In this essay, Robert Wringham introduces the ideas behind New Escapologist. Originally published in New Escapologist Issue One.
“If [the populous] were not mentally deficient, they would of their own accord have swept away this silly system [of work, money and status] long ago.”
– Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
“Run Away! Run Away!”
– Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
“See Istanbul, Port Said, Nairobi, Budapest. Write a book. Smoke too many cigarettes. Fall off a cliff but get caught in a tree halfway down. Get shot a few times in a dark alley on a Moroccan Midnight. Love a beautiful woman.”
– Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine.
During the 1900s, Ehrich Weisz – better known as Harry Houdini – made popular the art of escapology. By 1904 he had become something of a sensation, performing his astonishing routines on the Vaudeville circuits of Europe and America. He could defy handcuffs, explode from the beery guts of wooden barrels, flee locked jailhouses and escape unscathed the maddening Chinese water torture cell. He was the David Blaine of his time, except for the fact that Houdini was adored by women and that he was seldom if ever accused of being an irritant or a wanker.
It was surely no coincidence that Houdini’s popularity as an escape artist came about during a time of technological and political revolution. It was during the 1900s that Ransom Eli Olds implemented the first mass production of marketable cars; Thomas Edison’s phonograph made a commodity out of music; and the colonial expansion of Europe and America prompted the birth of the somewhat unpleasant political period known now as New Imperialism. Technologies and movements initially plugged as being liberating would soon be discovered by thinkin’ types to be nasty, horrible traps designed only to placate, segment and enfeeble. When people become dependent upon companies or governments to entertain them, to transport them, to plan their days and to import their goods, they forget what it is to be free, alive and autonomous. It must have been around this time that the concept of a person being owned by his or her property rather than the other way around was coined and the nostalgia for simpler times kicked in along with the desires to backpeddle or to escape this new world of consumption, gimmicks and psychological detritus. The work of Houdini and his contemporaries escaped the province of curiosity – that of conjuring and ventriloquism – and into the universe of metaphor.
This is not to say that progress should be resisted, nor is it to suggest that there was ever a time of perfect psychological or technological harmony. Philosophy writer, A. C. Grayling reminds us that looking to the past in order to find inspiration on how to live today can be fallacious:
“’Things have got worse’, people say, clucking their tongues; ‘crime is up, the quality of life down, the world in a mess’ … Such sentiments are misleading because they premise a belief that somewhere or sometime the world had something which has since been lost – a cosy, chintzy, afternoon-teatime era when there was neither danger without nor unease within.”
Nonetheless, while this cosy, chintzy, afternoon-teatime era undoubtedly never existed it does provide an ideal – something to aspire to and to consider when sitting in an open-plan office, doing pointless work to pay off your pointless debts or to secure your pointless place in a pointless city.
We are told to shut up and to knuckle down and to get on with it; to pay into the pension pot; to pay money to various forms of government; to pay off the mortgage or else suffer the humiliation of hunger and squalor or be accused of being awkward or crazy or radical. But what if there were another way? What if it were possible to actually ‘do a Houdini’ and escape this nonsense permanently, ethically and rewardingly? This is what New Escapologist is founded to discuss. Rule #1 of leading an interesting, enriching life is to recognize your escape routes. Rule #2, of course, is to know when to take them.
Two Churches of Escapology
When one begins to think about the various ways in which people try to escape reality, two major types of escape route emerge. The first involves the temporary retreat into simple escapist pleasures – going to the pub, reading novels or consuming vast quantities of hallucinogenic drugs as though they were jaffa cakes. The second is the attempt at permanent resettlement – by moving to a countryside ecovillage, by escaping to a lottery-funded villa on the seashore, or giving up and becoming a tramp – and involves working toward a self-sufficient lifestyle and the marvelous feeling of ‘sticking it to the man’.
From this, we can establish the two churches of escapology: the passive (watching DVDs every night) and the active (running away and starting a commune). Both allow for escape from reality but the two approaches are worlds apart.
The former is done every day by every one of us: it is cigarette break at the office; it is the ‘me time’ in the evenings; it is a cheap vacation in Prague or Blackpool. The latter is undeniably a path for the hardcore escapologist: breaking out of the prison invented by managers and conventional discourse once and for all into a self-controlled world of one’s own arrangement. But this is frowned upon by the powers-that-be: try getting planning permission for a tiny woodland shack or see what the waiting list is like for a humble city allotment. The bureaucrats don’t do much to help freewheeling escapologists.
Paradoxically, the second route – the hardcore church – is in many ways the easier of the two. Despite the bureaucratic problems involved and the being branded eccentric, it is comparatively easier to be hardcore than softcore. The ‘simple pleasures’ model involves a lifetime of dedicated scheduling and the constant seizing of spare time and stolen moments, not to mention the continuing struggle of actually attending your unfulfilling job or checking bank balances or shopping in supermarkets. The hardcore church, on the other hand, involves submitting to one simple direction: walk away.
You can walk away. If there’s one thing to learn from Jean-Paul Sartre it’s that all human beings are essentially free: there are no physical shackles keeping us in these awful places. You can get away from the stinking cities, the traffic, the stress, the boredom, the tabloid witch hunts and the carcinogenic food at the drop of a decision. This is the one doctrine of the church of hardcore escapology. Remember that song from the mid-nineties by a band called Cast? One of the verses went something like this:
If you’ve played all the games they play
You played them yesterday
Walk away, walk away
If you’ve been, where they want to go
Seen all they got to show
Just walk away, walk away, walk away
Fed up of work? Finally discovered the truth that the house always wins? Realized that TV fails to entertain you on any given night? Walk Away.
In the church of simple pleasures and temporary retreats, we can see that there is very little walking away involved. In fact, the central doctrine of this church is to continue plodding through the tough, prescribed life of work and government but to make the most out of those oases of me-time. It is the ‘fight’ to the hardcore church’s ‘flight’. The trouble is, however, that it’s a losing battle. Our grandparents (and some of our parents) all fought in at least one Great War on behalf of their government and all they have to show for it in the winters of their lives is a beat up old Volvo and a home on a council estate in which they live in fear of “asylum seekers” or “ASBO kids” or crooked salespeople – all anxiety-producing fictions generated by the Daily Mail and The Sun.
Nonetheless, the church of simple pleasures is healthy in moderation. Even if I were to escape properly and were to live on an arable farm in the middle of nowhere with my best friends and some playboy bunnies and a solar panel, I would probably want to take The Simpsons and Babylon 5 along with me. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater now. But it is important to remember that this church, while acting as a balm to sooth the modern ailment, is temporary and in the long run only goes to further feed the systems of oppression. These escape routes have, after all, been provided by the system to act as distractions from the ideas of anarchy or more permanent channels of escape. The doctrines of this church, while being immediately liberating are ultimately fallacious and should ideally be employed as a stepping stone path toward the hardcore church.
The hardcore church is about anarchy and self-sustainability. It is about the rejection of government, the rejection of big corporations and the rejection of dependency at large. It about liberation and self-empowerment. Once a full-paid member of this church, one will not need anything from anyone else other than good company. The comedian, Simon Munnery, once opined that the only way to get out of the rat race is to refuse to be a rat. This sounds logical enough and this is what the hardcore church preaches. If you can grow your own veggies and milk your own cow, you don’t need Tesco anymore. If you can recycle your own poo and filter your own water you will never again need to tangle with those goobers at the council. If you have a solar panel and/or a small wind turbine, you can forget the meaning of electricity bills. You will at last be able to say that you have escaped the rat race.
In 1929, the gay poet-come-journalist, Brian Christian de Claiborne Howard wrote a sort-of manifesto of Bohemianism. He divided a page into two halves labelled J’Accuse and J’Adore and listed within the two halves the things of which he approved and disapproved and by extension what should and should not be tolerated or aspired to when enjoying a Bohemian lifestyle. It was a bit like a MySpace profile but ninety-odd years prior to their invention and 200% less ugly. Among his J’Adores were love, food, freedom and art and among his J’Accuses were missionaries, bureaucrats and other self-righteous party-poopers. It is with Howard’s model in mind (for the Bohemian tendency to be free and to rebel is at the heart of Escapology) that something akin to an Escapologist’s Manifesto can be drawn.
This is where New Escapologist comes in. At New Escapologist we posit that the retreat into fantasy and consumption and vice is a valid element of everyday life and is a result of uniquely contemporary boredom, strife and pointless toil. At the same time, we take the stance that these retreats are temporary at best and that there are a multitude of ways in which one can discover, as the graffiti says, that another world is possible.