Out of Office

When I press the big red button on the newsletter, sending a digest of this blog (and some additional content) to a thousand or so readers, my phone will start vibrating as twenty or so “Out of Office” messages hit my inbox.

I know there are ways to stop this from happening, to divert such email directly to trash, but I prefer to have a quick look. As a passionate supporter of people being out of their offices by whatever means necessary, you might say I’m a connoisseur of the vacation auto-response.

Reader, I’m pleased to see there’s not a doofus among us. This I can tell because none of your auto-responses are longer than a hand span, none of your signatures are longer than the actual message, and none of you have “I’ll be back on ______” dates from several months or years ago. Truly we are an intellectual lot.

And, by the way, many of you have positions far too responsible to be reading New Escapologist. But I’m glad you do. 😉

On the subject of “OoO” messages, I once received this one from TV’s Alan Partrige:

To: rob@newescapologist.co.uk
From: alan.partridge-bbc@bbc.co.uk

I’m not in the office so both cannot and will not respond to your email. If your email is urgent, perhaps you should have tried calling instead. The very fact you were content to type out your query long hand and settle back to wait for a reply suggests it can wait, even if you’ve put a red exclamation next to your email to make it stand out in my inbox. Won’t wash with me, that.

Is that not a treasure? It should go to Letters of Note really.

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Welcome Home, Peaches.

My friend’s daughter, Caoimhe, has a pet snake called Peaches.

Today we salute Peaches for a daring escape attempt. The little rascal slithered off for four months before turning up again, happy as can be.

Nobody’s sure how she thrived for so long without her heat lamp or a supply of freeze-dried mice. Nor does anyone have know where she’s been.

Welcome home, Peaches.

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“It’s a Living!”

Reader, what are your honest thoughts about automation?

I just got back from buying bread at a local mini-market. All three self-service check-outs were vacant but a woman waited patiently with her shopping behind another customer at the one staffed counter.

As I scanned my items and paid for them, I overheard the woman as she reached the counter say something about self-service machines “putting people out of work.”

This is something I’ve heard many times, as doubtless have you. The thought probably even crossed your mind when you saw your first self-service check-out.

There might be a valid case that these machines and other concessions to automation reduce the potential for important human interaction, but the “putting people out of work” thing surely DOES NOT COMPUTE.

Think about it. You’re saying that labour-saving (and, in this case, queue-busting) solutions should be resisted in favour of people doing work that does not in reality need to be done.

It makes me think of animals being used as household appliances on The Flintstones. Some cement is mixed in the beak of a pelican and he says to camera, “It’s a living!”

Intelligent lifeforms doing what machines can do automatically!

Serving lines of impatient customers in a supermarket–take it from me–certainly felt futile before these machines came along a few years ago; now, since the machines exist, it really is futile.

If we need to create work for people (and we don’t), how about creating work that is useful (in that robots can’t do it yet) or serves to hold back the ecopocalypse, or is pleasant to do, or is at least a little more meaningful than breaking rocks?

OR should we pay intelligent humans with the same internal hardware as Leonardo da Vinci a minimum wage to stand in the corner in case someone needs a convenient hatstand?

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Reduce! Reduce! And Again I Say Reduce!

This article is a timely reminder that minimalism is the only answer to the climate crisis.

Telling people what they can throw out and recycle is important, but corporations and governments who are in the business of growth do not want to address the real problem: the vast and escalating quantity of plastic and other stuff that people buy, use a bit and then throw away. Along with celebrities, “influencers” and PR companies they seek to create needs for things we never knew we wanted, and then manipulate us to buy more of everything. Bombarded by advertisements, we are then persuaded that the more we binge-shop, the more fulfilling and satisfying our lives will be.

As I say in Escape Everything!, the materials required to create almost any physical item, ultimately, come out of the ground. Recycling and reuse are respectful of this fact, but they are no alternative to leaving the coal in the ground and the rainforest intact.

The way to avoid ecological disaster is to starve the beast of consumerism, by buying less and reusing more of everything. … we must change consumer habits and attitudes to consumption.

Minimalism is the change in consumer habits/attitude to consumption we’ve been looking for. For reasons that still elude me, minimalism is often considered a sign of affluence despite costing nothing (and in fact saving money). So why not pursue that sign of affluence instead of the costly plastic ones? This way, you can still enjoy a sort of social status-in-relation-to-consumerism while helping to save the planet in the only meaningful way. And if social/consumer status is not important to you, then follow minimalism anyway for all the other benefits.

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Harry’s Houdini

I’m rarely interested in the antics of monarchy, but my attention has been snagged by Harry and Meg’s bid for freedom.

Once, when debating the redundancy of the monarchy at a family get-together (I’d been laying down an admittedly weak Republican argument), my wife offered a hot take: “I think Amnesty International should get involved.”

It was the first time I’d heard anyone suggest that maintaining a Royal Family was a bad deal for them. And of course it is! The Royals live in luxury, but they’re denied simple free will. And that is no life at all.

Doted upon, cordoned off, paraded before visitors, they’re essentially pets.

Pet status would be pretty embarrassing to the rare Royal who somehow stumbled upon self-knowledge, perhaps when catching a glimpse of their absurdly bejeweled reflection in a Commoner’s eye. This Royal, it turns out is Little Prince Harry. That’s the ginger one, fellow monarch ignorers. I looked into it.

Harry and Meg have publicly announced that they want financial independence, to live where they want to live, and to act on their own free will. They’re Escapologists!

It’s tempting to say “well, they’re millionaires, I’m sure they’ll manage, boo-hoo-diddums, etc.,” but it’s not that simple. Their unasked-for position as pet people means they need private security to ensure their safety (which shows how crazy this whole monarchy nonsense really is) and, to maintain this level of safety, they need money. Their money comes from the Crown, which is the very organisation they’re trying to escape and one, incidentally, that feasts upon the blood of the plebs. It’s not so different to, say, an American citizen wanting to escape their job but being tied to it for the health insurance. It’s no time for an empathy vacation.

Who can blame Harry and Meg for wanting to escape the clutches of their bullshit job and overbearing family? Maybe Amnesty International really should get involved.

I for one am routing for the Rogue Royals. Free Harry and Meg! 

(The cartoon at the top of this post is the work of Ben Jennings and presumably belongs to the Guardian. It was the only picture I could find about the Harry and Meg situation that wasn’t mawkish as fuck.)

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The Traps of Social Narratives

no matter how [wealthy we are], we are expected to be reaching for more. The assumption is that ever more happiness is achieved with ever more money and more markers of success. The trap comes from the fact that the happiness hit from adherence to these narratives gets ever smaller the further up the ladder you go and, eventually, can become reversed. To be happier we need to move from a culture of “more please” to one of “just enough”.

Paul Dolan, behavioural scientist questions the social narratives of success in this beefy article, describing many of them as traps, just like we do. It’s good.

about 1% of us are miserable. This would scale up to about half a million Britons. Earning less than £400 per week (or about £20,000 a year) is one of the factors that increases the chances of being in the most miserable 1%. Above £400 per week, the law of diminishing marginal returns kicks in. Once your basic needs are satisfied, your desire for ever-increasing amounts of money generates ever-decreasing returns of happiness.

We said precisely this in Issues Two and Three of New Escapologist. Our figure of £385 came from research collected by John Naish for his 2009 book, Enough. It’s good to know that the magic number hasn’t aged badly over the decade.

Incidentally, £385 now strikes me as an extremely healthy income. I do not make that much money. My current rent is £375, which would be ~25% of such a monthly pay cheque and, as such, healthy. Savings gurus tend to suggest spending “only” 50% of income on accommodation.

This “happiness sum,” by the way, is slightly above the UK’s living wage of £9.30 per hour. Assuming a working week of 37 hours, a weekly living income would be £344. So it seems most bean counters are on the same page here.


Data suggest that being rich can lead to time and attention being directed towards activities that fuel the attainment of more wealth, such as longer working hours and longer commutes, and away from activities that generate more happiness, such as time outside and time with family and friends. This discrepancy between the big effect on happiness that we imagine increased wealth should bring and the small effect we experience goes a long way towards explaining the narrative trap of reaching for wealth.

That’s the money trap in a nutshell.

Dolan goes on to tackle other traps that stem from success narratives. These include certain behaviour and etiquette expectations, marriage, working hours, levels of consumption, and the “quality” of one’s work. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re in a taking-stock sort of mood at the start of a new year.

My suggestion, as ever, is to develop your own code of values based on good thoughts, good reading, and an understanding of one’s impact upon the common good.

You can then (gradually or hungrily, depending on your disposition) work towards a life in which your time and actions — when you rise, the places you go, the stuff you buy, the food you eat, the waste you produce, the people with whom you share your life — are geared towards the realisation of those values.

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Crabs and Kelp

We lost the artist and writer, our neighbour, Alasdair Gray this week.

I’ve posted this before, but he wrote something inspiring and Escapological in one of his novels. Here it is again.

Will I start my own small business, if so what will it be? Will I buy a partnership, if so with who? Will I found a co-operative, start a theatrical company, join a commune? Will I invent something? Will I retrain myself to be a farmer of cattle and crops, a farmer of crabs and kelp? Will I join a political movement? Will I get religion? Will I hunt for women through contact magazines and singles clubs? Will I marry again and have a family this time? Will I emigrate? Will I roam the world with or without a companion? Will I discover that I am a homosexual, a cool-eyed gambler, a carver of clock cases, a psychopathic killer? Will I die in a war, a brothel, a famine, a bar-room brawl or beachcombing in Sri Lanka or in the Falkland Isles or in some other remote souvenir of the Great Britisher’s Empire? For I will not do nothing. No, I will not do nothing.

Later, the narrator is addressed by God (a character in the novel) who says this:

Stand up son. You’ve fallen and hurt yourself, but we all make mistakes. Regard these thirty or so mistaken years as the end of your schooling and start anew. There’s plenty of time. You’re not dead yet. You’re not even fifty.

You’ll be missed here in Unthank, Alasdair, and far beyond.

An Escapologist’s Diary. Part 59: 2019 Review

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

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

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

Nothing New Under the Sun

Well this is something. A predecessor.

Remember when Homer finds that Japanese detergent box with his face on it? Well, I’m experiencing similar levels of uncanniness this morning.

No, I’m not talking about the guy from the YSL movie. I’m talking about THIS, which is from 1937:

Like all Englishmen […] I was trained from the cradle up to be an escapologist.

I would define an escapologist as a person who looks looks the facts of life in the back of the neck, or by sheer force of imagination conjures them out of existence, or runs away from them.

In all industrial countries functioning under the glorious profit motive system an increasing interest is being taken in the spot of escapology; but England is an old sport-loving country, escapology is a fine ripened tradition here, and we easily lead the world.

Isn’t that great? The book is called Away From It All: An Escapologist’s Notebook by Cedric Belfrage.

Belfrage was a film critic, a great advocate for Liberalism and the arts, a Communist, and most likely a spy. The more I learn about him, the more interesting a character he appears to be. This book was his first and seems to be essentially a travel book. Its worldview seems more “escapist” than what I call “Escapological” in that Befrage is seeking different forms of “dope” (his word) with which to temporarily escape reality. The first chapter is called “Portrait of a Man Seeking Hashish.”

His primary criticism of life, however, seems to be a disgust for social and economic inequality and the exacerbation of this sitution by Capitalism. We have at least this much in common.

I can’t to read further and to note the similarities and differences between his Escapology and ours.

My edition (pictured below) seems to have been abridged by the author for Penguin, but it’s still a sizable volume. I will report back when I have devoured it.

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This Year’s Christmas Film

When you’re a minimalist vegetarian household with no children and you’re at least 50% Jewish anyway, deciding what to do for Chrimbo can be a tricky thing.

You don’t want to be hostile to Christmas and the facts remain that you like Charles Dickens and Michael Caine and kisses beneath the mistletoe.

But when the entire world seems dedicated to rampant consumerist mania and is shocked–almost offended–when it learns you don’t have anything to say about how you observe the big day, it can be easy to be pushed into unintentional Humbuggery. The festival of light begins to feel like The Purge and your instinct is to board up the windows and hope that the special day will pass you by.

I think this Humbuggery is important to resist. Even if it means coming up with some new traditions.

Two years ago, in a bid to do something a twinkly on Christmas Day, my partner and I went to see The Last Jedi at the Odeon. It turns out there are enough people in the world to whom Christmas isn’t a big deal that some cinemas are open on 25th December. And it was great! The cinema was overflowing with excitable Sikh children with their little topknots; it was a great atmosphere of fun-loving non-Christmas observers.

“Star Wars is my new religion,” I think to myself, settling back into the reclining chair and letting the dependable, iconic opening crawl fill my vision.

Reaching the cinema with no public transport had been a dispiriting exercise though. We’d walked through the rain across an almost-completely deserted cityscape. The no man’s land around the Skypark was especially post-apocalyptic-feeling. We saw the occasional Christmas light display in a high-rise, just like Brendon Gleeson’s flat in 28 Days Later.

The following year (last year) we stayed indoors, in the carbon-neutral warmth of home, and watched John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) with our Brussels Sprouts. This was a good choice. It turns out that old horror movies are our new religion. Star Wars was a red herring all along! And if we can find a really, really good old horror movie that neither of us has seen before, we’ve hit the jackpot. They Live was bliss.

This year, we’ll be watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). I think it will be perfect for Christmas. Leonard Nimoy, Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum practically are family.

All of this makes me wonder what makes a good Christmas film. The telly used to show festive fixtures like Muppet’s Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, but it also used to show The Great Escape, which has become associated with Christmas despite being completely unrelated. What you want, I suppose, is something that gives you a thrill, restores justice, feels nostalgic perhaps, hits your soul at just the right angle, unites everyone in the room. For us, that seems to be old horror movies.

So if, fellow Escapologists, you find yourself similarly ambivalent about this year’s day of the shiny baubles, why not join us in watching this film? Leave a comment here if you end up watching it. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, guys. It’s what’s for Christmas Dinner.

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