An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 66. Idle Mornings, Modern Classics

Now that the short work contract is over, my mornings are back to being the most idle portion of the day.

I’m usually up by 10 because that’s when the postman inevitably knocks. I don’t mind being seen in my tatty old dressing gown but I prefer not to be startled out of bed by a knocking door and to be compos mentis enough to say “good morning” instead of “bleurgh.”

I have some other rules too: that the bed is made and any breakfast (or previous-day) washing up is done by noon. Why? I’m not sure. It just feels like the least I should be capable of.

The rest of the morning is spent watching YouTube videos like these ones or reading light novels or playing records.

I usually glance over the Guardian‘s horrible front page for a gist of how the world looks, but I only ever read one or two stories. It shouldn’t feel like much more than looking out of the window.

After years of not having a proper job and being able to call the shots each morning, I’m still consciously grateful for these bone idle mornings, to live in accordance with my natural rhythms and to not have to catch a bleary-eyed bus to anywhere.

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I’d been meaning to describe the shape of my mornings to this Diary for a while and was finally prompted by a moment from the end of The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby’s father shows the narrator a book from Gatsby’s childhood. It’s a copy of Hopalong Cassidy, in which a young Gatsby has jotted his daily rituals and resolutions on the flyleaf beneath the word SCHEDULE:

Rise from bed 6.00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling 6.15-6.30
Study electricity, etc 7.15-8.15
Work 8.30-4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports 4.30-5.00
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00
Study needed inventions 7.00-9.00

GENERAL RESOLVES

No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable]
No more smokeing or chewing
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents

I think this is very charming and easily the best part of the novel.

Gatsby, we know, is a “self-made man” who willed himself from rags to riches; this artifact reveals that he was but a child when he decided to break his class destiny.

It’s easy to find this sort of thing a bit square, a bit nerdy, the secretive devotions of a self-policing goody-two-shoes who takes life too seriously. But I think it shows great passion.

I used to be a bit like Young Gatsby, the SCHEDULE being the sort of tool I’d concoct of my own volition so that I wouldn’t end up doing just what I was expected to do. I wanted to take life by the horns! But to be an existential matador, you probably need to develop these dorky techniques in self-discipline.

At almost 40, I’m still like this to an extent but I’ve calmed down a bit. Today, for example, has almost dwindled to nothing, with barely anything to show for it, and I’ve come to see this as an achievement in its own right.

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My reading The Great Gatsby this week was part of a hole-patching exercise in my reading experience.

Many people read Gatsby in school but the school I went to preferred us to read self-consciously working-class literature instead of these twentieth-century icons that might have been a useful cultural grounding for later in life. I can’t help thinking that if we’d read The Great Gatsby and Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Slaughterhouse 5 and Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird like so many other children did, we’d have felt less isolated from culture in our teenage years and would generally understood more of what people were talking about.

(The working-class books we read at school were not working-class classics either. We did not read Love on the Dole or Hangover Square or Down and Out in Paris and London or The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists or even anything by Dickens. Instead, we read (yes, I remember everything) some miserable books called Twopence to Cross the Mersey, Across the Barricades, The Driftway, and a supposedly-humorous play called The Rebels of Gas Street. We didn’t enjoy or understand any of these books; we didn’t relate to them at all. This is a shame because I think they were chosen to be relatable, which shows how our teachers thought of us. Seriously, why not give us Day of the Triffids or Treasure Island or something kids might actually get something out of?)

Now, embarrassingly late, I’m reading these basic modern classics like a dufus.

The Great Gatsby looked good to begin with but I found it unfocussed and ultimately not about very much. The first of three acts is about the mystery of this unknowable man (a “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere”), the second (and best) is about the history of a great love triangle, and the third is about a random accident that results in the end of Gatsby’s life. The end doesn’t feel (to me) like a well-planned tragedy or an irony or anything. It just feels like F Scott ran out of time or met his wordcount or something. Maybe I’m being unfair?

To Kill a Mockingbird is a lovely book though. I was surprised by how little of it is about the famous trial. I was also surprised by how joyfully messy and unconventional the structure is; it’s not an obvious classic at all, though I really enjoyed it and it’s probably perfect for kids. It’s only right that Atticus Finch is seen as one of the great memorable characters and I find myself vowing, Gatsby-like, to be more like Atticus Finch in my own life and less like Saul Goodman.

GENERAL RESOLVES
Be kind and give more of yourself to Good.
No more cutting corners!

Read the classics already? Try a classic in the making and read The Good Life for Wage Slaves by Robert Wringham. The annual fee for hosting this website is due so any extra support would be most welcome. Ta!

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 65. WFH Presenteeism is Delicious.

God help me, I’ve accepted a work contract. It’s just a short one (six weeks) and it’s a work-from-home position.

The contract presses my old librarian skills back into service, which has so far been very enjoyable and nostalgic. Plus, the money I’m making should compensate precisely for the overspend on buying and decorating our new flat. So why not?

Now, as a writer I always “work from home” in that my writing happens entirely at our dining table. But I don’t really think of it as “work” (i.e. employment) because it’s something I just want to do. But what I’m doing now is what people more normally mean when they talk about “Working From Home,” so I’m finally getting an experience of Pandemic-era WFH.

What I wanted to mention today is the unique flavour of WFH Presenteeism. It’s delicious.

Presenteeism, lest we forget, is when you have nothing to do at your job but you have to sit there and make a show of it because you’re on the clock. Presenteeism corrodes the soul and helps the world not a jot.

When I worked in an office, I’d often brood angrily about some culmination of micro-tasks I couldn’t attend to because I was instead being paid to sit in an office no mater what.

In these moments, I wasn’t even particularly angry about separation from my big non-work projects or from bathing in the sunshine or travelling the world. No, it was things like not being able to reach the post office to collect a package before it closed. Or having a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. Or not having time to shave that morning because there there was a train to catch. If only I could just work from home, I’d think, I could do these things. But instead I just had to sit there and fume.

Working from home and doing those things wouldn’t have been any skin off the company’s nose. So what if I spent five minutes of company time shaving? Or ten minutes washing the dishes? It’s not like that’s any money worth caring about, and any net gain to a worker’s mental clarity and general wellbeing would probably benefit the whole firm. And I wasn’t doing anything for them by being pointlessly present anyway. I was just sitting in an office because That’s What People Do.

In the WFH era, I’ll work for an hour or two and then take a break. Instead of that break being in the company rec-room where I’d have to make chit-chat with other time-wasting and life-cynical employees, I can get those little things done. It’s lovely.

I’m not supposed to leave my “station” and I should theoretically be ready to receive a Zoom call at any moment, so I’m still tethered in the same kinky way of most employment. But I can take out the bins, receive packages from couriers, do my exercises, play a record.

If I really had nothing to do for a few hours, I could probably put my feet up and watch some Netflix. It’s not bad.

This has been a voice in favour of WFH. (And for balance, here’s one against). Are you still working from home, dear reader? If so, what do you think?

For further insight into workplace survival, try my book The Good Life for Wage Slaves out now in paperback.

An Escapologist’s Diary : Part 64. 2021 Review.

Here follows the annual report for my imaginary shareholders in the year of 2021. Or, as I prefer to call it, the year of the ring-tailed lemur.

The report, you’ll notice, is over a week late. This is because my partner and I were hit by the dreaded Omicron at the eleventh hour and have been resting ever since. We’re doing fine but it’s surprisingly hard-going considering the claims of it being a “Covid Lite.” Look after yourself, readers. Get boosted pronto.

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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 63. 2020 Review.

Ah God. 2020. What a year. All that handwashing.

Was this year worse than 2016? Well, yes, but I have a feeling that 2020 was when we began to reap what was sown in 2016. Ask me how. (Please don’t).

So here goes. The annual statement for my imaginary shareholders. For 2020. Urgh.


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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 62. Hole.

Escape Towers is on the top floor of a very old building, and water drips into our spare room whenever there’s serious rain. We reported the problem to the landlord some time ago, but no repairs were forthcoming. Since it was only our spare room and wasn’t a constant problem, we didn’t put any pressure on him to get it fixed. Bohemia!
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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. 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.
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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.

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