An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 61. Escape Coronavirus?

Depressed by scenes of maskless Soho revelers seemingly rain-dancing for a second wave, my mind drifts in the direction of escape. I can’t help it. I’m an escape artist.

Unfortunately, my would-be escape is prevented by iron-clad reasons to stay put on Covid Island, but maybe you could act on this escape plan if you wanted to.

While the air bridges are open (act fast!), I would bugger off to Copenhagen for six months and wait the rest of the crisis out.

Denmark has suffered 600 Covid deaths to the UK’s shameful 60,000. Relatively normal life continues there if you don’t count today’s racist fish incident.

I like Copenhagen quite a bit, so I’d take a short rolling lease on a small apartment. I’d do the right thing by voluntarily quarantining my potentially asymptomatic ass for fourteen days, but after that, I’d spend 5.5 months looking at museums, walking, cycling, drooling over the urban planning solutions, drinking coffee and beer, reading and writing.

Maybe I’d even take the train to Billund to see Legoland. Come winter, I’d become acquainted with hygge. By then, one hopes, the Brits would have sorted themselves out and I could come home. If not, maybe I’d beg Denmark for asylum.

There’s probably something similar you can do if you live in America. Escape to somewhere in the Caribbean maybe? Japan?

Please send me a postcard if you do this.

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Happier news in creative life. I’ve committed (emotionally, not contractually) to an idea for my next book after abandoning with a heavy heart the one I was writing before the Pandemic hit.

The new book will not be directly Escapological so I will shut up about it here and plop any more thoughts I want to communicate about it on my personal blog. I’m excited about it though, and I can’t wait to get started in August if not a little sooner. Much of the rest of July will be spent on a couple of other creative projects, not least helping to midwife The Good Life for Wage Slaves (pre-order, please!) into existence.

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We’ve set up a small bird feeder in the hopes of attracting some feathered fools friends. This is something I do periodically it seems. The feeder we found is a little plastic house-shaped seed tray with suction cups for fixing it to the window. The idea is to attract smaller, prettier birds, but so far we’ve only drawn magpies, wood pigeons, and a crow.

Being large birds, this fearsome crew tend not to use the feeder itself and make do with any seeds or mealworm that have fallen onto the ledge. This means we generally only see their heads peeking over the window frame, apparently checking to see if we’re looking at them.

The name we’ve given to our crow is Corvid-19 (well, obviously). The magpies are my favourite though because they make a lot of noise, adding something natural and woodsy to the soundtrack of everyday life. And if we ever tire of their noisy visits, we can at least have some nostalgic fun by shouting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, Out, Out!”

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Lockdown is easing here in Scotland, though I’m glad our government has been more cautious than its counterpart in London. On Friday night, unless someone tells us we’ve misunderstood the rules, we’re going to visit some friends in their house. This will be the first time in three months we’ve been in anyone’s home other than our own. It’s going to be strange to see our friends’ faces without their constantly glitching. I might do some Max Headroom-type shtick just to make everyone feel more comfortable.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 60. The Fireplace.

A rare opportunity for a minimalist purge arose today. Oh yes indeedy.

When we first moved into Escape Towers over four years ago, this fireplace (pictured) was adrift in the middle of the floor in the otherwise empty main room.

We had no such appliance as an electric fire or television set for it to frame, nor was it attached to the wall in the spot where a wood or coal fire would once have stood. It was just there, in the centre of the room; a heavy, dirty, useless, suburban-looking, possibly Alpine-inspired fireplace.

Since it was surely the property of the landlord and therefore our responsibility to keep safe lest we lose our deposit, we tucked the fireplace sideways into the hall closet and tried to forget about it.

Tried to forget is the key thing here. As a minimalist, I have a sensitive, almost spiritual, awareness of every item under my jurisdiction. If something’s not right–if an alien object should trespass or something of ours should go missing–I’ll know about it. It’s like a disturbance in the Force.

Every thing we own weighs slightly on my consciousness and in proportion to its size, so it was hard not to be continuously aware of this hulking great fireplace: a lump of someone else’s hardware for which we were annoyingly responsible. After bed and chaise, it was the third biggest object in our home.

At war with moths at the moment, I wondered if this fireplace could be offering my winged enemy safe harbor. The little blighters, I’m told, are mad for gloom so I conjectured that perhaps they dwell or find respite in the slim space between the cumbersome object and the wall. I wracked my brains as to how to get rid of it.

Though it felt hopeless, I dug out and scrutinized the letting agents’ inventory on the off-chance that a fireplace was in fact not listed.

Reader, in this thorough inventory, rigorously compiled by a pro-bean counter down to the condition of individual floorboards and cornices, the fireplace was not listed.

It was absent from the list. Which meant (fanfare of fanfares) we were free to get rid!

(It also meant, of course, that we’d had this stupid thing in our lives for over four years unnecessarily. We could have slang it on the day we collected the keys. But let’s not dwell on that. We’re free, now!)

The picture above is of said fireplace, exposed to the rainy Scottish elements, cast asunder and waiting for council uplift, no longer collecting dust or providing a home to the trouser-munching Scourge and their maggotty sporn. Daft really, but the difference it has made to my minimalist temperament is considerable.

Reader, have you ever had the pleasure of casting out some ungainly hunk of matter, perhaps one that you didn’t even own? Refreshing, isn’t it?

The contents of hall cupboards (in-use coats, umbrellas and shoes excepted) constitute dark matter and should be expunged. (And I’m reminded here of a cupboardy tale by friend Henry.) Well, we’ve just expunged some 30% of our pesky dark matter in a single liberating schlep. Oh baby.

UPDATE: Friend of New Escapologist David Cain is enjoying a similar pleasure in purging his pantry. It’s a fun time!

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 59: 2019 Review

The end is nigh! The end of the year, that is. Which means it’s time to file an annual report for my imaginary shareholders.

Anxious political horizon-scanning aside, my 2019 was dominated by Operation Breadhead. As of a few weeks ago, the entire business is complete. Here’s what my motivational pie chart looks like now:

It looks like the flag of a parallel universe Japan. Job Done.
Read the rest of this entry »

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 58. Moment.

I’ve just returned from a whistle-stop tour of England. Well, London and Birmingham and bits of the countryside anyway.

A fine time was had, but when I saw an otherwise-pretty country cottage plastered with Brexit Party logos and slogans, I felt a surge of genuine shock. I wouldn’t want a world so homogenised that people didn’t have different ideas on how to run it, but my life is so insulated from hardcore Brexit sensibilities by living in Scotland and rarely visiting anywhere other London when I venture south, that it felt like I’d seen a house emblazoned with swastikas.

I’m willing to accept that this might say more about me than it does about the world. Nobody yet knows how history will see the present moment, but as a rootless cosmopolitan I found it chilling to say the least. It’s the idea that this madness was present all along–all through the sanguine ’90s and the neolib noughties–lurking darkly and burning hot.

Around the time of the EU Referendum, I saw some graffiti in Glasgow that read, “Let all the poison that lurks in the mud, hatch out.” This turns out to be from I, Claudius by Robert Graves (from whom, incidentally, New Escapologist takes it’s subtitle, “Goodbye to all that”). Maybe this is what we’re going through: letting the poison hatch out, getting some bile up for a nation’s health and a better world, the cottage I saw being but one manifestation of this. I’d like to believe it, but I don’t. I think there’s years of this bullshit yet to wade through and there will be huge amounts of additional damage to control.

Something else. There’s been an aesthetic change in England since I’ve been gone. Things feel distinctly folksy and anti-Modernist in a theme parkish way well suited to the era of Amazon and Etsy. I saw lots of people wearing tweed waistcoats and Peaky Blinders caps, and everything now seems to be covered with bunting. These pretensions to “vintage” style are aligned somewhere between hipster and UKIP, a Wartime tweeness represented in cutesy little cakes, pinafore strings, the union flag, electro-swing, and stocking seams. It all seems to say “This is as it should be,” but the aesthetic has confused authenticity with kitsch. I can just see them all huddled in bunkers after the Union and the EU, singing “we’ll all go together when we go” and believing it to be a consoling English song. The English are bringing back Their Day, reimagined and remixed through the lenses of nostalgic conservatism, CAD technologies, and an online shopping experience that grants people whatever they want. What they want in provincial England seems to be a sort of Replicant village May Day, Empire without the Empire.

Hey, do what you like! But please remember to also do the right thing.

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I witnessed further historical moment in London when rubbing shoulders with Extinction Rebellion. I joined a small Idler contingent at Trafalgar Square for a “Do Less” campaign proximate to the somewhat larger XR disruption. I was over two hours late, which means I win at idling.

The event was quite exciting. I’ve been to lots of protests and marches and Anarchist or Socialist events over the years, but there was a palatable sense here that the protest was a genuine interface with Power, that They might be paying attention. Who knows?

At first, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb to the level of the lions on Nelson’s Column, but Tom and Brendan and Flo offered encouragement: “Just get your knee up!” I’ve said it before: the strongest force in the universe is peer pressure.

Flo has filed a nice and more detailed report at the Idler website:

Also present was Robert Wringham, Idler contributor and frugality expert. Robert doled out cheese sandwiches at Nelson’s Column to keep starving editor Tom Hodgkinson from going full anarchist and smashing up a police van. Thankfully he arrived at just the right time for lunch, or we may have been making this report from a prison cell.

We sang Lie Down And Be Counted by Neil Innes to the strumming of Tom’s uke. I’ve been suffering from laryngitis and so my deeply-hoarse Larry David (Larynge David?) voice was extremely audible over the others, especially when I routinely came in early on “what are we standing for.”

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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 57. One Year Ago.

Sound the party alarm, for this is the one-year anniversary of escaping my most recent brush with employment. To hear about why I ever went back to a jay-oh-bee, you can read this previous diary entry, but for now I just want to say a resounding “phew!” and also “wow!”

Nothing on Earth can hold Houdini a prisoner!

It can be hard to know for sure if your decisions are the right ones. I’ve learned over the years not to sweat the small stuff though, learning that optimisation and “best possible outcomes” aren’t as important as just having a nice time and doing things well and in the right spirit. I’ve also learned to ignore pesky thoughts of Sliding Doors-style alternate realities: “what if I did this instead of that?” But on this occasion, I am certain I made the right choice by escaping as soon as possible. The job really was a hindrance to getting on with what I wanted to do. It was also beginning to make me fat and depressed. Zero regrets.

I find myself in good shape one year on: financially, creatively and in terms of physical and mental health. I do not feel sluggardly or anxious at the moment, ready instead to have fun and to create some amusing, useful works.

My first order of “business” on escaping again was to write my next book, The Good Life for Wage Slaves. Based on a true story! It’s coming out in Germany in March and in the UK… eventually. But it is written and I’ve even seen the typeset German version and its lovely cover, all of which is a fairly amazing turnaround for just one year of finger-wiggling, and I still remember how good (if slightly odd) it felt to start writing as soon as I’d quit, almost as if nothing had happened.

The rest of the year has been busier than I’d typically be when unused because of Operation Breadhead. This, I’m happy to report is going well too. We are now (as of 5th October) halfway through the event and 86% through target. We might even have made target by the end of November. This is a relief, as all we’ll need to do to win our “indefinite leave” visa at that point is to run out the clock and complete the forms. The financial woe—always the hardest part for me—will be behind us. For this I have to thank some of you for buying my stuff and for engaging my writing and editing services. Thank you, readers and friends. Moral turpitude issues aside, I might yet not be chased out of my own country!

I have been in a nostalgic mood lately, especially after visiting my parents last week and, when fancying a stroll, deciding to recreate my old walk to school and back. I hadn’t seen these houses and corners and minor landmarks for over twenty years and I almost blubbed. So in thinking about the old office job as I sit to write my diary now, I find I have some fond memories of former colleagues and of the Blitz spirit of shared boredom. But no! Always remember, never forget!

Thanks for your help this past year, everyone. If you’d like to help with the final furlong of Operation Breadhead, you could buy some stuff here. But don’t feel pressured because (and I’ll say this part quietly) I think we’re fine.

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 56. The Future Echo.

A few years ago, I attended a conference just outside Glasgow. It was a waste of time and energy even within the framework of my already-a-waste-of-time job, but attendance was mandatory and that was that. It was precisely the sort of thing that would push me from a state of generalised frustration and into a bleak, chastised, depression-adjacent funk.

As I walked deliberately slowly to the conference centre from the train station, weighed down with a laptop bag of stupid paperwork, I crossed the Forth and Clyde Canal. I looked down from the bridge at the still water, and thought “one day, I’ll walk through this junction again, on my own terms and trouble-free.” I knew that my state of consciousness would be completely different to the one that was currently currently me to grind my teeth. It was such a certainty that I could practically see my future self walking contentedly along the towpath.

I’d forgotten about the future echo until this afternoon when, hiking the twenty-mile journey from Glasgow to Loch Lomond, I crossed beneath the familiar bridge. “Whoa! It came true!”

I looked up at the bridge and imagined my past self and sent the telepathic message back through time that things would be okay.

And then I climbed up onto the bridge and took a photograph for a reminder. This spot can now be called Future Echo junction. (Thankfully I did not also see my bloated corpse floating face-down in the canal.)

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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.

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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.

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 54. 2018 Review.

Wehey! I have escaped again. How’d you like that, my imaginary shareholders?

Admittedly, this particular escape involved running the clock down on something like a prison sentence more than the commitment to a clever escape plan. But an escape’s an escape and it feels good to be on the lam again, feeling the breeze around the old wosnames.

As some of you know, I put a peg on my nose and took a job when we came back to Scotland from Canada. It was to help my partner secure her visa to live here.

We won that visa in September (using the immense stack of paperwork pictured below) and we immediately set about getting our lives back on course. On my part this means a full-time return to the cheerful, frugal literary life. Much better.

Bagging the visa and escaping office life again were the key events of our 2018, though they do not feel particularly like achievements. It’s just a happy return to the status quo, to what we were doing until someone stopped us.

But hey! there was also the book deal. That was big news. The first half of the advance came in and I started writing. I’ve almost written a whole new book this year. I hope to have finished it by the end of January 2019.

At the start of the year, I set up a mailing list to try and guarantee a readership for my weekly diary. I kept up the diary itself until October (31 entries – medal please) and was rewarded with the highest numbers of visits ever to my website (even if those numbers are admittedly small potatoes). I plan to pick up the diary again in 2019, but not until the book is written, obvs.

There were seven new installments of my Idler column, bringing the total up to 17 (plus extra bits and bobs) and my longest-running gig outside New Escapologist, which hardly counts. I’ve enjoyed getting the occasional email (and Idler letters page response) about the column, none of them (yet) irate.

My stupid face appeared in an art installation (Sven Werner, City Art Centre, Edinburgh) and also in a more domestic setting by my clever wife. 

Tim Blanchard’s book about the novelist John Cowper Powys was published in November. I had some small editorial involvement before Tim found a publisher so I was very happy indeed to see the book come out.

For travel, we saw Paris, Malaga, Seville, Gibraltar, and Copenhagen (pictured below in a photograph by AJ).

In non-writerly action I spent the occasional Friday at a botanical library near to where I live. Here I have a freelance project to catalogue the collection.  I spend these days handling attractive books about trees and flowers and mushrooms and the likes. Why not?

I also had the pleasure of calling the fire brigade, joining Instagram, remembering the spice girls, finding run-up-to-the-visa solace in the best ever Lego set (and reselling it – minimalism!) and taking a reaction test.

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As traditional, here is my year in books. A change on previous years is that I’ve stopped recording comic books in this list. There’s too many of them and, let’s face it, it’s a completely different aesthetic experience. (If you’re interested, I enjoyed Ms. Marvel this year and the first volume of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I was surprised not to enjoy the new Multiple Man series.)

I made an effort this year to read some new fiction instead of old everything. I also made my usual effort to read more women and non-white writers. 

Lest we forget, an asterisk* denotes an out-loud read while the dagger† denotes a re-read. Schwing!

Bill Bryson – Neither Here nor There
Bill Bryson – The Road to Little Dribbling
Daphne du Maurier – Not After Midnight
Alastair Bonnett – Off the Map
Bill Bryson – African Diary
Joe Dunthorne – The Adulterants
George Orwell – Coming Up for Air
Shoukei Matsumoto – A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind
George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra Flying †
Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Sam Selvon – The Lonely Londoners
Donald Westlake – The Hot Rock
Yanis Varoufakis – Talking to my Daughter about the Economy
George Perec – W, or the Memory of Childhood
T. H. White – The Once and Future King
Clive Bell – Old Friends
Darren McGarvey – Poverty Safari
Alex Masters – A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip
Muriel Spark – The Girls of Slender Means
Helen Russell – The Year of Living Danishly
Caitlin Doughty – From Here to Eternity
Fumio Sasaki – Goodbye Things
George Saunders – Pastoralia
Limmy – That’s Your Lot
Michael Booth – The Almost Nearly Perfect People
Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain*
Matthew Crawford – The Case for Working With Your Hands
Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women
Matthew De Abaitua – Self and I
Helen Lamb – Three Kinds of Kissing
Kamin Mohammadi – Bella Figura
Tade Thompson – Rosewater
PD James – Sleep No More*
Evelyn Waugh – The Loved One
Jonathan Meades – An Encyclopaedia of Myself

Books read in substantial part but left unfinished:

Richard Sennett – Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation
Mary Beard – SPQR
Richard Gordon – Nuts in May
Robert Skidelsky – John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946

I am currently reading After the Snooter by Eddie Campbell (a comic) and Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (essays).

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I end 2018 happy with my personal lot at the age of 36, though I also feel irritated and under siege for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. I might have to stop drinking. Or ideally they’ll cancel Brexit.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 53a: Escape!

September 3rd 2019: I found this unpublished entry sitting in the drafts file. It dates from October 2018, when paranoia or anxiety must have stopped me from posting it. Or maybe I found it too bitter or too boring to be worth posting. I don’t recall. In the end, I touched on these events more succinctly in An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 54, but looking at it now, it better fills a gap in the story. So here it is after all:

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As some of you know, I’ve been working a day job to protect my partner’s visa so that we can continue to live together in the same country.

I suppose this serves us right for choosing a life of rootless cosmopolitanism, but when we began our relationship in 2008 or thereabouts, there was no such thing as The Hostile Environment and moving freely between Britain and Canada was relatively straightforward.

In 2012, they changed the rules and the one that hit us in particular is the Financial Requirement; an insistence that we earn a fairly high (for us) amount of money. They complicate it by saying you can’t mix different sources of income, and there are various other administrative uncertainties and poorly-phrased vagaries to punish the unused or the self-employed. This meant that when we came back to Britain in 2015, I would have to take on some sort of employment.

To this day, I have no idea why this Financial Requirement is necessary (aside from simply bullying people into self deportation, which is actually the point of the Hostile Environment). If we must insist on immigrants proving that they won’t over-rely on public assistance, a fairer and more meaningful system would be to ask for proof of adequate maintenance – simply that the couple can support their lifestyle. Striving to earn the seemingly arbitrarily arrived-at financial requirement completely destroyed our way of life. We don’t need such large incomes and we don’t want to sell so much time for it.

Anyway, the point of this is to introduce my diary-worthy news; that our latest visa application was successful and that we’re safe for another 2.5 years. I have also quit my day job. Escape at last.

I can now dedicate my time to writing my next book and generally living in the happy, creative and frugal fashion I enjoyed before the visa crisis and which I have advocated for so long in New Escapologist. Phew!

The Financial Requirement (unless it is thrown in the bin by an incoming Labour Government or pulled down by activists rightly angry about the Windrush scandal) will become relevant to us again in 2021 but we think we’ve found a way to tackle it this time without conventional employment. I should be able to make enough from my writing over the next 2.5 years to complement my wife’s earnings from a part-time job. (For various reasons I’ll not go into, this option was not available to us before.)

All of this comes as a huge relief and now I can get back to being myself. Man alive, it’s been a tough couple of years, but now the fun and joy is back.

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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 53. Copenhagen.

We’ve returned from a few days in Copenhagen, which seems to be a sort of Utopia.

There’s not much need for Escapology there. Work is apparently pleasant and minimal. The State seems to look after people instead of oppress and frustrate them. The culture seems liberal, expansive and geared toward trust, leisure and happiness.

The official working week in Denmark is 37 hours, already one of the shortest in Europe. But calculations from Statistic Denmark suggest that Danes actually work an average of just 34 hours a week. Employees are entitles to five weeks’ paid holiday a year, as well as thirteen days off for public holidays. This means that Danes actually only work an average of 18.5 days a month.

I’m now trying to make sense of what we saw by reading The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. I remember that this book was very popular a couple of years ago. Yes, I’m aware that I’m late to the Hygge party.

Russell’s book is well-researched and entertaining so I’m scattering some choice quotes from it alongside my subjective observations and boring holiday snaps in this here diary entry.

It seems that one of their solutions to the good life is to let the State handle all of the stuff at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid so that the people can get on with the self-actualising. Most Danes pay something like 37% income tax and a fairly steep VAT (consumption tax). It works. Remember (from New Escapologist Issue 3) that accumulated personal wealth beyond an income of £22,000 per year brings no further happiness, so why not give it up to benefit the whole?

They have an obscenely good quality of life. Yes, it’s expensive here. But it’s Denmark — it’s worth it. I don’t mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means that the person serving me doesn’t a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes

In Copenhagen, everyone seems to ride around on bicycles, looking extremely stylish — often with a carefree cigarette hanging out of one side of the face.

biking is practically a religion here, no matter what your age or your occupation. Denmark is covered with over 7,500 miles of bike paths and Danes will cycle come rain or come hail. The government recently introduced their ‘National Cycling Strategy’ to get even more Danes on their bike. Danes are so bike-obsessed that you can even opt for a tricycle hearse to end the cycle of life. Half of all commuters in Copenhagen go to work by bike and Forbes magazine recently reported that cyclists save the city £20 million a year in avoided air pollution, accidents and congestion.

A few friends who had been there already said we’d “get bored of leggy blondes” and while the British eye will boggle at so many flaxen Nordic giraffes, it’s important to mention that Copenhagen doesn’t feel tediously white. I was surprised and delighted by the African and Middle Eastern influences. Headscarves and good food abound.

To be honest, by picking up The Year of Living Danishly, I was looking for downsides because it doesn’t seem very sophisticated to go around thinking that “everything is better in Denmark,” but while a few downsides are mentioned in the book (most of which are to some degree understandable), they’re not exactly the dark energy source I was looking for.

I’d been bracing myself to find a burbling battery of racism powering the nation or that they all worship an underground slug or something. But nope. I think it’s just a good place to live.

Once they’ve had children, 78 per cent of Danish mothers return to work. This is because childcare is subsidized by the government and the famed work-life balance of Danish workplaces makes it easier to balance career and family life here than it would be elsewhere. What has traditionally been defined as ‘women’s work’ is valued as highly as traditionally-defined ‘men’s work’ here — and both sexes do a bit of each.

On the street, the high quality of life is evident. In Darren McGarvey’s book, he describes what it was like to visit the affluent West End of Glasgow for the first time, having come from the rough-and-tough suburb of Pollock. He reports marveling at how violence didn’t seem to hang in the air and people seemed relaxed until he walked by in his tracksuit. Well, I live in the affluent West End of Glasgow and this was my equivalent; I was similarly taken aback by the palpable sense of collective happiness, satisfaction and pride.

We explored the city quite intensively during our limited time and my favourite place to spend time in was probably the Design Museum, which is where I was able to look at the endless loveliness of Danish design. Samara described me as being “in a froth” by the end of it, but I felt like I’d been through some wonderful therapy.

Make your environment as beautiful as you can. Danes do, and it engenders a respect for design, art and their everyday surroundings. Remember the broken window syndrome, where places that look uncared for just get worse? The reverse also applies.

Anyway, that’s enough blowing smoke up Denmark’s bottom. It’s a good place to live. But don’t move there please, as I think the small (5.5m) population is part of the key to their success. Instead, let’s import some of their ideas for living.(There’s a “top ten tips for living Danishly” in the back of the book, which are actually quite similar to New Escapologist‘s own Things of Value).

I thought I was doing all the right things to get to this point in my [London] life — working hard to be succesful and trying to please everyone. But I never seemed to succeed nearly enough to make all the effort worthwhile. I felt tired, hungry (often literally) and ephemeral, blown about by the currents of whatever was going on around me. But now I feel safe, secure and solid.

★That really good photo at the top of this post? I didn’t take that one. That’s the work of AJ.

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