It Begins

Good news item about the rise of Universal Basic Income, the pending Swiss referendum (all eyes on Switzerland this weekend!) and the various pilot schemes due to go ahead in 2017:

Crucially, [UBI] is also an idea that seems to resonate across the wider public. A recent poll by Dalia Research found that 68% of people across all 28 EU member states said they would definitely or probably vote for a universal basic income initiative. Finland and the Netherlands have pilot projects in the pipeline.

This weekend the concept faces its first proper test of public opinion, as Switzerland votes on a proposal to introduce a national basic income.

Probably best to overlook this weird little (I suspect editorial) addition though:

In an increasingly digital economy, it would also provide a necessary injection of cash so people can afford to buy the apps and gadgets produced by the new robot workforce.

★ Buy the brand-new Issue 12 of New Escapologist at the shop; buy our most popular digital bundle; or get the Escape Everything! book.

On The Map

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The cover of New Escapologist Issue 12 depicts an antique map of Glasgow in Scotland.

We used a map of all things to illustrate the theme of walking, though the decision to use specifically a Glasgow map was more solipsistic, for Samara and I–the ones who make these decisions–had recently moved there.

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Now that the magazine is published I realise how much I enjoyed looking at all those images of maps, so I watched this BBC documentary about Ordnance Survey, the organisation responsible for developing the finest maps in the world.

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I’m happy with how the Glasgow map looks on the magazine cover. It’s gorgeous. But in the documentary, the President of the Royal Geographic Society mentions a map that would have been even more apt to use.

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Of the Ordnance Survey popular edition (1919-1926), he says:

“That era spans a part of history in Britain where the number of motor cars on the road went up from 77,000 to around a million. And so that map is the last picture we have of Britain before it was overrun by motor transport.”

Isn’t that something? Beautiful evidence of a time before the ubiquity of the infernal combustion engine.

map

The documentary also mentions that cartographers, otherwise uncredited for their individual work on the maps, would sometimes sneak their names into the maps like a signature. They had to be very sneaky about it too, lest their supervisors find out. That’s some fairly wonderful workplace mischief.

Pleasingly, one of these cheeky map-makers had the same name as me:

robmap

★ Buy the brand-new Issue 12 of New Escapologist at the shop; buy our most popular digital bundle; or get the Escape Everything! book.

Stoic Discomfort

By Lentus Ambulandus, from his self-imposed exile.

Stoic Week, Day 2.

[Note: you can click here to download the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook]

There is a school of thought among Stoics that a little discomfort can be beneficial. The temporary loss of the good things in life, or the suppression of pleasure, makes us appreciate the good and the pleasurable all that much more.

Taking things a step further, a brief foray into downright miserable conditions teaches us that we can, in fact, survive them. And the next time we find ourselves in similar circumstances, we’ll be stronger, more prepared, psychologically inoculated. My Platoon Sergeant reminded me of this many years ago, as he observed my futile efforts to prevent the gushing rainwater from flooding my sleeping shelter:

Son, if it ain’t rainin’, it ain’t trainin’. Dig.

But according to the Stoics, there’s something even better than being forced into discomfort: purposely creating our own discomfort. And from an Escapological perspective, I have to agree.

In his excellent “A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine devotes an entire chapter to voluntary discomfort. Seneca contemplated bad things happening, in order to appreciate what he had. The Stoic rival Epicurus practiced poverty to determine whether he really needed what he had. But it was Musonius, says Irvine, who took things to a higher level:

In particular, we should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort that we could easily have avoided. We might accomplish this by underdressing for cold weather or going shoeless. Or we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though food and water are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available.

Practiced regularly, exercises in voluntary discomfort teach us what we truly need, and this becomes part of our Escapological DNA. For example, I really enjoy camping. After a few nights shivering in a sleeping bag on uneven, rocky terrain, I appreciate the next warm bed I sleep in, king-sized or not. And my first shower after five days without is always the best damned shower I ever had, even if the water isn’t particularly hot, or flowing from some fancy 16-inch rain shower head.

Travel–on the cheap, especially to developing countries–might also be considered an act of voluntary discomfort. It will teach you that anything in excess of 500 square feet of living space is gravy, and that most of what people consider “essential” is ridiculous.

Toward the end of the chapter on voluntary discomfort, Irvine discusses the Stoic concept of pleasure suppression. In what might have been an early warning that the pursuit of “more” can lead to a life of cubicle servitude, we have this from Diogenes the Cynic:

With a stroke of her wand pleasure coolly drives her victim into a sort of sty and pens him up, and now from that time forth the man goes on living as a pig or a wolf.

Stoicism: it’s a gymnasium where Escapologists can go to lift weights. Go there, get strong, and don’t let yourself become a pig or a wolf.

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Three Walls

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One of the dumbest things you can do is sit in one space and let the world pass you by. — Bob Propst, inventor of the office cubicle.

Three Walls is an excellent short film about the development of the office cubicle.

We learn from designers that “systems furniture” was a purpose-neutral, Lego-like technology. The cubicles we see in offices today are actually an abuse of the concept.

Office bods are asked about their pre-cubicle ambitions. One wanted to be a journalist (“to have shrapnel in my leg”), one a cook (“my mum said I should get a degree before I ruin my life”), one a singer (“to sing all over the world”). Those jobs aren’t even particularly outside the mainstream–you can go to school for them–but the lure of the veal-fattening pen is somehow too great.

The cubicle workers interviewed are disarmingly lovely people. By the end of the film, every cell in your body screams we shouldn’t be putting people in these environments!

There’s also an hilariously sleazy motivational speaker to look out for. He’s the one who keeps saying “box”.

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Escape Facebook

Renegade freak that I am, I deactivated my Facebook account last week.

Life is better without it. Already I feel calmer, happier, no longer irritable or twitchy. I bloody knew coffee and tea were nothing to do with that! Sorry I doubted you, oh lovely cuppa.

You’re all your own bosses, but I’d urge you to leave Facebook too. Read our happiness editor’s thoughts on the subject if need a further nudge.

Rather pathetically, I hesitated for about three weeks before finding the courage to click “deactivate.” I kept turning the possible consequences over and over. Would I become a full-on social outcast? Would I lose precious connections to the past? Is there actually something transcendent to be said for participating in the social network, even if it really is a glorified advertising scam?

I made sure I had alternative contact details for people I didn’t want to lose touch with. In doing so, I was strict about who I’d take with me: part of my reason for leaving Facebook was to shed the 250 people I don’t have any meaningful relationship with. I was only in touch with those people in the hopes that they were “potential future friends” or as egotistical social trophies, neither of which is healthy or right. Maybe I’ll reconnect with these people again one day, but in deliberate and organic circumstances.

I also downloaded my “information” before leaving. I only wanted my photographs but the download also contains old messages and posts. I had a quick look at these and, oddly enough, the first to catch my eye was a friend’s public declaration that he’s “winding up his Facebook account.” This message was about seven years old and the fellow in question is still on Facebook today, posting embarrassing status updates around the clock. This was the final nudge I needed!

Doubtless, it’ll be a pain in the arse for a while because almost everyone’s on Facebook, making it a super-convenient directory of humanoids (a “Face Book” even), but ubiquity is just another thing to dislike about it. Facebook is humongous while small is beautiful.

Not that it’s essential to be on a social network at all, but an appealing Facebook replacement might be Ello, a burgeoning ad-free, neatly-designed alternative. It doesn’t come from greedy, world-dominating Silicon Valley but from a bike shop in friendly Burlington: a town I’ve been to and which struck me as lovely.

Ello seems fated to become the betamax of social media: superior to its competitor but failing to win popular traction. But it doesn’t matter. It’ll work for the people who use it. A social network doesn’t need approval from everyone to work. Invite your ten best friends to Ello–the people you actually want to hear from instead of the 300-strong rolodex your Facebook has become–and it’ll work for you. It doesn’t matter what the majority are up to.

In any event, escaping Facebook has been an end in itself. It feels good to have let go. I feel like I’ve passed a gallstone or something.

I’ll now get news from less-dubious reliable sources, accidentally click fewer Daily Mail links, expose myself to less anxiety-producing litter, and talk to friends in more personal ways.

Here’s Tom Hodgkinson on the subject:

Facebook is another uber-capitalist experiment: can you make money out of friendship? Can you create communities free of national boundaries and then sell [crap] to them? Facebook is profoundly uncreative. It makes nothing at all. It simply mediates in relationships that were happening anyway.

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A Hermit in New York

Here’s Canadian humorist Eric Nicol, one of my heroes, writing in 1950:

Here […] is a newspaper story about a man named Paul Makushak, who has been dug out of a dank cubbyhole in a Brooklyn tenement after 10 years of isolation, during which his mother fed him through an opening in the bedroom ceiling. The mother sealed him up in 1939 to cheat the draft. One paragraph of the story reads: ” ‘I like it in there,’ he (Makushak) said. ‘I’d like to go back. I don’t care about the outside world.’ Police took him to a hospital.”

Now, why do you suppose the police would want to go and do a thing like that? According to this account, Paul wasn’t ill or anything. He was barefoot, filthy, and partially obscured by 10 years’ worth of beard. But some of the happiest and healthiest people I know fit that description, and nobody tries to hustle them into a hospital. Not yet, anyhow.

Come to that, what right had the police to drag poor old Paul out of his cubicle in the first place? He said himself that he liked it there. Is it now considered an offense to cut yourself off to the outside world? Are hermits outlaws?

We in Canada, so rich in hermits, can hardly afford to ignore the implications of the Brooklyn case. If the hermit, in the very nature of his isolation, has lost the right to vanish into his own beard, let’s say so. Let’s at least give the hermits a chance to form a union, to strike for freedom of silence, freedom of disassembly, freedom of solitary confinement. If a man can’t sit alone in a gloomy 3×5-foot cell without fear of police crashing through his wall, who of us can again feel safe in certain prairie hostels?

Maybe the police argued that Paul was potty. Maybe they took him to a mental hospital on the grounds that nobody in his right mind would abstain from organized society. Well, a seventeenth-century philosopher named Pascal, who was certainly in somebody’s right mind, once wrote that all of man’s troubles arise from his inability to remain alone, tranquil, in a room. Pascal was a Jansenist, a set that shut itself off from the world and let God nourish it through a opening in the ceiling they called Heaven.

Too, both before and since Bunyan, who tossed off Pilgrim’s Progress while in the hoosegow, men have done their best thinking in a box, the candle of the mind burning most steadily when undisturbed by gusts from the senses.

So perhaps Paul Makushak was winding up 10 years of intensive and entirely satisfactory thinking, when they found him. Perhaps he was on the verge of solving the riddle of existence when the crowbars smashed into his wall and he blinked up into the great, unrewarding face of a Brooklyn cop. And perhaps he is now walking the streets of New York, cleaned, shaved and booted, wondering at his promotion to that larger and noisier cell, that superior isolation in which even the police are no longer interested in him.

Just conjecture, I admit. The chances of Paul’s being a Pascal are skinny. But, the important thing is that if we had a Pascal he might easily resemble Paul–rags, cubbyhole, thick matted hair and all. I can remember when Ghandi was just a prop for gags about sheets, and a lot of people think about Einstein as the man who needs a haircut. Might we not therefore suggest that the police be less quick about lashing out with crowbars? They could enquire, don’t you think that the Mr. Makushaks would prefer not to be dug up, photographed by the press, laughed over by the public, and lugged off to hospital.

After all, if we show such brutal determination to have a fellow creature share the “outside world” may we not be suspected of finding that world too little delectable for hoarding to ourselves? I seem to recall the taunt “misery loves company” but that can’t be à propos can it?

*

Paul Makushak was a real person, by the way, and here’s what he looked like:

Paul Mekushak Freed After Ten Years in a Closet

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On Marketing

marketing

I’ve been doing my best to promote the New Escapologist book.

Marketing always makes me feel uncomfortable, partly for ethical reasons but mainly because I’d rather be doing something else, like reading P.G. Woodhouse books in my gently-rocking my hammock. That’s what summer is for.

Whatever the reason, even just politely inviting people to buy my stuff or asking them to tell others about it really takes something out of me. I largely enjoy tabling at book fairs, for instance, proudly representing New Escapologist and signing copies for friendly people. But even this level of promotion inevitably leaves me exhausted and spending the whole of the following week in a vegetative, convalescent state.

This puts me in mind of an article I wrote last year for a marketing blog. I met the nice lady who runs the blog at (of all places) the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair. I think she was looking for someone who wasn’t a natural marketeer but somehow muddled through.

I said I’d do it. No cash offered, of course, but I thought I’d win some of their readers over and make a few naughty jokes about marketing people (most of which, to their credit, made the edit).

In the piece, I express my aversion to marketing, explain how we sell New Escapologist, and also re-tell the magazine’s origin story. Here it is:

Read the rest of this entry »

Leisure Is Grown On Shrubs…

ParisCafeDiscussion…in the form of a berry. Which, when ripe, is picked by hand and processed, resulting in a green bean that is shipped, roasted, and brewed for your enjoyment.

We’ve previously discussed the insidious evil of coffee pods. On the other end of the spectrum is the modern coffee house. Not the ubiquitous green mermaid kind, but rather the independently-owned house of craft extraction.

I visited one such place yesterday – appropriately named Hey Happy – a few blocks from where I live. Small, minimalist, meticulous, and slow. Slow, as in each coffee is made from scratch. They specialize in the pour-over method. Both the freshly ground coffee and the water are measured on a digital scale throughout a laborious pouring ritual. It takes a couple of minutes, during which time the server actually converses with you…about that specific coffee, the roaster, or the comparative merits of different brewing methods.

Then you sit down to enjoy your beverage. If you’re with someone, you can solve the world’s problems, conspire to create new ones, or plot your escape…all time-honoured traditions in coffee houses. If you’re solo, you might settle into a seat with good sight lines to observe the ebb and flow of life.

The point is that you take time to stop and enjoy a craft product, instead of just grabbing a paper cup of commercial-grade, crappy-tasting stimulant that you’ll drain while scurrying back to your cubicle.

Coffee is leisure, but only if you choose to see it that way.

After you’ve enjoyed your next cup of leisure, help fund the forthcoming Escapology book. Pre-order a copy today.

I’m not an employee by nature. Nobody is.

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I did a fairly lengthy interview about New Escapologist for a student magazine called Mongrel in 2012. Here’s the original text.

1. What inspired the creation of New Escapologist? What was your mindset when conceiving the idea?

It started in about 2007. I liked the idea of starting a magazine because my friends and I weren’t getting published anywhere else. Why work so hard to court the owners of the machinery when you can build your own machinery with relative ease? If you do that successfully, the machine-owners will come to you eventually. And then you can decide whether you’re going to let them play or just laugh in their obsolete Random House faces.

I knew a lot of talented writers and interesting people who would work initially for the love of it. I knew some illustrators, a graphic designer who had produced a quite beautiful magazine himself but hadn’t got past the pilot issue, and I met a fellow who was into fine typography. With friends like these, it all fell together quite easily. I became a kind of William Morris. You know, if William Morris had been a sarcastic, espresso-drinking Mod.

But that’s the magazine – the hardware – and I think you’re asking about the theory of it all – the software. I’d been reading a lot about Anarchist and left-wing Libertarian politics. It struck me – and I know this is hilariously presumptuous – that most people are probably Anarchists or left-wing Libertarians at heart. Nobody wants to be pushed around by politicians or big corporations. We just have varying levels of tolerance for it. So I began to investigate the more autonomous ways in which people have actually lived: I read a great book about the Bohemians of history; a thing about the mischievous Situationist art movement; an incredibly potent and funny book by Tom Hodgkinson called How to be Free; and – perhaps most importantly – a biography of Houdini. Houdini was a kind of conjurer but he was also a satirist: those on-stage escapes were metaphors for how people felt about politics and consumerism and the new technology of the time. Things that were being sold as liberating, labour-saving miracles like frozen food, phonograph recordings, automobiles, and New Imperialism were actually making us completely dependent upon The Corporation and a centralised government. Houdini and the people who went to see him perform could remember a time when we made things for ourselves and didn’t rely on our new masters to provide everything from the top down, and in such a mediocre way. So that’s what we do at New Escapologist: we’re continuing Houdini’s idea that traps – demeaning office work, debt, ubiquitous car ownership – are there to be escaped. Also like Houdini (and unlike so many counter-cultural publications) we want to have a sense of humour and showmanship about it.

2. What prompted you leave your job and embark on your new life as an ‘Escapologist’?

Well, I’d have to put my money where my mouth is. I couldn’t have all of these ideas and write about them and encourage other people to think about them if I didn’t live them wholeheartedly. I’m also just not that interested in being an employee. I’d given it an honest shot because it’s what most people do, and it’s what the careers advisers insist upon, and I didn’t want my parents to disown me. But I’m just not an employee by nature. Who is really? It might seem like the easy option because it’s what most people do, but it’s actually a kind of pragmatism and a kind of stalling tactic with no real end to it. And it’s kind of masochistic isn’t it? I don’t see how anyone can be satisfied as an employee, waiting on pay cheques and humouring idiot managers, and bookending the day by sitting in cramped, leaky buses full of sad lottery players with the sniffles. Not when you could be getting up at noon and working for yourself at something you enjoy.

3. Why did you choose Montreal as your base?

Stewart Lee did a brilliant bit of stand-up about his dislike of emigrants, especially those who flee to former British colonies like Canada in pursuit of “quality of life”. But I’m afraid “quality of life” is, rather embarrassingly, the reason I have to cite. It’s about 60% cheaper to live here than in London. Because of the low overheads, a dubious industry like publishing your own magazine becomes financially viable. You’re not so dependent upon big pay cheques anymore. I also get to live in a foreign country this way with a different culture and language to the one I’m used to. The thought of dying just around the corner from where I was born gives me the shivers. I want to die a centenarian (which statistically won’t happen in England), perhaps gloriously in an airplane crash like a latter-day Icarus, or – preferably – quietly in a foreign bed with an exotic STI.

4. How do you fill your time?

I skive as thoroughly as possible. I’m a very lazy person. I like to hang out in big libraries, reading books for free. I like to walk for stupidly long distances, especially in cities: from urban centres to industrial complexes on the edge of town.

Then I’ll meet friends for drinks. Trite thing to say, but I love beer. Montreal, I was surprised to find, has a huge number of bars which are also microbreweries producing excellent, characterful beer. We tend to think of Britain being good for beer – and it is, but Real Ale feels like a kind of endangered heritage. In Montreal, it’s an active, current thing. If you’re ever in town, I recommend the Imperial Stout at a bar called La mère à boire. It’ll melt your face.

When I’m not getting swigged up and wandering aimlessly around, I’ll be working on a major caper like a book, or tinkering with a smaller folly like an essay or a magazine article or something.

I suppose my activities are characterised by the fact that they’re self-initiated. I don’t look for institutional, big-whoop things to do like enrolling in college classes or joining sports teams. Find your own things to do. Don’t look for other people to plan things for you.

5. Was it hard adapting to your new life?

No. The struggle was always maintaining my old life. I’m not an employee by nature. Nobody is. What’s hard is waking up at 7am, commuting across town in the rain, trying to concentrate on your work from your veal-fattening pen in an open-plan office with phones ringing everywhere and managers striding around self-importantly. Those were the hard things. What I do now is easy-peasy-pudding-and-pie.

When I first came to Montreal, I imagined I’d learn French but that was hard so I gave up. Learning a language as an adult is like trying to build your own house with a spoon. Now I just speak to people in English. But louder.

6. How do you sustain your lifestyle? Is it possible for anyone and everyone?

For a long time, I subsisted on savings: money I’d earned in my days as an employee. By moving to a cheaper place and by rejecting the usual consumer crap, I made that money last for years. Now, I fund my lifestyle by writing and performing. I do stand-up comedy and write books. Showing off and playing around with words are what I always wanted to do anyway, so it’s not really work. I don’t get paid loads of money for what I do: but it’s just about enough to live on.

7. Is this a long-term plan?

It’s open-ended at least. I have no idea where I’ll be in five years time. Hopefully I’ll have built up enough momentum to keep it going indefinitely. Worst case scenario: I’ll have to go back to being an employee, tail between my legs. But so what? I’d have enjoyed a few years of freedom and I’d have some interesting stories to tell at the water cooler. It won’t come to that though. There’s always suicide.

8. What would you say to people who would label you as a work-shy hippie (I don’t hold this view but I expect you have encountered some who have expressed that sentiment in one way or another)?

It’s actually a pretty reasonable assessment. Besides, anything can be made to sound like an insult. “Obsolete Calvinist” for instance.

9. Would you say consumer culture is the one issue that stops people from escaping the mundanity of ‘wage slavery’? If not what is?

It’s not the one issue, but it’s a big one. We go to work so we can pay for stuff, right? But our perception of how much stuff we need is grossly out of whack. Our evolution as a species is partly to blame (wanting ‘more’ makes sense in the natural state and our brains haven’t caught up with the realities of living in an agrarian, advanced capitalist society with a Tesco on every corner), but marketing is to blame too. Some of the world’s most intelligent people dedicate their entire careers to convincing you that you need things that didn’t even exist yesterday. There’s a direct connection between consumption and work: the more you consume, the harder you need to work in order to pay for it. That’s why we call it wage slavery. Consume less, work less.

But it’s not the biggest issue. The biggest issue, I think, is psychological and concerns something Jean-Paul Sartre called Bad Faith. It’s the idea that we deceive ourselves as to the reality of certain situations. Take office life as an example. We all know, really and truly in our secret hearts, that we don’t want to commute to an office every day and stay there, playing computer solitaire for eight hours. Even if we’re genuinely passionate about our careers or the aims of our organisations, we don’t really want to go about it like that. But we tell ourselves that it’s okay, it’s just a stopgap, and – above all – it’s what people do. It’s the natural order of things. But it’s not! We know it’s not. But we tell ourselves that it is. So the ‘one issue’ is in defeating this weird self-denial and facing up to the reality of the situation and doing something about it. The solution might not be to throw it all in: you might just need to negotiate better working conditions with your boss or something, or reduce your hours to a part-time basis.

10. Do you think this kind of lifestyle could theoretically work on a mass scale? Many people would argue that the economy would collapse if society consumed less.

Wee! I love this question. I hope you’re not insulted when I tell you that I’m asked it a lot. The economy is already in a bad state and it didn’t get this way by people being cautious minimalists did it? The economy is the way it is because of greed and financial mismanagement on a grand scale. If everyone was a minimalist, the economy would be smaller, I suppose, in that we’d have a smaller Gross Domestic Product. But a high GDP isn’t a target or even really an indicator of economic good health: it’s just transactional heat. So, no, I don’t think the economy would be in any worse shape than it is today. It could even be better off for it. Small is beautiful. Just like my cock. And, by the way, the economy is a human-made system designed to make life easier: it serves us, we don’t serve it. If we’re running around trying to save it, something has gone fabulously awry.

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One More Freeman

I’ll be making much less for a little while, but I don’t mind that at all, because I become immediately freed from paying the dozens of insidious costs of a steady corporate paycheck — the anti-creative cubicular environment, the dark and fearful mood that descends every Sunday evening, the treadmill of forgettable tasks that have nothing to do with my values, and the attitude of total subordination that’s required to stay employed, to name only a few.

And although they’re not strictly forbidden by living as a fifty-hour-a-week employee, certain pursuits had become a lot more difficult. Since I’m already using my evenings and weekends to run a blog, maintain a few friendships, and keep my home and clothing clean, “electives” like exercising, reading, and conducting creative experiments never find a consistent space to flourish as habits.

Congratulations are due to friend David of Raptitude who escapes the everyday grind on October 11th.

Latest issues and offers

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A hardback guide to scarpering. Essential reading for wage slaves and slugabeds alike. Published by Unbound. 230 pages. £12.