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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It’s a Shit Business

The reason there are folk on the comedy circuit miserably plodding on, dead behind the eyes, is because they’ve done the same thing for however many years. How can that possibly be creatively stimulating on any level? It’s monotonous toil for a wage, and I’m sure none of us ever started with that goal. It’s a harsh truth that being a jobbing comic will often sap the time and energy that you could spend creating something you really would like to do.

Thinking that stand-up comedy might be your escape from mindless servitude? Think again, says the lovely Ian Boldsworth in a candid essay on his revamped website.

Comics boast to each other that they have no boss, that they are this free spirited, uncensored community who have the luxury of being able to say whatever they want for the catharsis of the masses. The reality has moved away from that. Any jobbing circuit comedian who thinks they don’t have a boss and can say what they want is deluded.

Boldsworth recently quit stand-up in favour of art production, writing, podcasting, and independent film production. Can’t blame him at all. Here’s some info about his film, which (as a Parapod fan) I’m looking forward to seeing. Stop crying.

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What Do You Do? Redux

Here are two more escapological nuggets from Miranda Sawyer’s Out of Time, discussed on Friday. (Here’s a link to actually buy the book, since I’m quoting from it so liberally.)

On “What do you do?” Miranda says:

Such an odd thing to ask. What do I do? Lots of things, Nosy. I wasn’t used to the question. Nobody asked that in Manchester, no one asked it in clubs. It was too personal, a bit police-y. If you met someone for the first time, you would just give your first name — if you even said that — and then you’d try to make each other laugh. Comment on the situation you were in, talk music, or dance moves, or maybe football or DJs. Your job never came into it.

This supports my sense of the question’s prevalence being new, a product perhaps of neoliberalsm. Miranda had to go to the bright lights of London to experience it in the 1990s. Today it’s the first thing people ask even here in stinky old Glasgow.

I’ve mentioned this before, but Victorian etiquette expert Emily Post wrote that “what do you do?” is a uniquely boorish thing to say to someone at a social event. Leave work at the door for crying out loud and don’t make people compete with you for status.

Speaking of status:

One of the things I notice now is that in conversations with other people there’s always a status element. It’s disguised but its there. So if someone says they’re so busy they can’t cope, they’re really saying “I’m important because I’m indispensable.” […] Going out to gigs, getting hammered? Still relevant, not old. Know what’s going on locally? In touch with authentic experience. Kids picked for the sports team? Great parenting, plus talent passing down the generations.

This is something I discuss in Escape the Deathly Humblebrag. Let’s smash the work ethic by expunging it from our language!

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Escapology as Crisis

I’m reading Out of Time by Miranda Sawyer. It’s a recent book about midlife crises.

At 34, I’m not quite the intended reader but you never know how long you’ve got left, so the concept of “midlife,” is surely always relevant. Who are you to assume you’ve got a full 83-year lifespan to work with, Mr Complacent-pants? We’re all in a state of mid-life no matter how far along one happens to be. As in “I am amid life.” (Fuck off, that absolutely works).

I’m reading the book because I heard Miranda interviewed on a podcast and I liked her. She strikes me as someone who lives quite fully and won’t have many regrets, but is also aware of mortality and temporariness. That, my friends, is how to live. Her book has been described as “anti-self-help” but it’s really an introspective memoir about youth — as seen from the vantage point of being 45 in 2016 — and time moving on.

As someone who lived through the brilliant, sanguine ’90s and inherited the cultural changes delivered by clubbing, ecstacy, Madchester, Steve Coogan, Britpop and all those magazines but was a bit too young to experience it properly, I’m finding it fascinating. From my perspective, it’s a very-recent-history book, about the ten years that came before my adult consciousness kicked in. Explanations at last!

Anyway, something that struck me are the book’s various descriptions of midlife crisis. Frankly, I think I’ve been in a state of crisis since I was about 11 years old. It’s the sense of there not being enough time to do the things you want to do despite them being relatively modest, the feeling that the odds are against you, and the sense that escape is a solution, and perhaps the only one.

There were other feelings. A sort of mourning. A weighing up, while feeling weighed down. A desire to escape – run away, quick! – that came on strong in the middle of the night.

and:

I would wake at the wrong time, filled with pointless energy, and start ripping up my life from the inside. Planning crazy schemes. I’d be giving [my daughter] her milk at 4am and simultaneously mapping out my escape, mentally choosing the bag I’d take when I left, packing it (socks, laptop, towels), imagining how long I’d last on my savings. I’d be rediscovering the old me, the real one that was somewhere buried beneath the piles of muslin wipes and my failing fortysomething body. I’d be living life gloriously.

So maybe Escapology is the practical application of crisis. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Many people who’ve told me about their sudden, deliberate change in life direction also mention an epiphany — a moment when you’ve got one foot in the commuter train and the other still on the platform and you say “no more” — and what is that but a crisis?

Look at this beauty:

In short, you wake one day and everything is wrong. You thought you would be somewhere else, someone else. It’s as though you went out one warm evening – an evening fizzing with delicious potential – you went out for just one drink… and woke up two days later in a skip. Except you’re not in a skip, you’re in an estate car, on the way to an out-of-town shopping mall to buy a balance bike, a roof rack and some stackable storage boxes. “It’s all a mistake!” you shout. “I shouldn’t be here! This life was meant for someone else! Someone who would like it! Someone who would know what to do!”

I genuinely remember feeling this way when being sent off to secondary school. And again, later, when walking a steep incline one morning to reach a university lecture I didn’t want to attend, to get a degree was ambivalent about, to get a job I’d barely be able to tolerate.

Perhaps a midlife crisis can be experienced at any age, especially to those with strong ideas about the kind of life they want or at least a strong sense of direction that isn’t being granted by inertia alone.

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Ask Albert

A handwritten note from Albert Einstein — originally given by Einstein in lieu of a tip to a courier — sold for a record $1.56m this week.

The note says (in German):

A quiet and modest life brings more joy than a pursuit of success bound with constant unrest.

One of the finest minds in the history of the universe concurs with our theory!

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Begin With the End in Mind

I’ve never read Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It looks too long, too managerial, and generally like something Rimmer would read.

Doubtless it’s the sort of book to contain the odd gem or an interesting way of seeing a problem, but this is an effect that leaves me feeling like a gold prospector sifting for nuggets.

(This is precisely how I felt about the famous Getting Things Done when I finally read it last year. In this instance the useful nugget was the word “trusted”).

The 7 Habits was hugely influential and contributed significantly to the tone of modern self-help so it gets mentioned a lot. When it was came up today I found myself wondering what exactly those seven (sorry, “7”) habits are exactly so I looked them up.

Aside from the annoying discovery that I’d independently come up with Covey’s abundance mentality rather belatedly, the best truth nugget lies in the second habit: “Begin with the End in Mind”.

This struck me first as a bit “well, duh” but then it hit me like a suckerpunch.

It had never occurred to me that many people (perhaps even most people?) do not “begin with the end in mind”.

Suddenly, the behavior and decisions of so many people I’ve met over the years made sense. People who binge as soon as pay day rolls around. People who think that checking themselves into wage slavery is a sustainable solution. People who hoard. People who are disorganised. Above all, people who discount the future.

You can probably see how this applies. For example, if someone in receipt of a £1,500 pay cheque had a reasonable, pragmatic, non-punishing idea of how they want their finances to look by the end of the month (e.g. all bills paid, a reasonable amount spent on fun, a minimum of £300 left over for savings) then they wouldn’t start pissing the new income so spectacularly up the wall on Day One.

In the case of being disorganised, I’d sometimes look at a spreadsheet put together by a colleague — multiple sheets scattered across a single workbook, coloured cells, bold text, complicated filters, cells formatted so that phone numbers can’t begin with a “0” — and wonder about the decisions that led to such a mess. I’d think “is this what you wanted your system to look like?” I mean, it didn’t just happen: you clicked on “bold,” you put weird formatting on those cells.

And man oh man, does this apply to minimalism. “Have nothing in your homes that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” is the maxim. Having nothing in one’s home except for the useful and the beautiful is the “end” one must “have in mind”. So when looking at the range of lovely products available to buy, or when given a gift or presented with the opportunity to take something for free, one needs to wonder if it contributes to or detracts from that end.

Some of us probably do this instinctively, but many, I suspect, do not. Covey writes:

It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busy-ness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy — very busy — without being very effective. People often find themselves achieving victories that are empty, successes that have come at the expense of things they suddenly realize were far more valuable to them.

It’s sort of bizarre that people fall into this trap so often (or, if we’re being brutal, at all). It’s as though they haven’t worked out that actions have consequences (or that the desirable consequences require specific actions) and instead allow their listing autopilot to drift them into a tempest or throw themselves into performing a host of unhelpful, unrelated actions. Why?

I had an idea a few months ago that I’d quite like to live among a few leafy houseplants so that I might feel a bit more like a monkey in Rousseau painting. What I did next was visit a florist where I acquired a couple of leafy houseplants and I took them home. What I did not do was enlist in a dance class, rub my body down with a prone Cocker Spaniel, or ring up the Natural History Museum to complement them their famous sauropod skeleton. The reason I did not do these things is because they had nothing to do with my envisioned “end” of living among leafy houseplants.

If I found myself performing all of those crazy actions “in pursuit” of fulfilling my house plant ambition, I’d like to think that at some point I’d stop the madness and say “Why am I doing this?”

Which is a good question to ask oneself quite often, really.

Maybe a fault in Escapology is that it assumes people tend to function with an end in mind where, in fact, so many do not.

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