The Monster in the Pit

I listened to this week’s This American Life from under the bedsheets, wide awake, at about 2am. I listen to podcasts to fall asleep but this one didn’t have the desired effect. I found it riveting.

It was delicious to me because:

1. It’s a classic story of workplace woe taken to an absurd degree;
2. It’s a real example of a “Groundhog Day,” which is something I always enjoy;
3. It reflects badly on Andrew Lloyd Webber, who I hate;
4. It confirms my feelings about Phantom of the Opera, which I dislike;
5. I remember being moved by Gary Wilmot singing “Music of the Night” on TV when I was a kid, so maybe my relationship with Phantom isn’t as simple as merely disliking it.

The story begins with the profile of a trumpet player, Nick Jemo, in New York City circa 1987. He doesn’t get much work. His life is spent sitting by the phone, waiting for gigs. When he’s given a job on the all-new Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, he’s overjoyed. Surely it will pay the bills for a year or more. He celebrates by buying coconut water, which would normally feel profligate.

Phantom ends up running for 35 years: career-length financial security for one trumpet player, and also for the other musicians he sits with each night in the orchestra pit. Unfortunately, it’s a living hell.

It’s dark, cold, and cramped in the pit. Worse, the job is mind-numbingly repetitive. The musicians–creative people with good hands and brains, all of whom trained at the world’s best music schools like Juilliard–have to play the same abysmal score in precisely the same way every single night. They hear the same lines coming from the stage. The same audience reactions. The same chandelier come crashing down at the end of Act I.

He’d never been in a situation like this where everyone seemed so locked into routine. His colleagues would sit down in their chairs at the exact same minute every day. There is a cellist who would say, “Marvelous,” every time Nick asked him how he was doing. There was the first horn player who would pull out a stopwatch every single night to time how long the second horn player held a note in one of the songs. Some days it would be 17 seconds, other days 16.2.

As in many jobs, the colleagues got on each other’s nerves. But in this environment, people became absurdly sensitive:

In the pit, you notice everything. The way your neighbor blows out a spit valve, the way someone brags about their kids, the smell of someone’s perfume. Every little annoyance, every perceived slight, accumulates.

At the end of 30 years sitting just inches away from your coworkers, you lose all sense of proportion. Your enemies turn into monsters. For [oboist] Melanie, the monster in the pit* was always a trumpet player named Francis Bonny. Everything he did drove Melanie nuts, from the black biking shorts he wore in the pit, to always eating his dinner in the locker room with his back turned to her.

(*I was hoping “The Monster in the Pit” would be the name of this segment, but it’s actually “Music of the Night after Night after Night,” which is also excellent).

I can’t help thinking that this is all deliberate torture, that Andrew Lloyd Webber is the ultimate sadistic boss:

Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted the best of the best for Phantom, which means the pit will always sound good, though it also creates some creative and spiritual problems for the players, who have to get through the score night after night after night.

Personally, I find it highly likely that Lloyd Webber’s dream was to lure and trap some beautiful people in a pit.

And they really were trapped. Like many people with rarefied talents, the musicians felt that they couldn’t leave. To leave would have meant sitting at the phone again, waiting for the next gig. And the next lifesaver might just be another Phantom anyway.

It felt unending and precarious. Because of the way successful Broadway shows are extended, season after season, the musicians never really knew when it would end. Or if it would ever end for them, since so many of them were dying of old age, one by one.

Finally, after 35 years, Phantom of the Opera has closed on Broadway. Nick Jemo and his colleagues (apart from the ones who died) are free at last.


Trapped in a pit? The Good Life for Wage Slaves is the survival guide (and shoulder to cry on) you never knew you were waiting for.

Space Man

This quote comes from an episode of This American Life. It’s a work-related story I’m about to discuss in more detail here at the blog, but this moment (as devastating as it is) isn’t quite on-theme for the main post. Here goes:

Most of our lives are spent finding parking for the job we don’t want to do. […] And after any number of years, those routines accumulate, and that’s more or less your life.

What the heck? That’s one of the grimmest things I ever heard. A life spent finding parking. Maybe it’s not typical. Not everyone drives. Not everyone lives in New York City, as this correspondent does. But even if just one human life is spent this way, it’s a tragedy.

I’ve said before (in The Good Life, perhaps) that the times I’ve felt the most desperately unhappy are the moments when I’ve been preparing to do something I don’t want to do. Walking up the hill to college, for example. I could handle the actual “college” even if I didn’t want to do it. But the walk up the hill was an insult. The quote tracks.

The Acquired Inability to Escape

This is “The Acquired Inability to Escape,” a sculpture by Damien Hirst currently held by the Tate.

The descriptions at the Tate’s website and at Art UK focus on the materials and, especially, the cigarettes. The elements of office furniture don’t get much of a mention.

The work is obviously crap but I like the word “acquired” in the title. It’s the idea that one learns that escape is impossible, overriding a more naïve set of beliefs, which may in fact be more useful. I think this is right: most people learn (from parents, teachers, social cues, television) that escape is not an option. But if you’re lucky enough never to learn that, you’re laughing.

Hirst says, “I like escape formally, as an idea. There’s a religious element to [this work]… A spiritual, not physical escape, if you decide to choose it…”


I’m Out is available from all good bookshops (and some lousy ones too). The Good Life for Wage Slaves is available directly from its teeny-weeny publisher.

Skive Like an Egyptian

Well, this is delightful.

It’s an ancient Egyptian tablet (called an Ostracon) detailing the reasons cited by workers for getting time off.

Examples include “stung by a scorpion,” “wife menstruating,” “pain in the eye,” and, the best one by far, “brewing beer.”

Try them yourself. They’re time-honored at least.

For some arguably more practical ways to call in sick, try my book The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

The Escape of Wolf Tivy

People miss that escaping this meaningless servitude to our own capital was Thoreau’s main point in Walden. You don’t actually need the money; in reality, the money needs you to give it a worthy purpose, but everyone gets this backward.

You’ve all got to check this out. It’s a classic escape story, well articulated, along with the philosophy (of one man) behind it. Thanks to friend Marcus for sending it our way.

There’s some God stuff in it, but you can read this as Nature if God’s not your jam. It veers into the “libertarian tech bro” perspective too (I think the guy knows Grimes) but I promise there’s some widsom in here and that the story is good.

EDIT: Since posting this earlier today, reader emeritus Radhika found that the magazine founded by Wolf after his escape is financed by Peter Thiel. Gross! Thiel is a billionaire venture capitalist and an exacerbator of many of the world’s problems, not least via the very existence of Facebook. Friend Tom’s classic essay, With Friends Like These, tells you most of what you need to know about him. I won’t take this post down or discourage you from reading Wolf’s essay but please go into it knowing what world you’re on the edge of when doing so.

We’re talking about one Wolf Tivy here. He quit his job with with clear and quite modest goals:

I quit my engineering job in 2014. I was good at it and it was good to me, but it wasn’t the future. I was still working out my plans, so I hit the gym, pursued the most interesting and important ideas I could find, and started looking for a wife.

Quitting your job to find meaning is already unorthodox, an act of good faith and personal strength. But once he’d taken the leap something really interesting happened:

When I wasn’t lifting and courting, I was building a network of intellectuals interested in problems of governance from beyond the established liberal democratic paradigm. I didn’t know why it was interesting. In fact, I thought it was a vice. “This is bad for your career,” said the little wage-slave voice in my head, “you should be focusing on more lucrative projects.”

The little voice was wrong. It was through those intellectual networks that I got my next job and built the social capital which allows me and my friends the freedom to pursue the important problems we have been tasked with.

He set up a magazine, which looks succesful. Isn’t this an example of what I always say will happen? Give up the prescribed life of drudgery, live a little, and the ideas will start to come. Not just £hey that would be cool” ideas but also how it would function, how it would reach people, a sense of the staying power that would be necessary to run with it.

Almost exactly four years after I quit my last real job, we launched Palladium Magazine as the discourse center and beacon by which we would develop our intellectual project and attract more talented collaborators.

“Beacon” has long been one of my key words. I finally talked about it in The Good Life for Wage Slaves. Intead of looking for “a gap in the market” like a dreary businessman or forcing a product nobody needs onto an unsuspecting public like capitalism (or marketing?) wants, create “beacons” that broadcast a signal on a particular frequency to attract the people you want to talk to and the people you want to know. Even if that frequency is strange and niche, it’s big world and you’ll find your people. Or rather, they’ll find you.

A lot of what Tivy writes here is centred around the luxury of free time or, as he points out, what the Romans called ottium.

There are investments you can’t make from a structured, nine-to-five, narrowly teleological environment. You have to let your life go fallow sometimes, like a crop rotation giving the land time to bring forth new fertility. […] The world is full of ideas and opportunities to explore, but it takes time outside of structure to even adjust your eyes to the landscape of possibility. You are cramped by your job, unable to make the class of investments that is necessary for a life beyond the existing tracks.

Once again, this is classic Escapological wisdsom. Take a break, let the mind wonder, figure things out. Work out what you want, how you want to spend your hours, what your priorities are, what would be good for your community and for the world.

It’s hard to think about things like that when you’re stuck behind a computer screen in someone else’s office or digging holes in the street for a gas company. You need time. You need to be able to watch the clouds form into animal shapes in the sky and then fall apart again. You need to dream.

I won’t quote any more because I’d be running the risk of copy-pasting the whole essay wholesale, which would be pointless. Give it a read.

Books! Old and New! (But Mostly New)

I used a Saturday morning (and Saturday afternoon) hangover to set up a page for New Escapologist.

It’s basically a curated list of book reccomendations where, if you buy anything from it, 10% of the sale comes to New Escapologist and another 10% goes to help indie bookshops. Assuming this all actually works, it’s a good idea.

Many of the books from the Missing Bibliography are on it, as well as some books mentioned here in the blog recently. There are some great ones from the Verso antiwork list as well.

It’s not perfect. Many of the books I read and recommend here at the blog are “old” and seem not to be available on And when I say “old,” some are less than ten years old and were always perfectly mainstream, so shopping on is hardly a deep dive. Worst of all, almost none of my own admittedly niche books are available there, with the honorable exception I’m Out.

In any event, I managed to build a strong list of reccomended titles (covering our usual pet subjects of, for example, minimalism, Bohemia, small business, walking and travel, etc) that I can certainly add to.

Let me know of any woeful omissions you’d like to see added, dear reader, and which list you’d like to see it added to.

Moreover, if someone is in the mood to buy a book, please go ahead so we can see if this thing works.

The Good Life for Wage Slaves is sadly not available there (I’m not sure why: it’s registered with Ingram and Neilson, the big book databases) but it can still be bought, as ever, direct from the publisher with 100% of the takings now coming to us.

Latest issues and offers


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.


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.