An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 42.

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Thursday morning and our things arrive from Canada. Being reunited with our hip Montreal stuff on a tenement-lined Glasgow street feels, in a small way, like worlds colliding.

It was also funny to have such personable Glaswegian removal men help with the unloading when our entire exposure to the shipping system to date had been through online interfaces backed by anonymous ad remote HQs. Human beings are definitely easier and friendlier to deal with. This is something I like about Britain: it’s not yet completely succumbed to the commercial impersonal.

As minimalists, it was a tad alarming to find quite how much stuff is now under our jurisdiction: things from Montreal, things reclaimed from my parents’ house in Dudley, things belonging to our rented flat. The Montreal shipment is not much by most people’s standards–nine boxes of books and clothes, three small items of furniture–but it still felt like a lot as we schlepped them up the stairs and parked them in the formerly spartan living room.

Some minimalists suggest “box parties,” at which you seal your possessions into boxes, only retrieving items you need when you need them. After six months, anything not retrieved from the boxes can be denoted “non-essential” and, if you feel so inclined, jettisoned. I’ve always found such techniques a bit silly (just be a critical thinker, recognise wheat and chaff), but we’ve had a de-facto box party while our stuff was in transit, and it worked well. We’ve already got rid of some of what we shipped.

Good to be reunited with my tweed jacket though, and the nice shoes Samara bought for my last birthday.

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Pleasingly, the first item to emerge from the first box we opened was the pilot issue of New Escapologist. Look at it! All amateurish and wild-eyed, the apocryphal The in the masthead.

If anyone would like to buy it, you could email me with an offer. There were only ten of these ever printed (probably only five left in existence). It has content that didn’t make it into the definitive Issue One, but you’d mainly want it for scarcity value or completism or to giggle at our total lack of finesse circa 2007.

Over five hours, we worked hard to unpack and order our things before catching the tube to Glasgow’s south side where I read selections from my teenage diaries to a packed room of receptive people.

I had the time of my life sharing the torrid and rather pathetic things my teenage self committed to posterity, and the gently surreal entries from 1992 (when I was 10). The other readers were amazing, and something about the cozy environment of the show allowed me to relax and enjoy their readings properly instead of fretting over my own pending performance. A wonderful night. Another installment coming in September.

It occurs to me that diary-writing has always been important to me, albeit an off-and-on practice. There’s this diary for instance, my teenage diaries and the various public readings I’ve done from them, this diary, and the “City Slicker’s Nature Diary” I’ve been thinking of writing as my next book. I should really go back to writing a private one, if only for the sake of the general public.

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The weeks ahead: I’ve accepted a one-month work contract at a university library. It’s well-paid and the work looks straightforward enough, but the commute’s a monster by my standards (a tube, a train and a walk: 1.5 hours each way). Doubtless I’ll have Tiresias-style tales of commuting woe for the next installment of this diary!

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 41. Elves.

A trip to London, ostensibly to sit in on a recording of the television programme QI. I’d recently made the acquaintance of Steve–one of the legendary QI Elves–and as well as granting us an interview for New Escapologist he kindly invited us along as production guests.

Shortly after arriving in London and about to step onto a zebra crossing into Hyde Park, a police officer pulls up on a motorcycle and politely but firmly asks us to “hold on a moment, please”.

A black limo came into view and Samara said “Is it her?” She was half-joking but I’d already spotted the unmistakable silhouette in the back seat. As the car rolled by, I smiled at Her Off The Money and waved. To my surprise, she waved back, though she regally avoided my gaze. “I’ve lived in London for fifteen years and I’ve never seen her,” says friend Tim, feigning fury, “but you’re in town for fifteen minutes and you get a wave!”

The QI recording was a hoot. It felt very strange to watch Stephen Fry and colleagues being witty and knowledgeable in the flesh and for two straight hours. The show will be edited down to 30 minutes but the whole two hours struck me as perfectly broadcastable: in the age of the podcast, which is allowed to be lengthy, it struck me as a bit of a waste. The panel do their own warm-up, incidentally, and do well to include the audience. In fact, it felt more like a stage show than a studio record, to the production’s credit.

Everything–set, people, format–was familiar from television but different. I found myself glancing repeatedly at a camera operator’s monitor, which looked exactly as QI looks on television, to help restore normality.

After the recording, we were lucky enough to spend time in the green room. Steve the elf took pains to introduce me to John Lloyd, simply because I’d asked him in advance not to. My fear was that I’d turn into a blubbering pile of fanboy slop, having been a fan of JL’s work for a long time. The Meaning of Liff was a sacred text of my teenage years and Spitting Image all but provided the building blocks of my sense of humour. For want of anything else to say, I explained to John why Steve had mischievously decided to introduce us. He was very kind about my inarticulacy and gave me a high-five! When it became apparent that I was unable to converse further, he chatted warmly to Samara about Canada, where apparently he grew up.

I managed to escape when I spotted some of the other elves huddled in the corner. I went over to say hello and to congratulate them on their recent Chortle award. They seemed happy to be recognised and struck me as funny and clever people. They’ll be performing in Edinburgh this year, a live version of their podcast, which will certainly be worth a look.

Leaving the green room in a lift, Steve points out that my flies are partially unzipped. “You’ve been talking to comedy royalty with your knob out.” No wonder Sue Perkins had given me the raised eyebrow.

As if this weren’t enough hob-nobbing with celebrities, we spent the next morning in the Natural History Museum where an advert offered a free tour of museum treasures “including the giant squid”. Well, we didn’t have to be asked twice. The squid, being giant, did not disappoint but the real thrill was meeting Darwin’s adorable pet octopus, preserved in alcohol but categorically not a specimen.

In a mission to similarly preserve ourselves, we took flight to the Coach and Horses. Outside, we bumped into Dickon. It was all I could do to restrain myself from embracing him and kissing him on the face, so delighted I was to see him (in his natural habitat, no less, Greek Street being a place he sometimes mentions in his online diary), but I somehow managed to cork my delight for the benefit of all involved.

We spent the rest of our London time with Tim, who’d just returned from the Isles of Scilly. We’d not seen him since his trip to Montreal over two years ago. Catching up was a warm pleasure, but it didn’t feel like we had quite enough time. We left London vowing to return soon.

Before returning to Glasgow, we took a National Express coach to visit my parents in Dudley. It was a beautiful and colourful journey, England green in the springtime with Red Kites hovering over yellow fields of rapeseed crop. I’d intended to sleep on the journey since we’d missed so much sleep in London, but I opted to stay awake and absorb the early morning splendor. Exiting the motorway into Birmingham, agriculture gave way to suburbia and I was immediately overwhelmed by the gaudily-printed, sometimes-misspelled, consistently witless signage of local businesses, the names and functions of which betrayed frightened and meager minds. Now now, I tell myself, this is where you’re from. Be kind. But when a place feels more violent and less beautiful than a motorway, it’s hard to be positive about it.

Still, fine times were had with my parents (a pretty drive to Ironbridge, a tramp around the Roman ruins of Wroxeter, a great curry from Wolverhampton), and with my sister who mentions her plan to retire next year at the age of 30. I’d never pegged her as an Escapologist, but she’s a better one than I, having knuckled down properly in business and made enough money not to worry anymore. She takes my picture for an art project.

We finally arrive in Glasgow rejuvenated and with exciting moments to look back on (the Queen! J. Lloyd! Darwin’s octopus!) but looking forward to being still for a while. We’ve had our Glasgow apartment for a couple of months now but have not yet settled in at all, what with catching up with Glasgow friends and even popping back to Canada and now this mad week in London. Time to calm down and get on with things, I think. And our stuff from Montreal should be arriving any moment… now.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 40. Moving On… With Our Stuff.

The words “Stuff Management” should be in my family crest. I’m a firm believer that a family crest should contain a weak play on words.

We have just three weeks left of our four-year residency in Montreal. After that, we’re travelling in Spain for a while and then living in Scotland. We’ll be in Scotland for at least two years if not permanently, though “permanent” is a pretty loose word when you’re Escapologists.

For various reasons, I’m really looking forward to being back in Scotland. For all the lackadaisical liberties of Montreal and the wonders of the wider world, Scotland (specifically Glasgow) really is my favourite place to live and I’d like to make it a more permanent base of operations.

For the first time ever, I’m moving with (what feels to me) quite a lot of stuff. As you all know, I’ve been a fairly extreme minimalist since embarking on my great escape six years ago and my stuff has rarely exceeded the contents of an easily-lifted suitcase.

This time, however, there’s my wife’s stuff to manage. To her credit, Samara has embraced minimalism too and we’re down to just nine medium-sized boxes and three small pieces of furniture to which we both have a sentimental attachment. This is pretty impressive. Sam’s also prepared to deal with it all herself, but since we’re married now and the move to Scotland is really all my fault, I feel obliged to accept a goodly portion of the fretting and expense of moving it. I’m okay with this, even if it sounds to you like the kind of thing that would drive me nuts.

Getting to the nine-box stage has been fun. A couple of months ago we initiated a minimalism crusade, which was challenging when you remember we were minimalists already. I enjoy this kind of cultivation and stock-taking though, and since I’ve not had anything substantial to jettison for a long time I relished the opportunity to lose some stuff. We ditched as much as we comfortably could, doing our best to do so in a socially-responsible way. We gave a lot to a local “give box” (a self-regulating community resource where people leave and take household goods for free), some to Renaissance (a chain of charity shops) and by giving stuff to friends and neighbours.

I also discovered that, as good as the give box is, you can essentially make your own by simply leaving stuff in clean and open public places. People can instinctively tell through an item’s vestigia that it’s been abandoned and is free to take. I’ve taken to leaving things by the recycling bin in our building’s mail room. They usually get claimed within a couple of hours.

We sold some stuff through Craigslist and Kijiji to help offset the cost of shipping the rest. This was an interesting experience. Our adverts always stressed that the furniture for sale was quite large and that the buyer might want to hire a u-haul to get it home. The buyer never hired a u-haul though, consistently turning up in a small car. Somehow, however, we always managed. An armoire crammed quite miraculously into a hatchback with the rear door half-battened down with guy-ropes, and our iron bed frame fixed fairly precariously onto a roof rack. Montrealers never fail to amaze me. They just don’t give a shit.

The bulk of our stuff will be shipped to Scotland on a boat, which takes about six weeks. We’re using the time lag to our advantage, using it to travel in Spain before arriving in Scotland to receive our stuff. Because we don’t want to be travelling for a full six weeks though, we’re shipping our stuff a couple of weeks before leaving Montreal. This means a fortnight living in our apartment with practically no stuff. That’s going to be interesting too.

The only stuff we’ll have to live with will be our mattress (to be jettisoned on the last day), some kitchen basics (also to be jettisoned on the last day) and the single suitcase of clothes we intend to travel with. That, I think, will be it.

We’ve been very lucky when making plans to actually have an address in Glasgow, to which we can ship our stuff and have mail forwarded. It came about because Scottish friend Heather, nudged, she says, by New Escapologist recently decided to up sticks and move in with her boyfriend in Germany. He runs a flying school and Heather now spends her time learning a new language and flying the German skies in an actual zeppelin balloon. Remembering that Heather owns a flat in Glasgow I asked if we could rent it. She agreed and the bureaucracy of flat renting suddenly shriveled away for us all. And so an Escapologist rental economy was established.

Over the past two months, when not fretting over our stuff, I’ve been writing the New Escapologist book, Escape Everything!. It goes well. A full draft is now complete and I’m now at the stage of trawling my notes to make sure I’ve said everything before the final edit. The publishing fund is also nearly complete. Please go here to buy your copy in advance so we can get this book out soon.

Mobility, folks. It’s what’s for dinner.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 39. 2014 Review.

Baboosh! Here it is. My traditionally-belated End-Of-Year Report to My Imaginary Shareholders.

The point of this Diary series more generally is to help answer the question, “what would I do if I didn’t have a job?” This, madam. This is what. Or at least, it’s one example. So here we go.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 38. Solvitur Ambulando.

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This post is dedicated to Escapologist of distinction Lentus who is walking the Camino Santiago. He taught me the term Solvitur Ambulando, which means “it is solved by walking”.

For almost three months, I’ve been prevented from walking everywhere by the ferocious Quebec winter. If that sounds sissy or uncommitted, you should know that we’re talking about snow up to the knees, torrents of slippery grey slush, pavements like frosted glass, and temperatures as low as -40°C (though -15 is more typical). Here’s the view from my balcony.

It’s not impossible to walk through this and it can be fun to do so on occasion, but when your daily routine includes two 45-minute walks, such oppressive conditions cease to be entertaining very quickly.

So I started travelling by bus. It will come as no surprise to anyone that I’m not hugely fond of a rush hour bus. It may offer protection from the elements, but it’s crowded and lurching and it frequently smells like farts.

For a fortnight now, the bus has been particularly bad. Several times, it has simply failed to arrive at all and I’ve resorted to splitting taxi cabs with other commuters after waiting in the cold for half an hour. Did I mention it’s -15°C on a good day?

So I’ve taken matters into my own hands this week and started walking again in spite of the winter. It’s no picnic, but at least I can stay relatively warm when walking, compared to standing still at a bus stop.

It’s also an opportunity to try some black-belt Stoicism. I just try to remember that my internal self cannot be pelted with ice. Only my outer shell is vulnerable.

The return to regular walking has been tough but rewarding. I feel strong and vital! The physical exercise doubtless helps, but it’s also the solitude and the time to think and the sense of being connected to the world instead of just crammed into the same cattle truck again and again, never really seeing anything.

Try it yourself. Damn the elements. Go for a walk. Solvitur Ambulando.

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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 37. 2013 Review.

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Dear Imaginary Shareholders,

It’s been a weird year. For starters, I took a job. Not something I generally recommend, as you know.
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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 36. Dark Matter.

Three domestic opportunities for minimalism arise. Oh baby. It’s rare for even one to come up these days since I’m already down to brass tacks (Tacks? Excessive!).

1. Life without microwaves

A microwave oven is something most devout minimalists are proud to be free of, but since I tend to rent furnished apartments there’s usually one around.

When our microwave exploded last weekend, my girlfriend suggested we try to live without it rather than replace it. Music to my ears!

Since I do most of our cooking the old-fashioned way, the only thing we ever used the microwave for was to reheat leftover coffee (a dirty habit anyway). I suspect we will not replace it. Already the microwave-shaped empty space in our tiny kitchen is nourishing my minimalist soul.

2. Eradication of DVD

Years ago, I minimised my DVD collection by jettisoning the cases and filing the discs into a handy DJ case. I now have an alphabetised DVD collection the size of a shoe box. It’s a work of art.

But! I want rid of it. Watching DVDs has become a bore. I prefer to read books for home entertainment these days; but even if you’re happy to watch videos, DVDs are a lousy experience compared to Internet downloads. They jump, they’re often incompatible with newer media software, and you have to humour the obstacle courses of animated menus and the offensive anti-piracy warnings. So I’m giving away my beloved collection of classic British sitcoms to my friend Phil, a Canadian, who likes British comedy and will be new to much of my curated treasure.

3. A blitz on Dark Matter

I’ve wanted to mention ‘Dark Matter’ for ages. Dark Matter is the mysterious, barely-detectable matter that physicists believe accounts for much of the universe’s mass. It’s also the metaphor I use for the unseen stuff shoved into the backs of cupboards. It’s the shameful plaque-like accumulations that minimalists don’t count on their inventories, preferring instead to pretend it doesn’t exist. But there can be loads of it! (By loads, in our case, I mean there was a desk lamp, some empty boxes, and a beach towel — like I say, brass tacks). It’s now no longer with us.

Why the sudden attack on our Dark Matter? We used to keep suitcases under our bed, something which has always bothered me. They would accumulate dust bunnies and the symbolism alone was a headache, so I wanted to relocate them to our closet, hence the need to clear it out.

Now that we’ve courageously tackled Dark Matter, the breath of chi dragons can swirl around us unencumbered as we sleep.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 35: Sherlock Holmes

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My partner and I like to read to each other. She reads when her North American accent lends itself well to a story, and I read the silly English stuff.

Lately, I’ve handled the majority of the reading because we’ve been munching our way through the canon of Sherlock Holmes.

We recently passed the halfway point, a fact that leaves me slightly melancholy: what to do when it’s all over? Should we cut the remainder with Solar Pons to make it last longer?

Reading Holmes together is extremely entertaining and I can’t recommend it enough. If nothing else, you can have fun with your range of character voices. I challenge any man not to be seduced by my staccato ‘lady’ voice, and not to shrink into submission upon hearing my Terry Jones-style ‘harridan’ voice, used exclusively for elder housekeepers and Mrs Hudson.

My vocal showboating is sometimes punished: I’ll invest a character with an impressive but difficult-to-maintain accent only discover he has five pages of solid dialogue.

There are times when a reading becomes positively theatrical, such as when one Mr Cyril Overton punctuates his telling of The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter by repeatedly slapping his knee. I’ve also experimented with adding soundtracks in the form of ‘Victorian street noise’ and ‘crackling fireplace’ tracks from YouTube, though it tends to distract.

I’m the proud owner of the best Sherlock Holmes edition ever published, but it’s rather too bulky for cozy reading and the intriguing marginal notes compete with the story, so we’ve been using the lighter-weight versions for free from the library. Trips to the library to choose the next volume is part of the fun (only a fool would read them in order – start with Adventures and then Hound).

Holmes is riddled with jokes and uproarious humour. There are tropes that make us laugh because we’ve learned to recognize them as portentous. Our favourite is the hubris displayed by police officers, immediately plowed down by Holmes and followed by a sartorial insult from bitchy Watson. For example, this description of Lestrade:

The official detective was attired in a pea-jacket and cravat, which gave him a decidedly nautical appearance.

Out of context, this doesn’t sound like much but take it from me that it’s a bloody brilliant joke.

The stories are also told with howlingly wonderful innuendo, verging on a kind of polari. Holmes and Watson are clearly a couple: another good reason for reading this as a couple.

Why you might also like to take up reading the Sherlock Holmes books aloud:

– It’s free (and one should always be on the lookout for free hobbies);
– A completely ‘unplugged’ activity, it takes you away from the TV and computer screens (unless you choose to use an e-reader, in which case you lose again);
– A Holmes short story or a chapter from one of the novels fits neatly into an hour;
– It’s a communal event, prompting you to savour something together instead of in isolation;
– By the time you’re finished, you’ll be an expert on Sherlock Holmes and can kick arse in the quiz at your local Sherlock Holmes society;
– As an Escapologist, Holmes’ lifestyle can inspire you to live by your wits as he does.

Pre-order Issue Nine in print or on PDF today.
Buy the complete back catalogue of New Escapologist with a 10% discount.
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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 34.

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I’m about to break my own first rule of blogging and apologise for the hiatus in my posting for a while.

(Why apologise? You owe nothing. No vows of regularity were promised. Nobody loses money. Maybe the world is even better off without your usual twopence worth!)

But it’s been two weeks: it’s all I can do not to fall to the floor and initiate a full-blown grovel-a-thon.

I feel guilty. Especially as there are so many new readers since my recent blossover with the prolific Mr Money Mustache. Why, they must be baffled, kicking at the dust in this blogless void, shrugging at each other and saying, “The mustachioed one is usually right about these things! We’ll wait a while longer.”

Do not worry. Godot arrives after all and the hiatus can be explained with ease. My companion and I have been travelling. Specifically, we made a two-week journey across Canada by train.

It was beautiful! We saw the Rocky Mountains; paddled in the Athabaska River; photographed an elk and a grizzly bear; went for a ride in a cable car; visited some old X-Files shooting locations; met the thoughtful David Caine of Raptitude; went hiking and generally saw sights. More than anything, we were humbled by the stupendous scale of this humongous country.

But this isn’t a travel blog, my good friends. I won’t bore you with the slideshow. (Though if you’re into that, please go ahead and enjoy the slideshow).

Travel by train is a most Escapological way to go. The journey is more leisurely, more fun, more scenic, more communal, more impressively gentle than air flight. You’re more likely to clap your eyes on a grazing moose and less likely to end up with chapped lips and a migraine. Want to escape the strong force? Try the train.

Some of you are likely wondering where the upcoming Issue Nine of New Escapologist has got to. We’re still working on it! Despite travel, we have not taken our eyes off it for a moment. We’re trying to fulfill our promise of an August release, but we may run a week or so late. Time to close this diary entry in precisely the same way it opened: “Sorry”.

Pre-order Issue Nine in print or on PDF today.
Buy the complete back catalogue of New Escapologist with a 10% discount.
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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 33.

Time for a belated End of Year Review and Report to My Imaginary Shareholders.

The purpose of these Diary columns is to help answer the question of “what would I do if I didn’t go to work?”. So bear with me, while I rabble on about my year. I’ll keep it brief.

2012 was a pretty mellow year, very idler-friendly and without as many landmark events as 2011. The main thing has been adjusting to my somewhat isolated but luxuriously lazy life in Montreal: a city of extreme climates, both political and actual. This year, if I’ve been not navigating a tricky conversation in French or marching alongside protesting students with their proud red squares and V masks, I’ve been trudging through record-levels of snow and wondering why Pussy Riot-style balaclavas aren’t more popular here. Still, it all helps to keep the rent down.

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