Fickle

I’ve been re-reading Vagabonding by Rolf Potts for no particular reason. Just as I remember, it’s full of curious wisdom.

He quotes a mid-century naturalist called Edwin Way Teale:

Freedom … seems more rare, more difficult to attain, more remote with each new generation.

then Potts comments that

Teale’s lament for the deterioration of personal freedom was just as hollow a generalization in 1956 as it is now. As John Muir was well aware, vagabonding has never been regulated by the fickle public definition of lifestyle. Rather, it has always been a private choice within a society that is constantly urging us to do otherwise.

Reluctant as I am to completely divorce the individual from society in my writing, I rarely say anything as untempered or full-frontal as that.

Potts is right. It’s elementary Escapology and it must not be forgotten. The world might demand that we go to work, own or rent some bricks and mortar, perform certain duties, behave certain ways. But we don’t have to do any of it. We can’t be controlled to that extent. You can still, after everything, walk away.

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The June of New Escapologist is available to pre-order at our online shop.

So You Want to Be a Nomad

So you want to be a nomad. Or maybe you’re already a nomad but interested in trying out a different transient lifestyle. There are lots of different ways to live a nomad life these days, from workcamping to sailing, but if you’re trying to decide how you want to travel full-time, it can be hard to decide which style will suit you best.

Two of the most popular full-time travel styles for Americans are international backpacking (traveling from country to country, staying in short-term accommodations or rentals à la digital nomads) or RVing (in a wide variety of vehicles) across North America.

From my own personal experiences of backpacking over many years and full-time RVing in the U.S for over two years, both offer unique experiences and cater to different preferences. Let’s break it down: the perks and quirks of each option!

This is from a lovely website called The Dirtbag Dao by Heather Delaney. As a city slicker, I don’t write much about backpacking or RVing but no view of Escapology would be remotely complete without them. They’re both highly valid and and worthwhile means of seeing the world, of living cheaply, of living free.

I remember wistful feelings when a couple of American backpackers, hand-in-hand and generally looking like something from an idealistic travel agency poster, appeared from the exit of a railway station while I was on my morning walk to work. Their energy was so different to mine: they were strolling and marvelling while I was literally trudging. Their movements were free and unfettered while I was being pulled along, under duress, by an invisible tether. I didn’t need to learn the lesson because I already knew what freedom felt like but, man, I wished I was doing what they were doing.

We’ll publish more about backpacking and RVing in future issues of the mag but, in the meantime, you could do worse than read this article and enjoy poke around the Dirtbag Dao site.

Heather also has a list of books and websites for more information, including Rolf Potts’ excellent book about long-term travel, Vagabonding.

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New Escapologist Issue 16 can be ordered today for shipping in June at our online shop.

The Escapes of John Dowie

In February I read The Freewheeling John Dowie, the wise and funny memoir of a comedian who ditched the conventional notions of career success, sold his home and all of his stuff, and took to the open road with a bicycle. I found the book utterly compelling and suspected I’d found my “book of the year” rather early.

He writes in the first chapter about his early brushes with employment. He mopped floors and answered phones but the funniest bit is when he works in a branch of W H Smith (which, coincidentally, I also did, albeit in 1999 rather than 1966):

“When you work for W H Smith,” the twenty-year-old in charge of the paperback department told me proudly, “you’ve got a job for life.”

Apart from the chilling horror such a statement generates…

He lasts nine months at Smiths before seeing a Spike Milligan play at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton and deciding to become a comedian. As you know, I love to hear about these epiphany moments. Most people just drift between life chapters and never really “decide” anything, which is what makes these moments so special.

So he concocts a simple escape plan: work and save until you have enough money to put on a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe. And then he does it:

After three months of two jobs and very little sleep I managed to raise the money I needed – about £500. I took myself to Edinburgh, performed every day for three weeks, returned to Birmingham with a vastly improved act, got myself an Arts Council Grant and, I’m happy to tell you, haven’t done a day’s work since.

When comedy itself came to feel like a job, Dowie looked for other freedoms. He sold everything. His friend Stewart Lee writes:

Each time I [visited him,] Dowie had less stuff. In the end he had reduced his possessions to five basic food groups; records by Bob Dylan and Moondog; books by William Blake and [Philip K.] Dick; and some Batman comics. It was as if he was preparing to depart. And pretty soon he did. No-one in our gang knew where he’d gone, but we knew he could now carry everything he ever wanted in a backpack, and he’d bought a bike.

And in Freewheeling Dowie writes of his minimalism:

At first I thought that getting rid of the vinyl I’d been collecting since the Sixties would be a wrench. But, with each cardboard box that [the record dealer] packed, carted off and placed in his car, I felt a lightening of the spirit. It lightened even more when he paid me. Several hundred quid. I was astonished. I’d been hoping for a tenner.

Speaking of money, it cost a pretty penny for me to get a copy of Freewheeling, even though it was only published in 2018. Luckily, my copy was badly damaged in the post and I was able to get a refund, reading it in the end for free. Take that, Music Magpie!

Anyway, I got in touch with Dowie about how much I loved his book. I couldn’t help myself. When he explained that the rights had reverted to him since the book went out of print, I pulled some strings and levers to get it re-published, albeit only as an e-book for now. You can buy it here and I recommend that you do.

Meanwhile, in 2010

2010 was a long time ago. 14 years! Brexit, Trump, Covid and Starmer were all but twinkles in Beelzebub’s eye. Truly, it was another world.

Here’s a TED talk from that time, urgently outlining why having offices in the Age of the Internet is insane and what benefits might come from working at home instead.

“WFH” is something we all know about in 2024, and yet the concept of bussing off to an office at Horrible O’ Clock every morning still isn’t quite dead.

This 2010 guy explains how people need uninterrupted stretches of quiet time to get things done, to be creative. People cite, he says, places like “the porch, the kitchen, a spare room, the coffee house, the library” when they really need to apply themselves. They never mention the office.

The office is full of counterproductive and disruptive practices like stop-and-chats and background noise and sudden meetings. He explains how the “distractions” feared by managers (such as their people slacking off to watch TV or take a nap) are nowhere near as bad as the distractions inherent to the office.

Here in 2024, progress has been made on that one particular front. It’s good that managers are finally coming around to WFH, freeing millions of people from lives of daily commutes and shithouse offices.

And yet there’s still so much scepticism worthy of 2010, usually in the form of the same old non-arguments. These non-arguments reveal the truth of what so many managers and employers really want: control over other human beings.

WFH isn’t as good as a proper escape. But it’s a great halfway house. While keeping your income from employment, WFH eliminates so many of the things that make work awful: the commute, the office environment, having to be in a particular place at a particular time, the inability to run personal errands or take a few moments to recuperate, and seeing your boss’s stupid scalding face all the time.

Reclaim your own movements and be free. Issue 16 of New Escapologist is on its way. Order your copy today from our online shop.

Cheap Bricks

Friend Marcus sends us a news item about the Chinese housing crisis. It’s a bit like the UK housing crisis and the American housing crisis and the Australian and New Zealand housing crises.

Young Chinese people have found that you can buy a home for as little as £3,500 outside the city limits. This is in comparison to property in Beijing, which is completely unaffordable even if you work every hour Chinese God sends.

What’s interesting to me is (a) the light bulb moment of these clever kids running the sums and realising that hard work doesn’t pay and (b) the realisation of an alternative.

The escape plan would be to move to the cheaper location while remote-working for a Beijing company for Beijing wages and saving the surplus for a few years. It’s our old friend geo-arbitrage without even leaving your country.

It’s something I’ve thought about doing myself. Instead of living in Glasgow, I could live in Port Glasgow (about twenty miles from where I currently live), the only downside being that it’s absolutely horrible. But it could cost as little as a grand, deftly avoiding both homelessness and the rent trap or a big mortgage. Then I could write books and, instead of starving while doing so, get fat.

Issue 16 is on its way. Don’t miss out! Pre-order at our online shop today.

Letter to the Editor: Chilling Stuff

To send a letter to the editor, simply write in. You’ll get a reply and we’ll anonymise any blogged version.

message-in-a-bottle

Reader C writes:

Dear Robert

Thanks for the recommendation of The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walters, which I got from the library. Chilling stuff, especially this sentence:

We had some normal debt: normal credit cards, normal furniture layaways, normal car payments, some uncovered medical bills, Teddy’s normal braces and Franklin’s normal speech therapy…

Have you seen the new Wim Wenders film Perfect Days? It’s about a solitary, but not lonely, Japanese man who lives a simple life in Tokyo. It’s beautifully made and very well acted. It has some pro-work tropes (romanticising repetitive work and the dignity of a job done well) but I think its main message is Escapological.

He works in order to pursue his loves of reading second-hand books, listening to cassettes, and taking photos of trees. He only displays anger when his boss asks him to work a double shift, and he’s clearly inspiring his wealthy niece to escape from the capitalist rat race.

Doing all of this in the shadow of the hyperconsumerism of Tokyo is particularly powerful. He’s certainly a more inspiring hero than Jess Walters’ Matt.

Yours in glorious slowness,
C

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Hello C.

Yes indeed! Perfect Days is a wonderful film and I second your recommendation of it for the benefit of our readers.

In fact, I have reviewed the film along with a similarly-but-differently Escapological new film called The Delinquents in the forthcoming Issue 16.

The World Seen Through Social Media Isn’t Real

Following our practical post about escaping social media once and for all, a couple of people emailed to say they can’t quit social media because of reasons.

So don’t. I’m not telling you what to do, honestly. I’m inviting you to think about it and, if you want to, to gradually and calmly, piece by piece, extract yourself from the tangle in which you’ve found yourself. They kidnapped your time and attention gradually and calmly, piece by piece. That’s the way to leave too. You won’t regret it.

If you need extra strength to go against the grain, I find the following quote from Jaron Lanier very powerful. It’s almost like a mantra to me now. I carry it around in a backroom of my brain and I summon it whenever I idly think about re-joining social media to see how some kid from school looks like now or because there’s something for me to promote. Sorry, here’s Lanier:

You, you, you have the affirmative responsibility to invent and demonstrate ways to live without the crap that is destroying society.

I know it’s hard to swim against the tide when you have limited time and money and reach. But it’s important to do it anyway. The rich and powerful certainly manage it. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes:

while seemingly every kid in a restaurant is watching bizarre, algorithmically determined children’s content on YouTube, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both severely limited their children’s use of technology at home. As Paul Lewis reported for The Guardian, Justin Rosenstein, the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button, had a parental control feature set up on his phone by an assistant to keep him from downloading apps. Loren Brichter, the engineer who invented the “pull to refresh” feature of Twitter feeds regards his invention with penitence: “pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. In the meantime he has “put his design work on the back burner while he focusses on building a house in New Jersey.” Without personal assistants to commandeer our phones, the rest of us keep on pulling to refresh, while overworked single parents juggling work and sanity find it necessary to stick iPads in front of their kids’ faces.

And here’s an additional thought that’s been rolling around in my head lately: the world seen through social media isn’t real. Zuckerberg might not know it but the Metaverse has been here for ages.

I recently started listening to the second series of Jon Ronson’s Things Fell Apart. It’s a piece of investigative journalism concerning the so-called culture wars.

When I listened to the first series last year it was with genuine curiosity. I’d heard of, for example, “pizzagate” but I didn’t understand quite was was going on. I knew about the right-wing Christian aversion to abortion but I didn’t know why it was suddenly all the rage beyond the American south. Ronson’s show made sense of these things.

I wasn’t naturally interested in those topics per se, but thanks to comments I’d seen on social media they’d snagged my interest. What was real? Was any of this a threat to me? Would it change anything in my neighbourhood? Did I need to know something about this thing to understand culture today? I wasn’t consciously asking those questions, but my amygdala was.

They were zombie thoughts. Automated fretful horizon-scanning when I could have been looking at clouds.

Now that I’m off social media (did I mention that?), the second series of Jon Ronson’s thing is hard to listen to. It’s boring and unpleasant. I’m no longer interested in “making sense of the culture wars.” They’re not relevant to me.

Let’s face it. The culture wars are made up. Usually by right-wing newspapers and technology firms, paid for by billionaires and oligarchs with an interest in destabilising free will and non-Russian public institutions.

Not being able to listen to that radio show made me understand that the world seen through social media is horribly distorted. Everyone knows this already, but now I know it viscerally because, for the first time in 20 years, I’ve been spending time in the world without the distortion lens.

Life’s much better without the distortion lens.

You also heal surprisingly quickly, which gives me hope. Delete your accounts. Go back to real life.

You too, Jon Ronson. Get back out into the field and quit with the Twitter shit. It’s enough already.

There’s a bit in The Circle by Dave Eggers where the Last Man Standing (i.e. a character not on social media and spends his days making authentic clay pots or something) is hounded by drones until he drives his car off a bridge. It never really rang true to me. Here in the real world, I don’t feel hassled by “tech.” The people Jon Ronson shows being bullied on Facebook are, well, on Facebook. You really can switch it off and get on with your life.

I’m not curious about culture wars any more. More interesting to me are Momus’ thoughts about how the algorithm might influence the real world. And more interesting still, are the actual affairs of the real world: things like ant colonies (literally, not metaphorically) and new live comedy, and publishing real books, using digital technology to make real things happen instead of distracting from them, and simply hanging out.

Real life, folks. I’m telling you. It’s unbeatable. Until it is! I’d say there’s “no competition” but the emails I get from people who “can’t” re-join us on the outside strongly suggest otherwise.

Listen to me preach about this, eh? I’ve only been free of it for six months. But that’s how good it is. Listen! I’m a voice from the other side and you don’t even need a ouija board to hear it!

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Time Too Precious

Do you remember the naturalist and mountaineer John Muir? Of course you do. I called him “Dreamer John” and he said “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

Well, his friend William Badè said this about John Muir in his introduction to Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.

[John] concluded that life was too brief and uncertain, and time too precious, to waste upon belts and saws; that while he was pottering in a wagon factory, God was making a world; and he determined that, if his eyesight was spared, he would devote the remainder of his life to a study of the process.

Eyesight spared? Wikipedia explains:

In early-March 1867, an accident changed the course of his life: a tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye. The file slipped and cut the cornea in his right eye and then his left eye sympathetically failed. He was confined to a darkened room for six weeks to regain his sight, worried about whether he would end up blind. When he regained his sight, “he saw the world—and his purpose—in a new light”. Muir later wrote, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” From that point on, he determined to “be true to [himself]” and follow his dream of exploration and study of plants.

Escape! When work almost ruined him, he had an epiphany in quiet darkness, then answered the call of the hills.

Dreamer John again:

There’s plenty more Escapological wisdom in our forthcoming Issue 16, available to pre-order now in print and digital formats. Do so and rejoice!

Click, Click, Swish, Click, Click

I’m researching an artist called Giacomo Patri.

When the school he worked for was shut down by McCarthyism for being closely associated with the labour movement, he turned to independent creative practice.

Patri took to crafting and printing a graphic memoir of linocuts at home.

In the foreword to a 2016 commercial reprint, his sons remember the presence of a printing press in their home:

The whole process produced a memorable, rhythmic, ‘click, click, swish, click, click,’ against the background of the whirling sound of the electric motor and the smell of fresh printer’s ink throughout the house.

Isn’t this a lovely recollection? It reminds me that there is, as Tove Jansson put it, a right kind of work.

How to Get Rid of Things

If you’re trying maximise your freedom by downsizing or if you just want to benefit from minimalism in general, you’ll sooner or later find yourself in a phase of “getting rid of things.”

What is the best way to get rid of things? I mentioned that this guy was wasteful in getting rid of things quickly by taking them to charity shops or the tip.

Charity shops, I’m sorry to tell you, will probably also take your things to the tip. Or leave them outside the shop in garbage bags ready to be taken to the tip. Charity shops are overburdened with donations. Only the finest junk will make it onto their shelves. Besides, charity (in the sense of large businesses posistioning themselves as middlemen) sucks. We need social reform, not charity. Their brands are sometimes toxic. I like the idea that they keep used-but-useful goods in circulation, but they’re increasingly crap at this.

So, here are the best ways to get rid of stuff, in order:

1. Don’t acquire it in the first place. This is probably too late if you’re currently purging, but it’s worth remaining vigilant to acquisition. Getting rid of stuff is only one side of the methods of minimalism; the other and arguably most important side is not buying or otherwise acquiring things to begin with. You can adopt a minimum acquisition ethic any time and future purges will be less onerous.

2. Sell it in person to non-charity-based second-hand shops (especially book and music shops). This is good for batches of things, makes money for yourself, and keeps used-but-useful things in circulation.

3. Sell it in person via Craigslist or Gumtree or similar. People will collect it from your house if you make it clear that you won’t deliver. Top tip: charging a token amount of money makes people take the transaction more seriously than if you list it for free (collectors of free junk often never turn up). Selling is generally better than giving away for free, not just because you’ll make useful beer (or escape fund) money from the exchange but also because the thing you’re getting rid of will go to someone who actually wants or needs it instead of greedily accepting something just because it’s free and sticking it uselessly in a cupboard or on a big pile of other hoarded junk.

4. Sell it online with eBay, Etsy, Vinted, Depop, etc. You’ll get the market value for whatever you’re ditching, but this isn’t as good as in-person selling because (a) it will involve a trip to the post office and (b) you’ll miss out on local economies (i.e. talking to someone who lives nearby, keeping value in local circulation instead of sending it inevitably to the largest population centres and Silicon Valley-type mediators via an app).

5. Leave it somewhere it can be taken for free: a community givebox is ideal but a dry street corner can work too. Check back to make sure it’s been taken: don’t be a posh fly-tipper.

6. Give it away for free with Freecycle, Craigslist or Gumtree but see reservations in 3 and 4 above.

7. Donate it to a charity shop in the hopes that they won’t bin it.

8. Give it to a friend. This is good and avoids the charity shop problem, but they might only take it to be kind to you (rather than really wanting or needing it) and it will still be in your personal/social ecosystem and therefore potentially retrievable or psychologically still part-owned; better to ditch it more thoroughly.

9. Smash it up and put it in the bin. Which is less effort than:

10. Take it to the tip. Ideally on foot (see my walk review in Issue 14) so as not to stink up the world with your disgusting car fumes. When junking something, remember it will be dead forever and any value that might still be extracted from it will be gone. The profit of binning something or taking something to the tip is pure ullage: the valuable absence or emptiness that will take that object’s place.

General guidance when getting rid of stuff: do it gradually, not in one big purge. You’re less likely to dispose of things productively or thoughtfully when trying to purge quickly.

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Minimalism! Not written about that for a while. Feels good. There’s a guide to minimalism in Issue Three and I’m Out.

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