An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 24.

Photo by alisder

This week, Samara and I visited the Free Hetherington – Britain’s longest-running student occupation – ostensibly to hear an address by comedian Josie Long. Josie was great, but the main impression I was left with was one of respect for the merry band of passionate students responsible for the Free Hetherington.

You may have seen the initiative in the news. Basically, the Hetherington used to be a university-run watering hole and social space for postgraduate students and staff. University bean counters closed it down last year with the intention of turning it into offices. There was a collective sigh of frustration and some brilliant young students decided to do something about it. The club was actually a bequest for the students of Glasgow University; and so the students rightfully and skilfully took occupation of it. I think the official occupation has come to an end but the students are still there, running the day-to-day business of the club, and generally running a nice space for socialising and study. They also support industrial action on behalf of university staff and are, needless to say, highly vocal about the evil of the public sector cuts.

I don’t know why it took me so long to visit the Free Hetherington. It’s bloody brilliant. The people there are warm and friendly, the club seems to run purely on the power of donations of time, money and supplies (which appear to have been abundant). There’s a free lending library and some rousing, witty and sincere Anarchist slogans about the walls. It’s an especially amazing victory to those of us who remember the club when it was a university-run membership-only affair.

I used to frequent the original Hetherington Research Club back when I was an employee of the university library. I enjoyed a few nights of upstairs party decadence and even more nights of cozy downstairs chat with academics and PhD candidates. Some great memories. But I also remember the unnecessary stuffiness of the place and the rather harsh rules about membership (you had to pay for an annual subscription and you’d be given your key to the door, the lock of which was changed annually).

On one occasion at the former Hetherington, I was asked rather pressingly to produce my membership card at the bar. I had it with me, but couldn’t retrieve it quickly enough to satisfy the irritable person at the bar. I fumbled around in my wallet in a kind of panic and even after producing it, she seemed barely satisfied. I decided not to order a drink after all and left the premises in protest, taking my party of friends with me. An unpleasant atmosphere had been created unnecessarily and I didn’t want it to be the backdrop for our leisurely pint. This week’s experience at the Free Hetherington couldn’t have been more different: I was actually encouraged to go behind the bar and help myself freely to the freshly brewed coffee. It felt quite naughty (and perfectly liberating) to walk on such previously-hallowed ground, akin to shouting ‘God is dead’ in a desanctified church.

The club seems better run under the current student regime and it’s great to see messages of support coming in from people like Ms Long and even such luminaries as Liz Lochhead. Just wonderful. And a real case of people standing up for what’s right.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 23.

Bleedin’ ‘ek, I’m only back in ole’ Blighty!

Yes, I have returned to Britain, and Samara will join me in a month’s time, after her stint at the Scope Art Show in NYC. We’re going to live here for six months, ostensibly doing the same things we were doing in Montreal, but with the company of our Glasgow chums instead of the Pepsi-drinking weirdos of Montreal.

I flew from Pierre Elliott Trudeau to Birmingham International on Friday. I found myself unable to sleep on the plane. To occupy myself, I watched Inside Job on the inflight entertainment system and, while trying to sleep, deranged myself with questions like ‘How many airplanes have I been on?’ (I think it’s 47).

I’ve been at my parents’ house in Dudley for a few days, but I spent the whole of Monday in Glasgow, viewing eight different apartments. In the past, I’ve usually viewed two or three flats before committing to one, but since I’d made a special trip this time, I’d lined up a day of bumper-to-bumper viewings. After a run of pretty crapular ground-floor studio apartments, I finally found a decent tenement flat north of the Botanics. I move in on Monday 7th.

Being back in Glasgow was a breath of fresh air. (Not literally, of course. It smells of chips and arses). I think it is my favourite of all cities. If money weren’t an issue, I’d live in Glasgow over anywhere else in the world. I feel very at home among those sandstone tenements.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 22.

It’s been a busy month for this Escapologist. Can’t help feeling that life would have been less exhausting if I’d kept my job. Of course, it wouldn’t have been half as fun, as this diary entry will hopefully show.

When my partner and I first met, she half-jokingly told me that her life’s ambition was to pet a penguin. Romantic idiot that I am, I’ve been looking for penguin-petting opportunities ever since.

It seems to be a fairly popular ambition, but difficult to achieve. Most wildlife sanctuaries forbid it. The little zoo in my home town of Dudley wouldn’t make an exception and a zoo in Edinburgh, famous for a pretty undignified ‘penguin parade’, would not permit it either. In fact, there are probably only two or three places in the world – short of visiting Antarctica – that allow laypeople to handle the proud flightless birds.

A behind-the-scenes research centre at Florida’s Sea World theme park extends a rare opportunity to meet penguins. When we went to Florida this month, ostensibly for a family wedding, I was able to arrange the long-anticipated penguin encounter as a special treat.

The King Penguin we met was a very regal little bird but didn’t seem to mind being touched by humans at all. He was also a very solid and muscular fellow. I hadn’t anticipated how soft and feathery he would be either: I’d imagined his texture would be ‘fatty’, like a wet suit or certain types of fish. It goes to show that you have to experience these things to know. Later, I also had the privilege of meeting a puffin.

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Books of 2010

For want of a better place to record this, here are the books I read in 2010.

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Diary of an Escapologist. Part 21.

Here in Monreal, the idea of a white Christmas is meaningless. There’s already two feet of snow on the ground and it won’t go anywhere until March or April.

As a Brit, it’s amazing to witness the ease with which Montrealers adapt to the snow. Because of its predictable regularity, people simply aren’t bothered by it. There aren’t even many special measures taken: people and cars just cut their own way through the snow. Some quieter streets have the snow removed by bulldozers. Nothing closes down. Nothing grinds to a halt. The problems faced in the UK whenever it snows could be avoided with some very simple advice: individuals need to reassess the meaning of ‘wrap up warm’ and governments need to at least partially subsidize central heating. British suburbia’s obsession with gritsalt is a red herring.

Personally, I love the snow. I’ve been playing in it. I’ve not even curbed my resolution to walk everywhere. I honestly thought I would begin using public transport once the snow arrived, but I’ve found in practice that it’s not a big deal. I simply wear warm clothes and big boots. The sub-zero temperature transpires not to be a problem: I actually find myself overheating from the exertion of walking against the snow and need to remove my hood periodically to let off heat. The real challenge in walking long distances in the snow is the physical work involved. You use different leg muscles in the snow: muscles that aren’t accustomed to being used. Since one of the objectives of walking everywhere is to get exercise, the snow actually adds value. It’s fun too. I like to imagine I’m Scott of the Antarctic.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 20.

I’m feeling pretty sickly today after some home-baked pumpkin seeds proved impossible to digest.

Collapsed on the Chaise, reading Catch 22 and watching the snow fall outside, I tried to recall the last time I was properly ill. Aside from a couple of self-induced hangovers, I’ve managed to avoid all malaise for over a year.

But how can this possibly be? I’d be frequently bed-ridden with fevers and tummy bugs when I had a job. Ah! When I had a job.

That’s the answer, obviously. Work is bad for your health. The stress, the misery, the forced early rises, the bad canteen food and the fact that you have to share an office and a morning bus with so many sneezing, sniffling, moaning, grey-faced lottery players must have something to do with it.

Lordy. It’s at times like this (and most other times, come to think of it) that I’m really glad to be a skiver.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 19.

This weekend, Samara and I attended the Expozine small press fair in Montreal. Sam was selling her colouring book, Shanti’s Book of Panties and together we sold copies of New Escapologist Issues One, Three and Four.

It was a brilliant experience. I’ve never seen so many dealers and consumers of independent media under one roof. I’m told it is the biggest event of its type in North America. Almost everyone to whome we spoke was enthusiastic about Expozine and indie media in general. A journalist called Jeremiah had a very positive outlook, explaining that many of the big, exciting cultural movements – the Surrealists, the Beat poets, John Lennon, the Merry Pranksters, movements in jazz – began as single events such as this one. These happenings become legend. A nice outlook, I thought.

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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 18.

Somewhat lethargic this week after spending time with four fine and fruity friends visiting from Britain. Wherever they go, alliteration follows.

It was brilliant to see my friends again and to have them close by, perhaps especially Dan, whom I enjoyed having as a Kramer-like neighbour for three weeks. I’ve just read that his return flight was turned around in midair when someone noticed smoke coming from the cockpit. Blimey. He’s safe and sound at home now, though perhaps with trousers slightly browner than what he’d left Montreal with. Kudos, Dan. I’d have panicked and released the emergency escape hatch in an instant.

So yes, somewhat lethargic as I endure a general hangover in the absence of my pals. To make matters worse, I’ve also decided to give up coffee completely in accordance with the ‘Escape dependencies’ piece in New Escapologist Issue Three and the recent blog post suggesting others do the same. Needless to say, this has resulted in my feeling groggy and slow for a few days and my numskulls forming a trade union and going on strike. The most productive thing I’ve been able to do these past few days is to read chunks of Larkin on the chaise.

Thankfully, I think I’ve finally arrived on the other side of this lethargy, so I’m ready to kick a few projects into shape including the New Escapologist ‘collected works’ book; the pending New Escapologist Issue Five; and, most imminently, our attendance at Expozine 2010.

Expozine is a very well-attended local zine fair at which we hope to sell quite a few copies of our little publication and to generate commitment among a new Montreal readership. (Don’t worry, loyal British readers: we’ll run an event in Blighty during the first half of next year. Let us know if you have any specific ideas of what you’d like to see event-wise and we’ll see what we can do). Expozine should also be a good chance to make friends in the publishing world and zinesphere alike. Looking forward to it.
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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 17.

Last year, I abandoned a 50-hour working week and expensive British lifestyle, and engineered a life of pleasant Bohemia in Montreal.

When planning for the escape, I had to wise up. If I was going to quit my job forever and elope to another country, I had to get serious about it.

For about nine months, everything I did was geared toward the escape. I would:

– work hard at generating money through my day job and other means;
– concoct new measures of frugality so that I could save as much as possible for the income-free months ahead;
– use my job to learn new skills, ensuring that I’d be re-employable should things fall apart;
– maintain a bare minimum of material possessions so that I could exit swiftly when the opportunity finally arose;
– work hard at accumulating the expensive and difficult-to-obtain documents required for my visa application.

In the pub and at parties, friends would ask how the escape was coming along and I’d entertain them with my enthusiasm. Most nights, however, I’d eschew the pub all together, choosing instead to go directly home from work (literally running home on occasion), drawing the curtains against the Glaswegian dusk and concentrating on my project.

I’d often be unable to sleep at night, exhillerated by the prospect of making a break for it and planning the best ways to exploit the next day’s resources to further the endeavor. I don’t think I have ever been so driven. Escape is one hell of an ‘upper’, as Emily Dickinson wrote:

I never hear the word ‘Escape’
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation —
A flying attitude!

I doubt I conveyed this excitment in An Escapologist’s Diary as it was happening. I may have been embarrassed by my enthusiasm and reluctant to talk about something so personally important in a public forum. Now that it’s all over and the mission is accomplished, I’m more inclined to talk about it and to help others who want to make similar escapes.
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An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 16.

My girlfriend and I are not religious but we engaged quite fully with the recent Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) last week and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) yesterday. Such events are as community-orientated as they are religious and, for me, it’s a good opportunity to get to know my girlfriend’s family better. Besides, Jewish holidays are fun. They involve far more eating and boozing and blowing of animal horns than Christian holidays. No offense, Pope.
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