Another Escapee

Hello Robert, 

I just wanted to say a huge thank you. I read your book and took the back catalogue of your magazine away on my Summer Holidays last year. Fast forward ten months and this week is my last in my [civil service] job. I handed my resignation in and have found part-time work with a friend in street food catering. 

I am happier, more carefree and have a smile back on my face.And this wouldn’t have happened without your writing.  

Thank you for the inspiration to make the great escape.

Kind Regards
C

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 55. Operation Breadhead

I’ve been working harder than usual to make money. It’s a year-long project of uncharacteristic money-grubbing. I call it Operation Breadhead and we’re three months in.

I have a big pie-chart, which I look at every day to see how far I am from making the money I need. Cash earned so far displays in the pie as green (my favourite colour) and it advances against the red (my least favourite colour) in a genuine attempt at motivating myself (to replace red with green). Instead of red, I thought about using a picture of Theresa May’s office-manager face, which I could gradually cover with pleasant rain-forest green, but I couldn’t work out how to do that in Google Sheets.

This is all to do with the visa again, I’m afraid, and the associated minimum income requirement. We satisfied it last time through horrible, horrible employment [place werewolf howling sound effect here], but this time we have chosen to resist such catastrophic disruption to our lives and to do it through part-time employment (on my wife’s part) and self-employment (on mine). Tactical!

For my part, this has meant writing, writing, writing. And managing that writing enterprise in a way that I have never bothered about before. Honestly, I even have an accountant now. I’m dabbling with overseas editions and things like that too.

It’s actually been a lot of fun. Being creative and resourceful instead of submitting to a tedious day job is Escapology in a nutshell. And where the project is not “fun” per se, it has at least been instructive and interesting. I’ve had to stretch myself and increase my usual annual income by about 20% but, let’s face it, that’s something I should do anyway.

It’s also rather exciting to know that once it’s done, it’s done forever this time. At the end of this financial year, we’ll have everything we need for “indefinite leave” on the visa front, and my wife and I can be together with minimum threat of being separated or forced to leave my own country.

Anyway, we’re three months into Operation Breadhead and all goes well. In fact, I hit 50% of my target after the first two months, which was a considerable confidence boost and a welcome relief of pressure, but this large chunk relied on shaking some old piggy banks — calling in my book royalties and the likes — rather than creating new work.

I’ve also been running around, writing bits and bobs for magazines, though this has been for comparably small amounts of money and involves an inordinate amount of chasing people up to actually get paid. I don’t know why they’re like this: I doubt they’re so evasive about paying, say, their electric bill, so why give the writers a hard time when they’re arguably an even more important ingredient in conjuring up a magazine? Has there ever been a strike? Surely, we’re essential?

It has proven less difficult to extract money from less-creative writing projects. Copywriting and the likes. This is because the money for such work seems to come from marketing budgets, which are generally taken more seriously. You know, because marketing.

In particular, I’ve been doing some copywriting for English universities whose marketing budgets are clearly through the roof. This is fairly dull, though the people are nice. One fellow for whom I’m writing is a kindly Canadian who grew up two streets over from where my in-laws now live in Montreal. He’s a lovely fellow with a passion for his academic subject, though he rarely seems to remember who I am when I call. This sort of thing always bewilders me: even if you can’t remember my name, why isn’t this pre-arranged phone call in your diary? Why are you expecting the call? Still, at least this sort of scatterbrain nature doesn’t seem to be in service of “forgetting” to pay me.

As a consistent side project that will take far longer than the Breadhead period to complete, I’ve been editing and transcribing sections of a friend’s life-long travel journal. He is kind to pay me for this as I used to read his writing purely for pleasure. The total work is (genuinely) three times longer than War and Peace and its not finished yet. He’s going to be the Samuel Pepys of end-of-the-century travel writing one day. He has, quite simply, been everywhere. Literally everywhere you can think of.

Elsewhere for this omni-caper, I directed a one-person comedy show, helped to design a library (not sure if that qualifies as literary work but it was at least pleasant and studious and was no struggle to get paid), and edited part of a book about ’80s indie music.

Aaaaanyway. I just wanted to let you know what’s happening at the moment in this life on the lam. I’m treating the visa situation as just another escape: escape from a pesky situation using tactics and a little bit of elbow-grease, this time (largely) on my own terms.

I know this all looks rather busy and manic but the fact remains that I really do only put in about four hours a day before kicking back with a book (I’m currently reading the diaries of David Sedaris and a funny old book about “microbes”) or hitting the pub or the cinema.

Don’t worry, gang. The next Escapology-focused book is in the works too. It is written and is in the hands of my agent. More on this when I have it.

*

The point of this here long-running Escapologist’s Diary series, by the way, is to chronicle the life of an Escapologist, to help answer the question of “what would I do if I didn’t have a job?” in almost sarcastic detail. You can now do this in even more granular detail (what joy!) over here. Leave a comment to help me feel less like I’m spaffing away into the abyss.

Green Escapology Anyone?

Worried about the planet dying? I bloody am.

Happily, Escapologists who vowed a long time ago to work less (if at all) are at least on the right side of things. We’ve intuitively known for a long time that work and consumption are responsible for global warming and plastic soup and all the rest of it. I mean it’s obvious really, isn’t it?

So let’s tell the others: work less, save the planet.

A good piece by Andre Spicer in today’s Guardian puts it thus:

By working less, we produce fewer goods and services that require precious resources to make. We also consume less in the process of getting our job done. Less work means less carbon-intensive commuting, less energy-sucking office space, and less time on power-hungry computer systems. In addition, working less would help to break down the work-spend cycle. 

It’s encouraging that people are slowly starting to wake up to this and to take [in]action. There have been studies to investigate the correlation between work and carbon footprint, as reported in Spicer’s piece:

According to a cluster of recent studies, working less is good for the environment.

One analysis found that if we spent 10% less time working, our carbon footprint would be reduced by 14.6%. If we cut the hours we work by 25% – or a day and a quarter each week – our carbon footprint would decline by 36.6%.

Another study found that if people in the US (who work notoriously long hours) worked similar hours to Europeans (who work much less), then they would consume about 20% less energy.

A more recent analysis of US states found a strong positive relationship between the number of hours people worked and their carbon emissions. The more they worked, the more they polluted.

Working a four-day week, rather than, say, taking more holidays or working fewer hours each day, was a great way of reducing your environmental impact. The exact magnitude of that reduction is unclear, but the research seems to point in the same direction: lowering the number of hours we work would help to reduce our impact on the environment.

Actual studies exist now to provide a research basis for what we could call Green Escapology.

Then again, when you remember that “work expends energy” is pretty much the basis of Physics, one wonders how much more science is needed for the message to be taken seriously.

A Soupy Twist

Friend Henry sends us this anecdote. It almost serves as a counterpoint or sequel event to Graeber’s “scrub the baseboard” story:

Once a week I volunteer at a soup kitchen. It’s the least I can do, considering I lead quite a lazy life and shifts only take up a few hours in the evening.

Last week I was on washing-up duty with another volunteer. I started at the sink while she was collecting the dirty crockery, and after ten minutes we swapped roles so I could cool down away from the steaming water and hot ovens.

Once my brow was thoroughly wiped I asked if she wanted to swap back, but she was keen to carry on. In fact she stayed at the sink for the entire shift and powered through the washing up in record time, meaning we could get home earlier than usual.

At one point I commented on her enthusiasm. Turns out she used to work in a bar and had to endure hours of washing up as part of the job, but now that she isn’t being paid to clean and doesn’t have a tyrannical boss telling her what to do, she actually enjoys scrubbing dirty crockery.

She takes pride in making sure every dish and spoon is spotless, since she’s come to the task voluntarily.

“My resignation was quickly written out but not so easily accepted.”

I’ve been reading a book called Oasis of the North (1958) about Dawn MacLeod who leaves her mundane public-sector job in London to help her aunt tend to her gardens in the remotest Highlands of Scotland. The gardens are Inverewe Garden, a quirky botanical garden with diverse plant life thanks to an unusual sub-Tropical climate supported by the Gulf Steam. It is now part of the National Trust.

I’m not recommending the book here (though it’s perfectly nice) or hankering to tell you about the gardens, but I wanted to share with you the opening lines of the book, which are about her escape from comfortable mediocrity.

She receives a letter from her aunt, apropos of nothing, calling her to adventure:

A little later in the book, she starts to think about practicalities — only after escaping! The desire to leave was stronger than figuring out the details.

She takes a little audit, realises that she’ll survive in a frugal sort of way, and then realises with “a jolt” that she had forgotten about her National Insurance (healthcare and pension) contributions, a process normally taken care of by an employer (or, today, the PAYE system). Familiar!

Nice eh?

Spoiler alert: she gets along just fine.

Letter to the Editor: a major flaw in your argument

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

Dear Robert,

I like your writing. I came across your column about “the Hot New Thing” in the Idler which prompted me to get your books Escape Everything! and A Loose Egg, while also subscribing to your newsletter.

I’m only 10% in to your Escape book, which is hilarious and I literally laugh out loud when reading it on the tube (a good reason to have a long commute), however I have come across a major flaw in your argument, which if you forgive me I would like to relay to you.

If we all became idlers and escapees, who would do the absolutely essential jobs that no one wants to do, like street cleaning, rubbish collecting, sewage clearing, etc.?

Surely the economic system we live under has facilitated wage slavery for this very reason – someone has to do the dirty work. The only way to reserve some people for pawn-like functions while others enjoy their kingly status is to set up an unequal, hierarchical system that keeps the poor out of pocket so that their only choice is to collect your black bin liner once a week.

I get that your writing is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, silly, and quite often ridiculous, but unfortunately it doesn’t come across as economically viable. I hope one of your later chapters will rectify this though.

Have a good day and I look forward to reading more of your witty passages.

D., a fan

Hi D. Thanks so much for buying my books. I can just about live on the strength of my book sales but I’m still in a position where every book counts, so I hugely appreciate it. Thank you. I’m glad you like the Idler column too – more of those to come!

I think I come some way to answering your question later in the book (the epilogue is literally and directly about “what if everyone was an escapologist?” – I think that might even be the title), though I appreciate that I may not have handled it fully and that the shortcoming you have detected probably remains a valid criticism of the book. Hold tight though and finish the book to see what you think. In brief:

– The sort of jobs I really take aim at are “bullshit jobs,” i.e. white collar, boring jobs that either make no difference to world or actively harm it. Toilet cleaning and the likes can be said to be “shit jobs” but hardly useless, so they don’t really attract my ire. David Graeber makes this important distinction in his brand new Bullshit Jobs book, which actually serves as a nice (if belated) preface to Escape Everything! and the sort of thing Tom writes about in the Idler.

– The “who would sweep the streets and do other sorts of dirty work” question is, I’m afraid, very common. There are ideas about automating it in various ways (not necessarily in high-tech ways but in upstreaming the problem, etc.), but you’re right that the work has to be done for now. It should also be better paid than it is, which is something social activists are working on (here in Scotland they’re doing quite well too – the living wage campaign is quite a success and should continue this way). If my writing enterprise should fail, incidentally, my plan is to become a street sweeper. I’m serious! I refuse go back to shovelling bullshit in an office. My wife has already quit her own bullshit job to become a funeral arranger.

– The idea of things being “economically viable” (i.e. making sure the economy stays strong) is a problem. I hold that the economy is a tool to make life better and more effective for us humans. It serves us, we do not serve it. So it doesn’t matter if growth decelerates a little. It might even be a good thing when overwork and environmental problems are taken into account. Might even be the moment all those anticapitalists have been agitating for. I think I probably do a better job of handling this sort of discussion in my NEXT book. It’s tentatively titled The Good Life for Wage Slaves: How to live beautifully as a white-collar drudge.

Sincere thanks again for buying my nonsense and also for writing to me. Lovely, lovely. All the best.

Sitting, staring and thinking

Friend Drew sends some pages from his copy of The Complete Far Side by Gary Larson, a two-volume book I’ve occasionally drooled over but is quite expensive. He wanted to show me the Houdini cartoon (above) but also the work-related commentary that comes with it.

Larson unpacks a question often asked of him: how long does it take you to draw a cartoon?

It’s a bit like the usual “what do you do?” icebreaker but it probably happens during the struggle to accept the sublime answer of “I’m a cartoonist!” (Incidentally, I recommend you give this answer too, even if you happen to be something more in line with the times.)

Anyway, how long does it take you to draw a cartoon?

I’ve suspected an ulterior motive from some people who ask me this question. I think they want to check to see if I’m really working. In other words, is cartooning a real job? If that’s the hidden question, the answer is easy — no, it’s not a real job.

But I’m working on an additional theory: that this kind of question is an outgrowth of American culture. We just seem to want to quantify everything.

How long did it take for me to draw an average cartoon? I can’t compute that with any real certainty. First of all, I enjoyed what I did. And when you enjoy something, time is a disconnect.

There’s also a critical part of the equation which has nothing to do with the physical execution of the cartoon, and that’s the time invested in just sitting, staring and thinking. And it’s difficult to know if you’re not, in truth, just doing the first two.

There’s more to Larson’s point than these exportable nuggets but it’s too long to reproduce here.

I think Drew also sent me this commentary because it provides an insight into the brainwaves of a fellow obsessive-compulsive humorist:

If [Houdini’s skull is] too gruesome it doesn’t work. If it’s too corny it doesn’t work. [It] has to simultaneously capture silliness and scariness, horror and hilarity, sadness and stupidity. For me this meant draw, erase, draw, erase, draw, erase … for hours. I couldn’t get it, although I think in the end I got sort of close. (I now see that the head should have been tilted forward just a little, dammit.)

Ah, shit, I’ve got to buy this book haven’t I? Someone do me a favour and buy a couple of PDF bundles from the shop, quick!

Lanier

This is Jaron Lanier on Channel 4, explaining how the “manipulation engine” behind social media is ruining our lives.

I read Jaron’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, some years ago in a hot Montreal summer and it made a great impression. It is not simply a surface-level tirade against social media but goes off into many interesting directions, notably into neurology and addiction and collective behaviour. The book struck me as a captivating and supremely well-informed insider’s perspective. The ramifications, moreover, are extremely serious and, as he says in the video, we have entered a period of “unreal and strange” politics where we “don’t know if elections are real or not”, and it’s all rooted in people sitting around “liking” things on Facebook and completing personality tests for fun.

I remember Lanier saying in his book that, as a Silicon Valley computer scientist of a certain age, he was disappointed with the way social media and the digital world in general have evolved. I feel similarly, albeit from a nerdy consumer perspective. I was an early adopter of mobile phones (I had a house brick phone in high school circa 1998 when nobody else my age had any such thing) and social media (I hassled my pals to join Friendster in 2002 to much bemusement; nobody could see the point in joining a digital network of people they already knew) and saw that they had great and exciting potentialities. I hate the way things turned out with Cambridge Analytica — surely only the first major democratic outrage of its kind that nobody seems to know how to address effectively.

This morning I was appalled to find that the nudge feature of the phoney Facebook account I use to administer the public Robert Wringham/New Escapologist Facebook page was naming people I know in real life as friend recommendations. How could it possibly know? Everything about this account — the registered name, the email address — is (I thought) completely separate to my real social media circle and address book. I have never used it to communicate directly with anyone and there are no (so far as I can tell) third party apps installed that should be capable of “listening”. This is deeply spooky and sinister isn’t it? It makes me want to raze my entire social media empire to the ground, but I worry about the ramifications for my “visibility” as an author. How did it come to this? The Internet used to be so much fun!

As you may remember, I ditched my personal Facebook account long ago and whenever I log in using the phoney account to make sure everything’s okay at the public page, I feel almost sick when I see the level of ugliness, how slow it is to load and how the nudge “service” is full of noisy (latterly sinister) claptrap. I’m really not interested in seeing such ugliness, let alone giving myself up to the mystical algorithmic forces of Zuckerberg and his moronic fratboy pals. As someone who left Facebook in the main, I can attest that life really is better without it.

So, if you are less cowardly and self-promotional than I am, learn from Jaron Lanier and salt the earth on all social media, for the good of society and for your own peace of mind.

I love Lanier’s remark in the video, by the way, that Silicon Valley are “not being evil, we’re being stupid,” which pretty much sums up most recent political and mass behaviour doesn’t it? It’s almost as if some intangible force came into the world a decade or so ago that shattered our attention spans, hacked the collective consciousness and made us all into dum-dums. I wonder what that could have been?

Please support New Escapologist enterprises on Patreon. Doing so grants access to six new (and six old) essays and the promise of more to come.

Learning to look at things instead of owning them

Owning something — locking it away in your house — doesn’t help anything. Leave it in the wild!

A Swedish artist and grandma called Margareta Magnusson has a nice way of putting this in her book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a very nice little book written to remind us that we can’t take our things with us when we die, so let’s tread lightly in the meantime.

Beautiful things such as an African wooden bird, strange things like a singing magnetic pig, and funny things like a solar-powered waving bear are all things that I adore. My vice really is things. It took me a while to understand this, but you can enjoy all these things without owning them. Even though this may sometimes seem quite hard to do, training yourself to enjoy only looking at things, instead of buying them, is very pleasing and also a good habit. You really can’t take everything with you, so maybe it is better to try not to own it all.

When I browse through an interior design magazine I sometimes get so tired! Many of these homes look as if all the furniture has been supplied by the same shop. Colourless, plain, perfect and without any charm at all. Too many pieces for decoration arranged on parade or in strange, affected compositions. Who will want to dust them I wonder.

But there are many homes that have a lot to teach. Beautiful, practical and sparsely furnished. Truly inspiring homes that are easy to keep clean. I still try to learn from these rooms. I reflect and maybe rethink my own living space, and then probably will get rid of a few more things!


And here’s a short conversation with Margareta on video. Isn’t she fab? The interviewer takes her to see her storage unit for the purposes of death cleaning and Margareta says “what are you going to do with all this crap?”

Please support New Escapologist enterprises on Patreon. Doing so grants access to six new (and six old) essays and the promise of more to come.

Scrub the baseboard!

I’m reading David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. It is delicious revenge for anyone who has ever had to pretend to work for hours on end in order to be allowed to go home again, and you should all read it.

There is a thousand quotations I could make from the book that are relevant to this blog, to Escapology, and to our hatred of pointless, busy work. But I will simply leave you with this lovely story of Graeber’s first job and a lesson in not mistaking a job for useful activity:

I well remember my very first job as a dishwasher in a seaside Italian restaurant. I was one of three teenage boys hired at the start of the summer season, and the first time there was a mad rush, we naturally made a game of it, determined to prove that we were the very best and most heroic dishwashers of all time, pulling together into a machine of lightning efficiency, producing a vast and sparkling pile of dishes in record time. We then kicked back, proud of what we’d accomplished, pausing perhaps to smoke a cigarette or skarf ourselves a scampi — until, of course, the boss showed up to ask us what the hell we were doing just lounging around.

“I don’t care if there are no more dishes coming in right now — you’re on my time! You can goof around on your own time. Get back to work.”

“So what are we supposed to do?”

“Get some steel wool. You can scour the baseboards.”

“But we already scoured the baseboards.”

“Then get busy scouring the baseboards again!”

Of course, we learned our lesson. If you’re on the clock, do not be too efficient. You will not be rewarded, not even by a gruff nod of acknowledgement (which is all we were really expecting). Instead you’ll be punished with meaningless busy work. And being forced to pretend to work, we discovered, was the most absolute indignity — because it was impossible to pretend it was anything but what it was: pure degradation, a sheer exercise of the boss’s power for its own sake. It didn’t matter that we were only pretending to scrub the baseboard. Every moment spent pretending to scour the baseboard felt like some schoolyard bully gloating over our shoulders — except, of course, this time, the bully had the full force of law and custom on his side.

So the next time a big rush came, we made sure to take our sweet time.

Please support New Escapologist enterprises on Patreon. Doing so grants access to six new (and six old) essays and the promise of more to come.

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