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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“We are sorry to announce that the eight oh eight to Dalmuir is delayed by approximately three minutes.”

My New Year’s Resolution was to post to my other blog once a week, every Saturday.

Somehow I’ve managed to keep this resolution and to not break the chain for the entire first month. Hooray!

Today’s post is about a subject close to any Escapologist’s heart — commuting:

I’ve been taking more trains than usual — often during rush hour — and experiencing the station from the perspective of a commuter for the first time. It makes me want to set up some sort of commuter’s union. The poor bastards have difficult enough lives as it is, without starting each day in a Jean-Paul Sartre play.

Enjoy.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 51. 2017 Review.

Holy Smokes, is that the time? Ja! It’s the (eighth?) annual report to my imaginary shareholders.

Though the world’s terrifying problems continue, 2017 somehow felt like a nicer year than 2016 didn’t it? Maybe it was the encouraging resistance to evil we witnessed around the globe or perhaps it was the incompetence revealed in the devils themselves. Whatever the reason, I certainly feel happier today than I did at the end of 2016. I hope you feel similarly, dear reader.

This being said, much of my year was spent negotiating the aching bullshit of The Hostile Environment. This meant my partner and me working in day jobs again — she full-time, I part-time — and largely putting our frugal, creative lives on hold. But never mind! Things, to some extent, still happened:

In January I wrote a piece about Death and Minimalism for Caitlin Doughty’s blog. It’s only a little thing but CD (as the cool kids call her) and her blog are so phenomenally popular that I still get email about it a year later.

This loudcast also nudged some nice people into my Patreosphere, a funding system that led me to write and post some six new essays (and re-edit six old ones) this year. There will be another dollop of this in 2018, so please join in and encourage a bit more Escapological writing if you can.

In February, my silly face appeared (below) in an Alan Dimmick forty-year retrospective in Edinburgh. It felt good to be welcomed into the Hall of Fame (or Rogues Gallery) that is Alan’s collection of Glasgow hepcats. And look at the essence-capturing greatness of his work — witchcraft, I tell ye.

In May we visited Northern Ireland for the wedding of Escapologists Reggie and Aislinn. It took place in a lighthouse and we were lucky enough to spend a night in this remote (and suspiciously phallic) place.

In the summer, we flew to Montreal for another wedding. It was a beautiful outdoor event and it felt good to be back in Sin City (as nobody ever calls it). There, we lounged in the sunshine, saw Houdini’s handcuffs, and helped install an art show for Andy Curlowe. I say “helped,” but my contribution was largely to eat vegan hotdogs while watching the team hang the paintings. That’s useful, right?

On returning to the UK, we popped down to “That London” to record my online course in Escapology with the Idler gang. It was a great treat to drink beer with Tom on the side of the Thames and to pootle about in his Idler world.

In the Idler magazine itself, my column continued through 2017 with another 8 installments, making this my longest-running column.

In August, I crossed the river to see some TV producers in Govan about a possible Channel 4 documentary. I quickly got the sense that the doc wasn’t going to happen, but it was fun to travel to the meeting by boat. I might move to an island — that is, an island smaller than Montreal or, indeed, Britain — just to make this happen.

Back to Belfast in September, this time for cultural tourism. Perhaps the highlight for me was the Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition where we saw this ace crab:

In October, I caught some kid’s helium balloon in my open umbrella. I also teamed up with friends for a Wicker Man ensemble at Halloween.

In November, I got a nice essay into Canadian Notes and Queries, a favourite literary journal. This was a proper bit of writing and I have no idea where I found the time and creative juice to do it. And yet, slightly flirting with Terry Fallis on Twitter was a highlight of my year.

In December, Landis and I released a second episode of The Boring Podcast, part of an objects-based collaboration that will, I think, continue next year.

At home, we celebrated Hanukkah in the traditional way — by slightly messing up the mathematically-complicated candle-lighting ceremony. On December 25th we fled the tinselworm and insulated ourselves to Christmas Radiation by walking for an hour to the nearest Odeon to see The Last Jedi.

Throughout the year, our guest room hosted friends from far and wide. There was Emily from New York, Sofia and Drew from British Columbia, Shanti from Montreal, my family from England, Landis from Chicago. When you don’t have the freedom to travel very much, why not bring others to you instead? We also cultivated some new friendships in Glasgow, perhaps especially in Louise, Graeme, and Sven (hi!).

Despite spending a year in the horror of employment, I end 2017 feeling positive and confident. I should be able to pack the day job away in February or March. I suspect I will let you know when that happens, such will be my need to rejoice.

I already know 2018 will be a big year and I’m looking forward to telling you about it as it happens. The escape plan is drafted. The lock picks are primed. Wheels are very much in motion. Bring it on.

*

As is traditional, here is my year in books. It’s a slightly shorter list than usual thanks in part to the aforementioned day job but also in part to a subscription to the eternally-great-but-famously-destructive-to-reading-capacity LRB. Lest we forget, an asterisk* denotes an out-loud read while the dagger† denotes a re-read. Parp!

Patricia Highsmith – The Boy Who Followed Ripley
Robert Sullivan – Rats: A Year with New York’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
Rutger Bregman – Utopia for Realists
David Nobbs – The Death of Reginald Perrin
Ryan North/Erica Henderson – The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 3
Philip Roth – The Ghost Writer
Kakuzo Okakura – The Book of Tea
Simon Barnes – How to be a (bad) birdwatcher
Ann Laird – Hyndland: Edwardian Glasgow Tenement Suburb
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes*†
Nicholson Baker – How the World Works
Ben Aranovich – The Hanging Tree*
Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea
Tom Baker – Who on Earth is Tom Baker?
Nigel Williams – 2 ½ Men in a Boat
Grant Morrison & Darrick Robertson – Happy
J. G. Ballard – Concrete Island
Walter Tevis – The Man Who Fell to Earth
Quentin Bell – Bloomsbury
Quentin Crisp – The Naked Civil Servant
Georges Perec – Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
Patricia Highsmith – Ripley Under Water
Stephen King – Doctor Sleep
Ronnie Scott – Death by Design: The True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis
Janice Galloway – Jellyfish
Roald Dahl – Someone Like You
Penelope Lively – The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories
William Golding – The Pyramid
Elaine Dundy – The Dud Avocado*
Amy Licence – Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles
Katherine Mansfield – Bliss and Other Stories
Miranda Sawyer – Out of Time
Dave Simpson – The Fallen
Simon Garfield – The Wrestling
Ben Aaronovitch – The Furthest Station
Piers Anthony – Heaven Cent*
T. E. Lawrence – The Mint

Books read in substantial part but ultimately abandoned (this year, on the unusual grounds of being, simply, shit):

Greg McKeown – Essentialism
Karen Russell – Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Paul Merton – Silent Comedy
Chris Packham – Fingers in the Sparkle Jar
Geoff Dyer – White Sands

As the year closes, I find myself reading Mary Beard’s so-so doorstep SPQR and Richard Sennett‘s soft and bulbous Together.

Being suspicious of sound waves, I never give you a year in music. To make up for this culture dearth, here’s my friend Ian, whose taste is beyond reproach.

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Dangerous Nonsense!

Here’s a Conservative MP called Nick Boles on Universal Basic Income, pretty much confirming what we always knew we were up against:

The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral.

Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment (sic) in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.

Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.

Isn’t that the most delicious (not to mention adorable) thing you’ve ever read? Caught red-handed! Just in case anyone thought we were being paranoid, this is what the critics of the post-work society actually think.

The objection to freedom is not that we can’t do it but that we shouldn’t, because Work — brutal, superegoic knuckling down — is All. Apparently, we should just carry on toiling, no matter how pointlessly, until the whole world is used up.

This obsession with work is one of the only things standing in the way of our luxury, automated post-work society (which is why the destruction of the Work Ethic is key to the manifesto of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams). No wonder there’s a “moral” objection from people like Boles; we can’t have citizens going around “playing music and nurturing plants” like a bunch of toga-wearing hippies. Only obsolete graft is good enough for our people!

It does not occur to people like Nick Boles (or else they willfully dismiss the notion) that time might be occupied more pleasantly and usefully than in full-time employment, and that “work” is not the only way to find meaning in life. Art, craft, husbandry — “dangerous nonsense”!

(Elsewhere in UBI news, it looks like we’re getting some trials in Scotland; and Berlusconi has put it at the core of his Presidential campaign in Italy).

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Artefact

These pages are from one of those “thick greetings card” books. I spotted this one in a shop while out on a walk the other day.

Doesn’t it precisely represent the kind of weak-ass, not-quite-gallows humour found in offices?

As a humorist and Escapologist, here’s what I read in this two-page spread:

Escape is impossible. Creative thought is ridiculous. Metaphor is pretension. The past is lost. Even our own feeble, institutional attempts at improvement — “going on a course” — are futile.

Also note the aesthetically-pukesome hyphenation of “wellbeing” used almost exclusively by management.

Yuck. Happy Monday.

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