at his desk on the phone, I think he was actually on the phone to Vic, writing sketches.”

Did he ever tell you he was not coming back?

“Well, I thought he was coming back but he never did. […] Which caused some difficulties for a while.”

What did he leave behind?

“A caseload of cases to be done, a desk which I tidied up and found things like very old pieces of cake.”

What did you think of the Big Night Out when you saw it on TV? Did you find it funny?

“No.”

Isn’t that superb?

Bob Mortimer, by the way, may have predicted New Escapologist magazine with his his own Scarperering Monthly, which “is dedicated to people who like to do a bunk.”

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