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.
It’s an extremely sunny bank holiday here in Scotland.
There was a nice vibe on the street this morning. “Gosh, this is alright,” I thought, “We’ve not done such a bad job of building a world.” Yes, the fine weather had a lot to do with this mood but it wasn’t only that. It was the sense of quiet industry and the leisurely getting about. I felt, unusually, that I could relate to the people I saw. They weren’t rushing everywhere. They were scrubbing steps, cycling, putting out sandwich boards, walking with a light jacket slung over one shoulder, arranging things in windows.
You’d expect a bank holiday morning to be quiet and it was, but it was hardly devoid of activity. The shops — small business and supermarket chains alike — all seemed to be open, their keepers and shelf stackers setting up as usual. Even our local Post Office was open for business, though the actual deliveries I believe have stopped until Tuesday. There were still a few white-collar commuters about (Britain’s largest employer, the NHS, does not close for bank holidays) but a far smaller number of cars than usual. This made a huge difference; it meant fewer decibels, noticeably cleaner air, less hostility and impatience, and opportunities to cross the roads in a leisurely manner instead of waiting for a light to change or for a gap in the traffic. It struck me as a pretty good pace of life and I wished it could always be this way. Things hadn’t ground to a halt but it wasn’t stupidly busy either, no harried faces, no sense of dread.
I mention this to say that a slower pace of life doesn’t mean an end to industry, an end to meaning, an end to money-making or getting from one place to another. It just means balance. It means enough people sleeping ’til 10 and having leisurely breakfasts and enough people keeping the world running. Why, we could take it in shifts! It would mean less pollution and fewer heads exploding with stress and anxiety. Wouldn’t that be good?
The art gallery my wife works for is open. The florist I pass each morning is open, as is the library. The pubs and restaurants soon will be. The universities are open. Public transit is running, albeit to a limited timetable. The Deliveroo fleet will be out and pedalling this evening.
So if all of these useful people are on duty as usual (and various street markets and the likes are opening especially for the bank holiday) why are the streets so quiet? Who exactly is off work and off the roads and in their beds? Could it be the bankers? Well, yes, it’s a bank holiday. But that can’t be so many people. The major international bank I use has only one branch (let’s generously assume 40 employees) and will surely be automated out of existence soon. So who are these people with a day off today and another on Monday?
Oh, it’s the people with bullshit jobs! The ones in jobs which aren’t really needed at all and which, in fact lead to the harried faces and the grief and the fumes and the rat-like scurrying!
The Skypark, I noticed, stands empty today. Ten or so stories of glassy desolation.
A bank holiday morning, dare I say, is a good real-time, 3D visualisation of how the world, perhaps post-UBI, could look without bullshit jobs. Cleaner, calmer, more leisurely and at peace.
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?
— The Other Samara (@TheOtherSamara) June 7, 2017
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.
"I didn't win. It went to Terry Fallis, as is traditional." Haha! Issue 100 of @CNandQ containing my piece about the @LeacockMedal came in the post this morning. It is a thing of maximum loveliness. Thank you folks. x @TerryFallis @aaronbushkowsky @CanusHumorous pic.twitter.com/qOUZukHAF2
— Robert Wringham (@rubberwringham) November 14, 2017
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.
Sorry for not blogging in a little while, lovely readers. I’ve been very lazy and — aside from writing the latest New Escapologist essay — have taken almost a month off. I highly recommended it.
We spent a couple of weeks holidaying in Montreal. It was good to be back in my second home and my wife’s first home. What can a young body do in such beautiful surroundings other than lounge on terasses and balconies and on the lush, green mountain? Very little is what.
We were there ostensibly for my brother- and sister-in-law’s wedding, which they had outdoors in the sunshine followed by a great party indoors with lots of good-quality booze. In fact, it was too much good-quality booze in my case, and I had to mysteriously absent myself from the family brunch the next day.
Later in our stay, we popped into the McCord Museum for an exhibition of original magic show posters. I expertly and repeatedly told my companions that this was the very site on which Houdini — the Master Escapologist, about whom I should know everything by now — took the punch to the guttywuts that would kill him a day later. Not only was I certain of it, I was also sure this fact would be the lynchpin of the whole exhibition. In the event, it was mentioned only at the very end of the show that Houdini was in fact walloped at the no-longer-extant Princess Theatre on St. Catherine Street. How could I have been so wrong? I hope my pub quiz team don’t hear of this or I’ll be ritually (and rightly) paddled for this failing in my special subject.
I was, at least, happy to see a pair of handcuffs used by the Master (labelled “Houdini’s handcuffs” as if he had a favourite pair – in fact he usually took regulation cuffs from local police officers) patented exactly a century before my birth. Cool.
It was very good to be back in this dreamy little island city and I wondered why on earth we ever came back to grey old Scotland. But then I remembered the harsh Montreal winters and how I missed all my friends and how it’s useful to make money every now and then. Bugger.
No sooner were we home in Glasgow did we have to hop on a train to London so I could record one of those online courses for the Idler Academy. It was a nice day of recording in the lovely surroundings of a beagle-filled house on the Thames. As you can see, I worked really hard that day. I’ll let you all know when the course is available (because I’m contractually obliged to).
Also in London, we peeked in at the famous Cereal Killer hipster caff on Brick Lane (where, as we sat in the window, a man selling ice cream from a bicycle-and-cart tutted disdainfully at the absurd cereal restaurant before gaily shouting “ice cream!” from his bicycle seemingly oblivious to the irony) and visited the brilliant Queer British Art show at the Tate (where one of the lovelier paintings, it must be said, is on loan from Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Gallery and we can happily see it whenever we like) and took a pointless but long-anticipated legend-tripping pilgrimage to the actual site of the Enfield poltergeist haunting. Oh! And I was stupidly excited to see the Pesticles statue at Hammersmith.
Home now and fairly knackered. Another month off might beckon.
★ If you’d like to re-live the glory days of New Escapologist, please pledge to my Patreon campaign to immediately access 4 new essays (and 4 dusted-off classics) as well as getting a brand new essay at the end of this month. Thanks!
We’ve moved again. Such is the life of an Escapologist. Escape is mobility.
You may remember that we returned to Scotland from Canada and, very fortunately, were able to rent a flat quite cheaply from a friend who, making her own great escape, had left her home for pastures new. “Do you want a tenant?” I asked. For over a year we enjoyed a fine Escapological economy, our rent funding a friend’s escape and her property providing us with a hassle- and paperwork-free landing pad.
Well this was always going to be temporary. We wanted a better-situated HQ and our landlady would make more money renting her flat to real people instead of her slacker pals. So two months ago we moved to Hyndland, a part of Glasgow which, Wikipedia boasts, is home to “young bourgeois bohemians including a number of noted authors, poets, actors and footballers.”
I don’t know if I’d describe a footballer as a bourgeois bohemian (I suspect this is the result of two edits, footballers being tacked on by someone, perhaps a Hyndland estate agent, who doesn’t know what is meant by bourgeois bohemia) but you get the idea.
It’s quite posh in a tumble-down, half-reclaimed-by-nature sort of way and our neighbours all seem to be couples who, despite low incomes, won’t tolerate discomfort and ugliness. Suits us.
Almost as soon as we moved in, friend Landis came over from Chicago to live in our spare room for a couple of months. It’s been like having a pet artist. He sits at his drafting table all day long, feverishly cross-hatching and coming out, bleary-eyed, for a snack every full moon or so.
It’s been great having Landis over and our home has felt like a little artists’ colony, with he and Samara drawing and me writing at my laptop and something spicy simmering away on the kitchen stove. Not bad. Every now and then we get together and ad-lib a little project like this podcast about notebooks. We look like this:
When we moved in, all we owned was eight boxes of books and clothes, and three small pieces of furniture: even less than in our last move. The flat was unfurnished, so we had to place orders at Ikea and spend some time mooning around in thrift shops. This is all fairly contrary to my nature, so I’ve tried to see it as a creative venture — making something — rather than simply an acquisitive one.
We’ve been guided by minimalism — Is this thing necessary? How few bookshelves can we get away with? Shall we jettison these? — in an act of what in fact is a considerable expansion to our total mass.
This is a good lesson. Even in acquisition (especially in acquisition) be guided by minimalism. Also, “minimal” is relative to your needs. Just don’t kid yourself about your “needs”.
Having Landis over has been helpful in these early weeks, as he’s been able to help build our flatpacks. In fact, the whole move as been a barn-raising exercise with friends coming over to help with bits and bobs. This is nice not just in that it makes the process easier — many hands, light work — but also in that it imbues a corner of the flat with a memory. The bathroom door is now the door Alan sanded down for us. The futon is the futon Neil helped us to build. The sofa was put together by Peter and Sam. etc.
In other news, the Patreon campaign is going fairly well but perhaps not as well as I’d hoped. I think we’ll be okay but I do need more people on board. Dig deep, if you can, and subscribe to the new essay series for as little as £1.
A funny postcard arrives in the mail this morning from Sam’s parents in Canada, depicting scenes of toque-hatted Montrealers trudging through the grey slush and snowmobiles ploughing through the streets. I am so glad to be in Glasgow right now! But bless you, Canada.
A weekend break in Berlin to celebrate my birthday and to give Canadian Samara some long-promised time on a larger land mass than the tiny island we now live on.
My third time in Berlin, this was a leisurely trip spent largely sitting around and masticating. She sure doesn’t bring this up often (like every day or anything) but Samara comes from a land of great grub and has moved to a land of decidedly sub-par food just to be with me. Gastronomic tourism is my little way of making amends.
We took an AirBNB in Kreuzberg, my favourite neighbourhood of Berlin, and took refuge from the cold at various bobo-friendly restaurants and bars.
My favourite place to eat wasn’t a resto at all but a marketplace. It was an indoor market hall where you can buy sandwiches for €3 and great coffee for €2 and eat and drink at various little public tables, watching the world go by. Intergenerational groups of locals did the same, enjoying small glasses of wine in the leisurely fashion not quite embraced by the Calvinists of Scotland and England. This being a market hall, I was also able to enjoy the presence of gigantic German sausages. I didn’t know where to look.
On Saturday we visited the museum at Bauhaus archive. We love Bauhaus (who doesn’t?) and it fits in nicely with our current line of thinking about artistic production (social, art-meets-utility, minimalist).
Leaving the building, we spotted this stone tablet (above) declaring an “Extemporale Zone” (or “out-of-time zone”) in which “the representation of eternity in every instant is the uniting sound before utopia”.
On Sunday I had to meet a journalist from Die Welt to be profiled for the newspaper with regards to my book, Ich Bin Raus. I think the journalist was largely on board, though we had limited time together so I probably just yelped something about escapology and hoped for the best.
As with other journalists I’ve met lately she asked about automation and the coming crisis in the nature of work, which is clearly a big topic at the moment and one I could talk about for a long time. Ultimately, I think we have to choose as a society between something approaching socialism (UBI) and the ultimate expression of neoliberalism (widespread precariat struggle) and I think I was able to communicate this in the time we had.
Monday morning and we touch down in Glasgow, ever-so-slightly larger. Burp.
The point of this diary is to show what the life of an Escapologist is like. Or at least, what the life of one Escapologist is like. These annual roundups are year-in-the-life type things written in the same spirit. Here goes.
Before hitting the Glasgow dirt though, we spent two weeks in Spain. We were art tourists in Madrid and then beach bums in Alicante. This is a hot tip for mobile Escapologists, actually: travel while homeless. In the Prado, I saw this portrait of Tristan Tzara:
Our search for a Glasgow apartment was mercifully short. A friend, inspired in part by New Escapologist, was leaving Scotland for Germany. (She’s now very settled and has just had a baby girl). I remembered that she owned her flat and might be looking for tenants. So now we have a place to park our chaise as well as an Escapological micro-economy running between us and our errant landlady. Thanks Heather!
We’d barely been in Britain five minutes when we were summoned back to Canada. My book, A Loose Egg, had been shortlisted for the Leacock Medal. I doubted I’d win (and I didn’t) but was aware that 2015 might be the only year I’d be eligible let alone shortlisted, so I didn’t want to miss my chance to experience the ceremony and meet the in-crowd. So back to Canada we went, first to Toronto and then to Stephen Leacock’s old stomping grounds of Orillia.
On the way home, we stopped in Timperley to see the crowdfunded statue of Frank Sidebottom.
In April, we popped down to London to warm a couple of seats in the QI studio. Here we meet the QI elves, got a whistle-stop behind-the-scenes tour of the Natural History Museum (meeting the corpses of Darwin’s pet octopus and a giant squid!) and were waved at by the queen.
A slightly dodgy “financial requirement” of immigration to Britain has meant a brief return to grunt work for your humble narrator. I worked for a month at a University and now I’m doing a stint in the public sector. The money’s nowhere near enough for the time I have to put in, and if it weren’t for the fact I’m essentially doing community service for deigning to import a foreigner, it would feel like a complete waste of time. But never mind: Christmas Eve marked my 100th day of slavery. I need 130 days, if my calculations are correct, before I can quit.
Despite this unpleasant detail, the year saw some decent writing sessions, mainly on Escape Everything! and finishing up the crowdfunding process of the same. Thanks to everyone who helped. The book will be out on January 28th 2016.
I also started a nature diary: a journal of interactions with urban wildlife. The idea was for it to form a sort of Escapological novel, but I’m not sure it’s working. This bit of writing is probably just for me rather than for publication. Having said that, I’ll be printing some excerpts in New Escapologist Issue 12, so let me know what you think if you read it.
Performance-wise, I did a couple of diary-reading nights (loved these) and a performancy talk about humorists as part of a friend’s bookish art project. I’m thinking of doing a show in this line at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe, but only if I can work out a few structural issues with my performance.
The best thing about coming home has been getting back together with friends: Laura, Neil, Johnston, Fraser, Tim (hello!). We also joined a pub quiz team. We play the quiz almost every Monday now. We’ve won a lot of beer, though I fucked up a recent episode for us by insisting on the Exorcist demon’s name being “Legion” when in fact it’s “Pazuzu”. Bah.
What else? Um. I joined Twitter. Landis came to visit from LA, as did Caitlin. We held owls in Edinburgh. Emily came over from New York. We got rained on a lot in Storms Abigale though Frank. I interviewed Will Self. Samara discovered embroidery. We saw the new Star Wars film twice. I had some new profile pics taken by new friend Alan. I joined the Scottish Green Party but later fell for Jeremy Corbyn. We attended a baby-naming ceremony. We made a contribution to the Museum of Water. Lentus Ambulandus and I kept this blog going, including a series for Stoic Week. We celebrated Hanukkah. We spent Christmas in London.
As ever, thank you for reading, dear Escapologists. I’m very, very grateful. Thank you for the attention. Thank you for the funding. Thank you for the comments and retweets and the enthusiastic emails. Happy New Year to you all! x
Oh Cripes. I almost forgot. The book list! That’s what you all tune in for. This year, putting my money where my mouth is, I wanted to read more books by female authors. I did. Over half the books I read were by women. So here are my books of 2015 (as ever, an asterisk* denotes a book read aloud):
Paul Auster – Invisible
Franz Kafka – The Trial
Paul Auster – Man in the Dark
Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London: Books 1-5*
Jeremy Dyson – The Cranes that Build the Cranes
Sue Townsend – The Diary of Adrian Mole
Michael Palin – Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-98*
Simon Donald – Him Off the Viz
Gerald Durrell – The New Noah*
Caroline Lucas – Honorable Friends?
Jacquie Durrell – Beasts in My Bed
Sy Montgomery – The Soul of an Octopus
Lyanda Lynn Haupt – Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent
Patricia Highsmith – Ripley’s Game
G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona – Ms. Marvel Vol. 1-2
Anneliese Mackintosh – Any Other Mouth
Edward St Aubyn – Lost for Words
Tim Bradford – A London Country Diary
Geoff Nicholson – The Lost Art of Walking
David Carlson and Landis Blair – The Hunting Accident
Esther Woolfson – Field Notes From a Hidden City
Marie Kondo – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying
Olivia Williams – Gin Glorious Gin
Tom Hodgkinson (Ed.) – Idler 43: Back to the Land
Emma Kennedy – The Tent, The Bucket and Me
Pannonica de Koenigswarter – Three Wishes: An Intimate Look at Jazz Greats
Caitlin Moran – Moranthology
Stephen King – The Dead Zone
Roald Dahl – The BFG*
Angela Carter – Wise Children
Ursula Le Guin – The Lathe of Heaven
Jon Ronson – What I Do
Caitlin Doughty – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Agatha Christie – Partners in Crime*
Paul Richards – A Book of Mosses
Kathleen Jamie – Findings
Naomi Mitchison – Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Fran Lebowitz – Metropolitan Life
Patricia Highsmith – The Price of Salt
And the ones appreciated but left unfinished:
Jules Evans – Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations
Steven Pinker – The Sense of Style
John Sutherland – Lives of the Novelists
Gavin Maxwell – Ring of Bright Water
Sue Townsend – The Queen and I
I exit the year glad to be back in Glasgow but newly homesick for my Epicurean, threadbare life of full-time writing.
Brace yourself, reader. It’s a minimalism post! Contains tortuous detail. Only suitable for consumers of the pornography of orderliness.
Last week saw a trip to my parents’ house, the house I grew up in, to declare war on my remaining dark matter, by which I mean “estranged and hidden possessions I’ve been disingenuously ignoring and discounting from my claim to be a perfect minimalist”.
Dark matter is like dental plaque. Both are tedious accumulations of barely-noticeable debris yet they periodically require you to take drastic action. If you don’t take action, your teeth fall out. I refuse to acknowledge that there is anything wrong with this metaphor.
I’ve wanted to take care of this stuff (to dispose of it or incorporate it into real life) for a long time, but things like the Atlantic Ocean kept kept getting in the way. I’m back in the UK now though, so I can finally act on my little fantasy. Imagine! Every last one of your personal possessions accounted for, collected, ordered and treasured in a single place: the very place you sleep.
The plan was to tackle this once and for all in a single KonMari-style blitz. I’d sort though it, one item at at time, deciding what to jettison and what to bring home. What’s more, the fact I was travelling by rail with one suitcase imposed a limit on what I could keep.
I didn’t know how much I’d want to bring back, but I wanted to be able to fill the case to capacity, so I packed little else. It was fun to carry the large but empty case through a crowded Central Station, effortlessly holding it aloft like Desperate Dan hefting a fridge.
On the train, I was dying for someone, ideally a staunch security official, to ask to look inside the huge case so I could reveal its unlikely contents: a pair of underpants and a toothbrush.
When I got to the house, I assessed the scale of the project. It wasn’t too bad. There was a large bookcase replete with books (which I’d been anticipating) and four desk drawers of general equipment and keepsakes (about which I’d forgotten).
I spent some quality time going through the keepsakes and discarding old letters and photographs in a fashion non-minimalists would probably find callous. I enjoyed re-reading them and recalling the past, but it’s time to move on. I’m not in touch with any of those people now and I want to give my whole heart to the people I know today.
Even so, I’m not completely without sentiment. I felt funny condemning such items intact to the recycling bin. I didn’t want workers at the recycling plant handling my letters however briefly and maybe catching a glimpse of their content. I don’t know why I felt this way, but I think that letters should be either kept and treasured or responsibly destroyed by their intended recipient, so I spent ages reading over the doomed correspondence and tearing it up into the bin.
There were miscellaneous bits of kit in the desk drawers–pencil sharpeners, hole punches, staplers–I couldn’t be arsed finding new homes for, so I binned them too. With one exception, I followed Mari Kondo’s advice about not allowing relatives to see what’s being discarded lest they want to salvage any, allowing it to clutter their own drawers.
The exception was a Swiss Army Knife, which I offered to my Dad. “Can’t you find a place for it?” he asked, simply not understanding why anyone would want to dispose of a Swiss Army Knife. “No,” I said, and explained why. It’d been in that drawer, untouched for over ten years. If I kept it, the same would happen again. What’s more, there were many other neglected items along the lines of the Swiss Army Knife so the problem was bigger than it looked. Dad looked at me like I was bonkers and accepted the “gift” but I’ve a bad feeling that it’ll spend another decade in pointless neglect.
Annoyingly, putting out the garbage on my parents’ street comes with a lot of rules. You can only, for instance, put out a single bin per week. What doesn’t fit in the wheelie bin on trash collection day can’t be disposed of until next time. But what if you have a clear-out like the one I was having today? Too bad. Surely this can only lead to constipated houses. Since my parents’ bin was already almost full, my bag of disposed-of stuff had to sit in the driveway for a week until finally going today. Not ideal for a minimalist cleansing ritual.
With the books, I was ruthless. Over two thirds of my library went to charity shops. They’re good books, but not ones I’d ever read again (or in some cases, ever read), largely left over from my intense-young-man period and not relevant to my life today. Who in adulthood can be arsed with Camus?
Still, there were quite a few books I didn’t want to part with: volumes that either hold too much sentimental value, or books I know Samara and I will enjoy. I hadn’t predicted this. I filled the suitcase and then some. In the end, I put aside twice as many keepsies as I could comfortably bring back on the train.
I broke my self-imposed “one blitz” rule and postponed the realization of my orderly, minimalist Valhalla. Yes, folks, there remains at my parents’ house one last box of books, requiring a second trip to retrieve.
This is a bugger actually, as I was hoping to jettison the suitcase itself upon my return, but instead it will have to sit in the top of my wardrobe, taking up valuable oxygen space, until I can do another trip like this one. But at least this provides another opportunity to show my underpants to a security official.
I recently completed a five-week contract at a countryside university. While I didn’t appreciate rising at 6:30 each morning, everything else about the contract was surprisingly nice. I liked the people, the work itself, even the commute. It wasn’t the classic inner-city slog thankfully, but a fine swing across open countryside by rail followed by a twenty-minute walk past the tidy shop windows of a small town.
Not all contracts are so nice, but I’m still left feeling that some temp work every now and then could be the lock pick for Escapologists who can’t (or don’t want to) give up employment entirely. Work for three months and, if frugal, take nine for yourself. It’s far less horrible than full-time work, always with a light at the end of the tunnel and a finite, well-defined project to complete in the meantime.
I’m now enjoying a period of languishing at home, where I’m tinkering with New Escapologist Issue 12, listening to a lot of jazz music, and generally having a fine old domestic time of things. Not bad at all.
I’ve accepted more contract work for later in the year, this time for a medical library. While I wouldn’t say anything so ridiculous and dishonest as “I’m looking forward to it,” I don’t feel afraid either and I’m somehow managing to keep feelings of anger and defeat firmly in place. Yes, I’ve been bullied into this whole thing by some ideologically-installed Westminster bureaucrat, but since I’m powerless to fight him I’ll simply ignore him. Besides, the extra money will be nice. Maybe I’ll spend it on an anti-xenophobia or free movement campaign.
These contract jobs mean putting my creative practice into a state of hibernation. I’ll keep the creative heart beating but in a minimalist way, a kind of safe mode. I’ve experienced employment often enough to know that while there may still be hours to write novels, there’s never the necessary energy or willpower or peace of mind. I’m wise enough not to go into this thinking “Hey, I’m strong enough to do both at once and have a social life!” It’ll never happen. So I’ve battened down the hatches by planning to do only what I know I’ll find manageable.
To start with, I’ve a long overdue need to send manuscripts and enquiry letters to publishers and agents. There will be promotional work to do for the new book too. This is the kind of work I too often fail to do in the land of the free. It always feels like such a chore. But since I’ll be getting paid to cheerfully push bullshit around all day anyway, I’ll be in the right state of mind to tackle such things. Operation Dung Beetle.
For actual writing, I’ve been keeping a private Nature Diary since April and I intend to continue it ’til next April. It’s a manageable amount of writing: just a few hundred observational words per day. I hope to edit it into a book, a sort of Escapological novel, once the year of contract work is over. Nature Diary of a City Slicker will likely be my next book (2017) after Escape Everything!
My general feeling as I write this in a sunny apartment (the lease on which we extended yesterday when landlady Heather popped in) on the leafy and pedestrianized West End street we share with art students and foxes, is thankfully, of everything being under control.
Yes, despite everything, I feel in control. I think this is down to the “batten down the hatches” attitude and not putting myself in a position of feeling overwhelmed. I highly recommend it.
As a teenager, I worked in a large music-and-video store. Part of my self-imposed work ethic was to keep the cargo bay empty. When a delivery came, I made it a priority to get it priced and onto the shelves or into the overflow warehouse immediately. An empty cargo bay meant we could tackle any delivery that came in, no matter how big or how complicated. Nothing could take us by surprise. We could take on all-comers. That’s how I feel today: in control, stripped back, versatile, ready. And it’s not bad.
At the awards ceremony (did I mention that?) in Ontario, I met a literary agent who said a writer, as well as writing, should have a day job and a partner who works.
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear me disagree.
The idea presumably is that day jobs and working partners are a “double lock” against complete professional and financial failure, and perhaps that the double information input from these day jobs can provide the raw material for a literary output.
I prefer to throw caution to the wind when it comes to life and work (it’s served me well so far) and to just get on with things in terms of writing. When I have a job, my prevailing thoughts are “this is an appalling expectation” and “why can’t I just be left alone to get on with my stuff?” none of which is very productive. As for a working partner, I wouldn’t wish a job on an enemy let alone the person I’m uniquely squiggly about.
Regardless of my thoughts on the matter it’s starting to look as though my partner and I will be following the agent’s advice to some extent.
A term of my wife’s immigration to Britain from Canada is that her spousal sponsor (that’s me!) earns £18,600 per year. Without revealing the full moth-ridden shame of my personal finances to you, dear reader, I do not usually make £18,600 per year. We live well and have never been in debt but that’s not enough for the British government. They want to keep Bohemian types off these shores, and that includes my life partner. Honestly, they don’t know what they’re missing. She’s fab!
Fortunately, we’ve found a rare loophole that (assuming the Tory vermin don’t close it this year) will allow Sam and me to share the burden of earning the £18,600. Sam’s looking for a j-o-b and I’ll be relying largely on short-term contract work like some sort of hipster-for-hire.
We can’t depend on our (by most standards quite substantial) savings because the value of savings is subject to an equation designed to make it look like a pittance. We can’t depend on the kind of literary or arty schemes I’m known for either. I could reframe my entire artistic output as self-employment by keeping detailed accounts, but the criteria for this is confusing and contradictory so I’m terrified of Sam’s visa being rejected on a technicality.
So it looks like Robert W, self-styled master Escapologist, has little choice but to OBEY and must knuckle down for a spell. No more getting up at 11, no more boozy breakfasts, no more writing or chatting into the we small hours. A crushing blow really, to have the shackles put back on so mercilessly despite thinking we’d got things all figured out (the £18,600 financial requirement has only existed since 2012).
We have for a while felt like Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty Four, cast asunder in a gigantic, unforgiving mechanism. But we’ll not dwell on that. Let this diary be cheerful.
I mentioned in the last thrilling installment that I’ve accepted a one-month contract at a university. It’s going surprisingly well. Today will see my twelfth working day draw to a close: almost halfway through. The campus is rather beautiful, abundant with wildlife; my temporary colleagues are a very good-natured bunch; and (I can’t quite believe I’m writing these words) I’m enjoying the commute.
After a short and barely-noticeable jaunt on the tube, I take a half-hour train ride into the countryside, followed by a twenty-minute brisk walk to the campus. I like trains and I like walking, so it works out nicely. I wouldn’t be so chipper about this if the train were a crammed inner-city commuter one or if the walk was much longer or less scenic. I’ve been lucky.
Feelings of “that I have to do this is a fucking outrage” are mitigated by the fact that the job is temporary and that it’ll be nice to have some extra cocktail money anyway. I’ve also started, rather uncharacteristically, keeping a nature diary, for which twice-daily walks in the countryside provide ample fodder.
I have secret hopes of winning less desk-bound, more arty contracts. A new artist friend is good at raising money and seems willing to hire me in some capacity. Meanwhile, poor Sam’s applying for all manner of curious employment to shoulder her half of the burden.
For all my cheerful (stoical?) approach to the situation, being forced into work could barely come at a worse time. My book, Escape Everything, is due for publication quite soon. Received an early sample of the cover art yesterday evening and it looks utterly marvelous. I need to be available for last-minute edits and, afterwards, for any promotional work and public events. As much as anything though, it’s embarrassing to have written the bible of Escapology only to fall into mandatory (albeit brief and fairly undemanding) employment almost immediately. I hope people see how extraordinary my circumstances are.
Still, all this at least provides material for the next few issues of New Escapologist. Watch in awe, ladies and gentlemen, as the Great Roberto escapes his toughest predicament to date! This surely is my “Chinese Water Torture Cell” moment. Let’s see if I can escape.