The Vast Grey Sleep

I’ve really fallen for James Baldwin. Yes, yes, you already know all about him. Revisiting his work has been popular since 2016, but I’m always a few years behind.

Here’s a passage from one of his novels, Another Country, that is nicely Escapological:

There were no standards for him except for those he could make for himself. There were no standards for him because he could not accept the definitions, the hideously mechanical jargon of the age. He saw no one around him worth his envy, did not believe in the vast grey sleep which was called security, did not believe in the cures, panaceas, and slogans which afflicted the world he knew; and this meant that he had to create his standards and make up his definitions as he went along.

Who among us has not known that “vast grey sleep” when sitting at an office desk or in a traffic jam or while traipsing around a shopping mall in search of some annoying future kipple like replacement paper clips or a new travel adapter? Who here has not questioned those “cures, panaceas and slogans”? Improvisation (and the character being described is a jazz musician) and wit and referring only to our own standards are no bad alternative. Perfect, perfect.

Iconoclast Baldwin:

Seeking alternatives to the vast grey sleep of security? Try my books, I’m Out and The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

Oh Wondrous Art, Whose Mastery I Seek / the Art of Escapology, Wild and Free

I suppose I should have something positive to say about “AI” given some of the utopian ideas I’ve parped out in the past about full automation.

The thing is, I find the current conversation about AI utterly dull and boring. First of all, it’s not really AI. Robot chefs are just a variation on the teasmade. The chatbot things creating weird images and unconvincing conversational scripts are just algorithms. There is no artificial intelligence involved from what I can see. The chat bot things might give an illusion of artificial intelligence, but only inasmuch as a paper plate with a smiley face drawn on it gives the illusion of being your friend.

Secondly, the idea that it will “replace artists” is the sort of conversation that puts me to sleep. It’s like how people used to talk about music piracy or something. Computer “art” will replace some freelance gig work if magazine editors can be bothered to use it. Ultimately, though, it won’t “replace artists” because there’s no point. The point of art is to convey something human. The point of robot art, so far as I can see, is to cheat people out of make money.

The whole thing can get lost as far as I’m concerned. I don’t hate or fear these AI things. I’m bored by them. You’re unlikely to see AI artwork in forthcoming print editions of New Escapologist: it will be made by my illustrator and artist friends because that’s the whole point. Not to keep them in work but to communicate something from one human brain to another. Psychonautics does not concern itself with illusory AI.

Even so, friend Sukanya sent me two examples AI poetry about Escapology this morning. They’re quite funny.

But!

Many years ago, when I was starting out as a comedian, I did a thing called computer poetry. I worked in a library by day and, bored, I would get the catalogue computer to “write poetry” by putting in a prompt to generate a list of books. I’d then read the results on stage at night.

The best poems were the ones with simply but oddly human prompts like “why” or “how”. Why do the heathens vainly rage? is a strange and evocative line that my wife and I still mention at home sometimes. Of course, it’s not really a line at all. It’s the title of a book. I believe this is how the new AI bots work too: by mashing up existing content, albeit it in a more sophisticated way.

All I’m saying is: I was ahead of the curve of this twaddle by about 15 years. And I didn’t do it because I thought it was clever; I did it because I was bored. Suck it, nerds. Your so-called genius is my thumb-twiddling.

Even so, here are Sukanya’s outputs.

Her first suggestion: Write an acrostic on Escapology.

AI response:

Eager to escape the mundane and the dull,
Clinging to the hope of adventure, oh so full,
Adept in the art of unlocking the impossible,
Prepared to face danger, with nerves of steel, unbreakable.
Soaring through the air, free as a bird,
Ascending to new heights, undeterred,
Longing for the thrill, to be absurd,
Overcoming obstacles, with movements, blurred.
Going beyond the limits, never to be confined,
Opening new horizons, leaving the old behind,
Living life on the edge, with a peace of mind,
Yearning for freedom, in escape to find.

Sukanya’s second suggestion: Please write a Shakespearean sonnet on Escapology.

(I like how she said “please” this time, like Ensign Sonya Gomez. Clearly she has already been convinced!)

AI response:

Oh wondrous art, whose mastery I seek,
The art of escapology, wild and free,
To break the chains that bind us, oh so meek,
And soar above the bonds of gravity.
With skillful hands and courage strong and true,
The Escapologist defies the laws of fate,
And like a bird takes flight, with naught to rue,
A master of the stage, so bold and great.
Yet still, within the heart of every man,
There lies a fear of being trapped and bound,
A fear that only freedom can withstand,
And in escapology, true freedom’s found.
So let us praise this art, this noble craft,
And let our spirits soar, unfettered, and laugh.

Yeah, okay, they’e quite good actually. I have changed my mind. We’re doomed. I for one welcome our new sonnet-writing computer overlords.

*

“Don’t let the robots get you down” say my friends at Analog Sea whose fourth Review, a beautifully-presented hardback “celebration of offline culture,” is available globally from indie bookshops now.

And why stop there? Get yourself a copy of The Good Life for Wage Slaves or I’m Out, both of which were written by a human called Me.

“Grafter” Wringham Slandered in Unprovoked Media Attack!

I’ve been promoting my new book, Melt It! The Book of the Iceman. It’s an extended interview with comedian and performance artist Anthony Irvine.

I’ve come to love Anthony. He’s a brilliant, funny, humble person. Together we’re like Ed Wood and Bella Lugosi: a hopeless young fool and a hopeless older fool united by optimism (or perhaps delusion).

Anyway, we did an interview with our friend John Fleming for his blog. It was all clicking along rather nicely and I was explaining how the book happened:

We spent a day together at Battersea Arts Centre and we ended up with a 15,000 word interview with no waffle […] I approached some publishers and they all told me to get fucked. But then Chris from Go Faster Stripe saved the day. He’s got the right audience for it. Thousands of people with an interest in niche or fringe comedy and a lot of them know of The Iceman and want answers.

And then, suddenly, the Iceman says:

Rob was very good at glueing it all – freezing it all – together. He is hard-working; he’s a grafter; he works fast.

Naturally, I was appalled. Why was my new creative partner suddenly insulting me?

I think I said, “don’t tell people that! It took ages to establish my idler-wastrel persona!” but that didn’t make the cut.

Alas, I can see how Anthony came to this conclusion. I did work unusually hard on this book. Quickly too. The vision for it was so powerful in my mind that I just had to get it all out before something got in the way. (See my thoughts on “the right kind of work” re: Tove Janson).

I’m very proud of this unlikely project. As I say in the interview:

There’s not a single regret in it […] When I look at my other books, there’s always some weird phrasing or something I wish I’d done differently. This is just a perfect book.

Our book is not a New Escapologist project but the Iceman has certainly lived an unusual outsiderish life. He’s certainly never been motivated by money or the other usual expectations. He was even a circus clown for a while. He’s a great case study for anyone wanting to live differently. It’s also just quite funny.* (*Afterword by Stewart Lee!)

You can acquire a copy of the book here (full-colour print for £15 or digital download for £5) if you’re interested or just read the charming (albeit slandering) interview here.

The Third Place

I enjoy this guy’s videos about urban planning. Yes, they’re boring but that’s kinda why I like them. And, ever self-aware, he makes fun of the boringness sometimes, like when he celebrated the success of a video about garbage day. Garbage is interesting, clearly!

Anyway, he has a recent episode about third places. Third places are places that aren’t your home or your workplace (or, I would possibly add, a commuter train or a supermarket). We’re talking about cafes, pubs, libraries, places of worship, parks, maybe gyms. Generally speaking, they’re free or low-cost and everyone is welcome.

There’s much to be said about third places Escapologically. For example, their “thirdness” clearly demonstrates mainstream social priorities, don’t you think?

But, importantly, they’re simply the kind of place adored by Escapologists. One of the things I don’t like about Christmas is that the libraries and museums and cafes are all closed. I mean, it’s no hardship just to stay indoors for a couple of days but, y’know, it’s kinda sad and spooky and a reminder that you’re out of step with the rest of the world.

Apparently third places are under threat, probably because they don’t directly make enough money. So use your library, take a walk in the park, support your favourite local cafe or pub.

Third places! Not boring at all but the stuff of life. Enjoy the vid.

*

Next time you’re in a third place, why not take a book along? It’s good to be seen reading. You could even take one of mine: I’m Out and The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

The Return Journey From an Escape

This Guardian article isn’t up to much (and kinda looks like someone pulling strings to promote their crime novel) but it illustrates the point than an escape, even one that fails or is temporary by design, is never a waste.

The writer and his partner left London for an eco-village in Spain. They subsisted on harvested fruit and solar energy, drank cheap wine, wrote books, and basked in the sun. After six years, they returned to London to pursue journalism work. Fair enough.

I often think about the return journey from an escape. Maybe your decision to become the new Yeti isn’t sustainable, or wasn’t meant to be, or you end up needing to slouch back to society for company or medical care. Maybe you just get tired of paradise and want to come back to the hustle and bustle. My great escapes have not been from cities but from jobs. Occasionally I’ve taken jobs again though, either through necessity (fail!) or by choice (freedom).

When you come back from an escape, you might think about the chorus of nay-sayers, real or imaginary, who said you could never do it, that you could never survive on dumpster-dived fried chicken alone.

But whether they were right or wrong, at least you tried. At least you had an adventure, lived up to your ideals for a while, will have fewer deathbed regrets. And, importantly, you’ll have collected new skills that will always be useful, spiritually and practically:

While living in Los Molinos, we learned how to make cheap, nutritious vegetarian dishes. We coped without central heating, and survived the harsh winter nights […] When the sun didn’t shine we had so little electricity that sometimes we’d have to read by candlelight. As the cost of living continues to rise, I’ll be able to draw on these experiences. I like to think we brought a little bit of Spain back with us.

*

Curious about escape versus the status quo? Try my books, I’m Out and The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

Spare a Thought for the Taliban

The Taliban used to be free of restrictions, but now we sit in one place, behind a desk and a computer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, […] Life’s become so wearisome; you do the same things every day.

Thanks to regular Reader S for drawing our attention to this singular article about the Taliban, who, as consumers of NEWS will know, recently took control of the city of Kabul.

They promised to liberalise (or perhaps urbanise) their values and practices when it came to, say, the treatment of women, but they have instead behaved like a bunch of jerks as you might imagine.

A funny thing, though, is that some of the former Jihadi fighters who once spent their days doing target practice or scanning the open skies for American drones, now have to waste away at computers in order to run the city.

And they don’t like it.

Abdul Nafi, 25, a fighter now working as an executive director in the government, said he had to learn how to use a computer for his new job […] Yet there isn’t much work for him to do, and so he spends most of his time on Twitter, he told [a researcher]. “We’re connected to speedy Wi-Fi and internet. Many mujaheddin, including me, are addicted to the internet, especially Twitter,” he said.

It’s easy to laugh because Westerners are quite used to gawping into computer screens and dreaming about escape. But these chaps have lived vigorous rural lives in service of something they see as valuable. (Even if that happens to be the pointless and barbarous promotion of Sharia law.)

So let’s not be without sympathy. I say “spare a thought for the Taliban” while they struggle to adapt to office life, which is apparently even worse than sleeping rough in hills of Afghanistan.

If anyone knows a Taliban, please buy them a copy of The Good Life for Wage Slaves or I’m Out.

Small Niches in Which to Live

Haruki Murakami explains that the conventional path for “a young guy” in Japan is to graduate from college, find a job, and “when things have leveled off,” get married.

And then, presumably, the longer term plan is to continue working into old age and/or death, much as it is in the West.

Murakami didn’t do it that way. He got married first (“it’s a very long story so I won’t go into details”) and then he got creative.

hating the prospect of working for a company (those details would also take a long time to explain so I’ll omit them too), I decided that I wanted to open a jazz café. […] I was totally absorbed by jazz back then, […] so I was drawn to the idea of listening to the music I loved from morning to night.

Ah, that’s the stuff! Murakami and his wife took temporary jobs, saved their money, and opened their jazz café. Murakami fans will know it was called Peter Cat. They ran it together for three years, working hard at changing beer barrels and spinning records and making conversation with every customer. Towards the end of this time, he wrote his first novel. It won a prize and then he decided to sell the jazz café to work full-time on his novels.

There are two things I want to say about this. Well, it’s three things really if you want to count yet another example of how doing things unconventionally, even backwards in this case, can work out well in the end.

The first is that his motivation to listen to jazz all day long is an admirably pure one. We should all be motivated by such humble desires (being careful, of course, not to confuse a love of cake for a desire to run a bakery).

The second is that, as you can see, Murakami and his wife worked very hard. Isn’t hard work anathema to Escapologists? Wouldn’t it have been easier to become a salaryman? Well, yes and no. Remember when we talked about Tove Jansson last month? We reflected that certain kinds of work, even when all-consuming, is no bad thing. Employment might be bad with its dreary lack of adventure and its grinding obedience in service of someone else’s potentially malignant ambitions. But effort in support of passion is another thing altogether.

As you might be able to tell from the repeat of this motif, it’s been on my mind lately. I’ve been working quite hard on my books and on the pending return of New Escapologist as a print publication. I enjoy every last moment of this effort but I sometimes catch my reflection, metaphorically speaking, and think “some idler, huh?!”

It was this very thought, perhaps, that brought me to read the Murakami book from which these quotes are taken: Novelist as a Vocation. It’s no bad book and is the first time Murakami has written at length about his life and his art, something he has always been reluctant to do. Unfortunately, it’s something of a Day the Clown Cried, a bit of an anticlimax. He really is an average sort of guy after all, which is what he always said. Still, the way he talks about his novel-writing process was confidence-building for me (in that I was surprised by how much we have in common and that maybe I won’t be such a screw-up as a writer after all) and the book really does contain the occasional gem.

Though he says at first that he won’t go into details about not wanting to work for a corporation, he soon writes:

Many of us detested corporations and the idea of selling out to “the system,” which meant that enterprises like [our jazz café] were opening right and left: coffee shops, restaurants, variety stores, bookstores. A number were close by, all run by people about our age. There were also young radicals, wannabe members of the student movement, hanging around the neighborhood. All over the world, there were small niches in which to live. If you could find one you could fit into, you could get by somehow. Things could get wild at times, but it was still an interesting era.

He’s speaking as if this is all in the past and he might be correct. Things are getting worse and worse in terms of Escapological opportunity. But there is still hope. Move away from the capital cities. Move, perhaps to the countryside if you believe you can make a life of it there. Move to another country if necessary or desirable. Let adventure and resourcefulness be your watchwords. I maintain that, for all of the difficulties the world is currently facing, escape is still possible.

And by the way, I love that sticking it to the man might involve something as charming as opening a bookshop or a jazz café! I often feel this way about myself: some of my friends see me either as a wastrel or rebel. But it’s not like I dropped out of working life to becomes a Hell’s Angel. I want to listen to jazz and to write books like Murakami did. Really, I’m a real goody-two-shoes. But go against the grain and see what happens; the nay-sayers will appear, with your best interests apparently at heart, and then you have to work hard, hard, hard to show ’em how its done. 💪 Hey, it’s no bad life.

People tell me I must have a strong will [but] it’s much more physically trying for ordinary company employees who ride in crowded commuter trains every day.

*

Don’t want to sell out to the system? Try my books, I’m Out and The Good Life for Wage Slaves. Thanks.

Latest issues and offers

1-7

Issue 14

Our latest issue. Featuring interviews with Caitlin Doughty and the Iceman, with columns by McKinley Valentine, David Cain, Tom Hodgkinson, and Jacob Lund Fisker. 88 pages. £9.

8-11

Two-issue Subscription

Get the current and next issue of New Escapologist. 176 pages. £16.

Four-issue Subscription

Get the current and next three issues of New Escapologist. 352 pages. £36.

PDF Archive

Issues 1-13 in PDF format. Over a thousand digital pages to preserve our 2007-2017 archive. 1,160 pages. £25.