Dogville in Hamsterdam

While both unexpected and accidental, my lapse into the Bohemian lifestyle proved slightly less difficult than slipping into a hot tub. As with the onset of post-adolescent schizophrenia, the perfect storm of conditions required for one to make the leap is best observed in retrospect.

As a sneak preview to Issue 5, here is Alexander Jorgensen’s Bohemian memoir, Dogville in Hamsterdam

The artwork in the piece is by Jason Botkin.

Orange-Collar Worker: my first time in an office

In the UK and Ireland (and I daresay other countries too), school pupils must complete a period of ‘work experience’ before graduation.

This usually involves a week of unpaid grunt work or shadowing at a local organisation. Some of my friends took jobs in newspaper offices, factories, a video shop and (perhaps most excitingly) an abattoir. I still shiver when I recall my friend Curtis telling how one abattoir worker would daily don a pair of scalped pig’s ears as if they were a Mickey Mouse hat from Disneyland.

I somehow got lumbered with the office of a local government department, responsible for allocating a limited number of government-owned houses to poor families. I recall that my dad was involved in finding the job (an unusual measure since the placements were usually selected by the school career advisor) but if my dad had pulled strings to find me something special, I’m not sure why I landed a placement so despairingly white-collar.

In the ‘reflective report’ I wrote at the end of the placement, I tellingly wrote, “I have learned that I would not like to work in an office”.

Here are some other memories from my first ever week as an employee:

– One day, I was given the task of rubber-stamping declined proposals from home-seekers. I chanced across an application from someone I knew. He had requested a bungalow on account of his rheumatoid arthritis but the government couldn’t help him. His proposal had already been declined, but I wasn’t prepared to rubber-stamp it for the files. I protested. Somebody else did it.

– On most days, I wore a satsuma-orange shirt and a novelty tie from my dad’s wardrobe. I think the one I’d selected had Popeye on it.

– A young, blonde Übermensch called Luke had a separate office on the side of the main open-plan one. Most of the women in the office fancied him and he knew it, so his office persona was that of a happy-go-lucky scamp who made his own rules. I wondered if this was why he’d been granted his own room.

– Luke once pulled me away from some menial task so that I might help on a more important task in his office. The task turned out to be playing ‘Solitaire’ on MS Windows. He said that if anyone came in, I should pretend to file paperwork, and he gave me a pile of old invoices to complete the illusion. Being a nerd and a square, I was worried that this waste of time would distract me from possibly learning something useful in the main office. Little did I know that playing Solitaire and pretending to work was perfect preparation for office life.

– Bored out of my mind one day, I used MS Paint to render a picture of Kenny from South Park being nibbled by rats. I set it as my desktop image. Because I sat near to a help desk and my screen was visible to the public, I was (perhaps rightly) asked to remove it.

– An older man who was ostensibly another drone but held some small unofficial authority on account of being male, white and in his fifties; would constantly bring me tea and biscuits. Sometimes he would deliver before I’d even finished my last cup. I remember wondering whether he was salaciously grooming me or just being nice. Unless I’ve repressed the memory of something terrible, I never found out.

– Luke’s job was mostly office-based but involved driving around the local area too. His task was to inspect the recently-vacated apartments in two large nearby tower blocks. One day, he took me out to visit the tower blocks. They were pretty grim. He told me not to touch the handrail in the stairwell in case someone had affixed dirty syringes to the underside. He was serious.

– The first flat I visited with Luke that day had soft pornography taped to the bedroom wall. The second flat had feces smeared upon the walls and the bed linen. Luke said I should wait outside while he took notes. He later explained (redundantly) that some of the residents were severely mentally ill. He once discovered a flat in which the resident had destroyed the flushing mechanism in the toilet but had continued to shit into it anyway.

– My field trip with Luke also took me to another office, which was a porta-cabin in the middle of Netherton. Inside and out were grey and dim, and everything about it felt temporary and neglected. There and then, I resolved to work really hard at my exams.

– Even at the time, I did not consider the horrors of the tower blocks to be worse than the abyss of office life. It was here that I learned about clock-watching. Sometimes I would look out of the window and think about my favourite television programmes for as long as I could, before looking back at the clock to see how much time had passed.

– A nice thing about working in this office building was that my girlfriend was doing her own work placement in the public library directly opposite. At lunchtime, I would go to see her. Sometimes she was being shown how to use the library computers and I had to wait. I didn’t mind waiting because I could look at the books. I remember being quite jealous that she got to work in the library with books while I had to play Solitaire and worry about the kind of person who would set dirty syringe traps.

– My form tutor came to visit one day to check that everything was okay. I decided not to mention the syringes and pornography and feces and clock-watching. She said I looked very professional in my orange shirt.

– Another field trip (this time with a young woman who I can’t remember much about aside from my slightly fancying her) took me to someone’s family home. We had bad news to deliver. The family had their Christmas decorations up in anticipation of the big day. It didn’t seem right to be delivering bad news (quite possibly an eviction notice) while Del Boy was on TV and a tree glittered with promise in the corner. Why was I there? It doesn’t seem appropriate that she took a random schoolboy along to a meeting like this.

– Doing some filing one day, I was surprised to see people called Vader and Shakespeare. Shakespeare, of course, is a local name, the Bard himself being from the area. But Vader? As in “Darth”? Even now that strikes me as a weird one. There was also a woman called Vera Spittle, whose name I have used in comedy sketches about twelve or a thousand times.

And there we have it: some fragments of memories of my school work placement and first time ever in an office (or indeed any place of employment if we don’t count my dad’s lorry or my mum’s home business). I’ve worked in offices since then, and have been as nonplussed about them as I was when I was sixteen. Never again!

Happy Birthday, Houdini!

Happy 137th Birthday to Eric Weisz, the original Escapologist.

Illustration by our arts editor, Samara. Originally printed in Issue 1.

Doing the right thing, and ‘doing it anyway’: the case of Chiune Sugihara

Sam emails to tell me about Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat based in Lithuania during WWII. He wrote exit visas for six-thousand Jews (putting them through on his signature alone; an act which could have gotten him and his family executed for treason in Japan) because he got tired of waiting for Tokyo bureaucracy to get back to him.

This keys into my thing about ‘doing it anyway’ when inefficient bureaucracy fails to grant permission (see On Autonomy in Issue 3). Try doing anything of worth and they’ll set a million hoops for you to jump through, often prohibiting the entire venture. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

In this case, Chiune Sugihara saw that there was a moral imperative to act without permission. With hindsight he obviously did the right thing, but it must have taken superior nerve to snub the authorities in this way and risk being killed for treason. He says:

You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. Also, I felt at that time, that the Japanese government did not have any uniform opinion in Tokyo. Some Japanese military leaders were just scared because of the pressure from the Nazis; while other officials in the Home Ministry were simply ambivalent.

People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives….The spirit of humanity, philanthropy…neighborly friendship…with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.

Issue 6 (I know, Issue 5 isn’t out yet, but it’s being printed as we speak) will be about Escapological morals. It will be called A Rebours.

Towards Internationalism

A challenge for the mobile Escapologist is dealing with bureaucratic systems that that weren’t built to cater for ‘foreigners’.

I’ve mentioned before how I don’t like parochialism. We all occupy the same brilliant world, and the sooner we start to treat the planet’s population as a whole; and ‘their’ problems as ‘our’ problems, the better. Ian Hamilton Finlay once described a country as “an imaginary place recognised only by bumpkins and bureaucrats”. Parochialism stands in the way of the longer-term human endeavor.

That’s probably the most hippie/yippie thing I’ve ever said, but I back the remark with a passion. I’m not suggesting we work towards a single homogenised world culture and language: that would be weird (and impossible). But I think we need to remember, especially in the age of the Internet, that everything we do is part of an interconnected, globe-spanning human project.

I spent most of yesterday morning writing a page for in an attempt to raise funding for an exciting creative project. Kickstarter – a peer-to-peer funding site – is a brilliant concept and so I spent a couple of days going through the proverbial ‘abandoned ideas’ file, looking to resurrect projects of merit.

Alas, I am of British origin and the website serves American creatives only. I didn’t realise this until I’d completed a dynamic proposal complete with an artistic .JPG and a video clip, and finally came to courting the payments system. There’s nothing on the Kickstarter homepage that suggests American exclusivity. There are even spotlighted projects on the homepage based in South America and Europe and Japan. But those seemingly international projects, I now learn, are kickstarts for Americans abroad.

To annoy me further, I’d already waited two days to get the go-ahead from Kickstarter HQ, who (to their credit) vet each proposal that comes their way. Why did they accept my proposal if they knew I was non-American? My profile describes me as “A British writer and performer”. My location was set to “Glasgow, Scotland”.

Thankfully I’ve found a similar service called IndieGoGo, which seems to have a more international outlook. Hopefully, most of yesterday’s work can be migrated to this website instead. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.

When I emailed Kickstarter to ask why I wasn’t able to enter my British or Canadian bank details, they replied with a perfectly civil explanation starting with “We are thankful for the international interest! But for the time being… etc etc”. The exclamation mark speaks volumes. International interest! The very thought! Hohoho. I’ve come up against this before. I once proposed an academic article about ancient Chinese libraries to a UK-based library journal. “I think that’s a bit beyond our remit!” was the chuckled response. Why? Because China is far away from where you’re currently sitting? This journal is circulated internationally via the web, and there is nothing about the its remit, as far as I can see, specifying an exclusive interest in British library history but the suggestion of anything otherwise was a bizarre non-sequitur.

I was prompted to write this post because I was irritated by Kickstarter’s exclusive policy and the time I’d wasted in discovering it. But I do whole-heartedly believe that anything online should address the entire planet (or at least make it clear from the get-go when addressing a specific group of the global population).

We’re slowly getting there, I think. Wikipedia moderators, for instance, come down quite hard on non-universalized articles. We do our best here at New Escapologist too: for a long time now, the contributor guidelines to have begged for an international outlook wherever possible.

I think there’s going to be some kind of massive fallout soon, regarding parochial television programming. Recent international complaints about the ignorant twats at Top Gear; and the unfortunate confusion at QI are case studies in what will soon surely be a larger issue. A TV production company may intend to make a product primarily for a native audience (in the BBC’s case, that of Great Britain) but it mustn’t forget that this material will eventually be broadcast the world over. A kind of internationalisation (or at least decent sensitivity toward other cultures) is required. It goes back to the comedian’s litmus test against offensiveness: would you tell your Irish joke in the presence of an Irish person? If you wouldn’t, then you should probably scrap it. We can only imagine what those future extra-terrestrials will think when they finally intercept our TV signals from the ’60s.

As I say though, I think we are slowly getting there. The latest Doctor Who episodes, produced in a British-Canadian collaboration, have a delightfully British quality but don’t cause mass offense overseas either. This is partly because of the collaborative way it is funded; partly because it is designed to be a lucrative export; and partly because the producers of speculative fiction are, by definition, a forward-looking bunch.

At dinner with a Canadian friend in Scotland last week, we discussed how our language had changed since we’d been working in each other’s countries of origin. She had acquired lots of English and Scottish expressions and I had picked up some North Americanisms. Initially we confessed to trying to ‘check’ those turns of phrase for want of seeming pretentious at home; but we eventually agreed “Fuck it, we’re International people, right?”

Parochial language is not a crime. I just think it’s an indicator of a certain kind of geographical solipsism that is better suited to another century. Old morals, old work ethics and old turns of phrase are slowing us down as a species.

Alain de Botton in Issue 5

The strangest thing about the world of work isn’t the long hours we put in or the fancy machines we use to get it done; take a step back and perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the work scene is in the end psychological rather than economic or industrial. It has to do with our attitudes to work, more specifically the widespread expectation that our work should make us happy, that it should be at the centre of our lives and our expectations of fulfilment. The first question we tend to ask of new acquaintances is not where they come from or who their parents were, but what they do. Here is the key to someone’s identity and esteem. It seems hard to imagine being able to feel good about yourself or knowing who you were without having work to get on with.

Alain de Botton kindly granted us an interview for Issue Five. We posted a little excerpt at the School of Life blog.

Issue 5 is now available to pre-order at the shop.

Event: “Robert Wringham and the Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum”

As a piece of performance art, I am making myself available to the public, every Wednesday noontime for the next three months.

As if at the whim of a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, I will appear at Glasgow’s Kibble Palace between 12:00 and 13:00 every Wednesday until the end of May.

You’ll find me sitting near the statue of “King Robert and his Monkey”.

According to the plaque at the foot of the statue, “[Robert] was an arrogant king who was deposed by an angel, stripped of his robes, and forced to assume the role of a jester, with only a monkey for a friend.”

Come and meet me. The words “Hello, Robert” will activate me and, I’ll do one of three things:

1. I’ll casually talk with you until 13:00 (or until you leave);

2. I’ll read a single random passage from Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (the book from which I take my name);

3. I’ll tell you a short anecdote about my monkey, whose name is Daniel Godsil;

4. I’ll walk you around the main circle of the Kibble Palace, telling a made-up lie about the history of each statue. (This is the star prize. Not many people will receive the honour of this variation).

I’ll also have copies of New Escapologist with me if you’d like to buy one.

This supernatural occurrence is unsanctioned and has nothing to do with Glasgow Botanic Gardens or Glasgow City Council. Tell your friends.

Issue 5 cover

The keen-eyed among you have noticed the cover image of Issue 5 at the shop.

Well, here it is. It’s our first ever departure from the established ’emergency exit’ masthead.

The really keen-eyed among you will notice the lack of a page number for the Alain de Botton interview in the bottom right-hand corner. That’s because this image is actually a draft mock-up. It gives an idea of how the cover of the fifth issue will look though. I hope you like it.

The cover price is yet to be confirmed. To ensure your copy for £6, pre-order it here.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

What on Earth is Coca-Cola?

A weird thing happened today. Reading a book, “Coca-Cola” and “Coke” struck me as truly odd words. There’s something disgusting about the somersault into which your vocal chords are forced when saying “Coca-Cola Coke”, as if you are choking.

I then started to doubt whether Coca-Cola even exists. I know it’s probably the most recognised brand in the whole world, but it has been so long since I’ve seen anything about Coca-Cola or thought about Coca-Cola (much less drank any of it) that another part of my brain questioned whether it was a real thing.

Why did this happen? I see three possible explanations:

1. Coke has become such a ubiquitous brand that we now no longer notice it. It has become like the sky or the concrete of the pavements we walk upon. The marketing ‘event horizon’ between maximum visibility and complete invisibility has been crossed.

2. I spent the last year in Monreal, Quebec: one of the few places in the world where Pepsi consistently outsells Coke. So true is this fact, that “Pepsi” or “Pepper” has become a mild ethnic slur for French Canadians.

3. My Escapological drive to avoid television and advertising in general has been a success. Being absent from offices where people drink Coca-Cola bought from vending machines (or “Coke machines”) and talk about Coca-Cola as if it were the only thing that gets them out of bed in the morning, is an unanticipated effect of my change in working practices.

I don’t specifically have anything against Coca-Cola. Though I usually drink water or beer in its place, I don’t find it bad to drink. As advertising goes, a high-budget Coca-Cola advert isn’t even that bad. I just haven’t thought about it in such a long time and this, I think, is a little indicator of (and testament to) the Escapological effect of waterproofing yourself against marketing and moving in a slightly different circle to the typical worker-punter. It works to the extent that I questioned the very existence of the most ubiquitous product ever promoted.

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