Yellow Bellies

This is from a Twitter feed of interesting nuggets from science and history:

This photo from 1902 shows French knife grinders. They would work on their stomachs in order to save their backs from being hunched all day.

Finally an alternative to those ridiculous standing desks!

They were also encouraged to bring their dogs to work to keep them company and also act as mini heaters by having them rest on their owners’ legs.

So office doggos aren’t a new thing after all.

They were also called ventres jaunes (“yellow bellies” in English) because of the yellow dust that would be released from the grinding wheel.

Better a yellow belly than a brown nose. Bring back the literal grind!

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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 73. No Mood for Work.

We’re back from our holiday and, while my partner has leapt directly into her work, I am in NO MOOD FOR IT. I miss the sunshine and the food and the beer and the leisurely strolling. I could do some of that here in Glasgow, I suppose, but there’s work to be done and I do miss Montreal.

I’m still wearing the linen trousers and white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up that I bought there to keep cool, even though they should really go in the wash now. I’m keeping the vacation spirit if not alive then at least on life support.

I keep thinking “I must need my head examining for leaving Montreal in the first place” but then I remember the long winters and the difficulties I had making money there and our lack of friends in the city. Le sigh. It’s Glasgow or bust! Scotland is our ecological niche.

The printers proof of my novel was supposed to be waiting for me at home but, to my confusion, there was no sign of it. After some chasing it with the printer and the delivery company it was found by a nice man at a storage depot. At least it had not been returned to sender, but this was still an unnecessary nuisance. I had to wait another day for it to be redelivered. This book seems to be cursed.

Now that I have the proof, I’m not happy enough with it. It looks decidedly “print on demand” with too-white paper and too-narrow margins. The typeface, which looked excellent on the screen, looks weird and probably too big so I might have to reset the whole thing. I put a huge amount of thought into the typesetting and it looks great in PDF so I’m a bit confused and slightly crushed.

The point of a printers proof is to spot things you want to change before printing hundreds of copies so at least I can do something about these problems, but I wasn’t expecting the job to need so many changes. I’m finding this a tad dispiriting. The book is already over two years late and every time I say “now it’s finished” another problem crops up. It’s additionally upsetting given that the motivation (in part) for writing a novel is that it would be easier than writing non-fiction: no research or interviewees, few other parties to please, just me and my imagination in a quiet room. It didn’t turn out that way at all. I had to do two major rewrites after friends told me there were problems with it. Then I wasted two years trying to find a publisher. Then I had to produce it all myself. And now I finally have a copy in hand it still isn’t right.

Reasonably, I know that all I have to do is make a list of the required fixes and then to patiently work my way through the list. The actual changes will only take a few days. But my morale is unusually low today and I wish I was still on holiday. Oh why oh why can’t I still be on holiday?!

Don’t worry, I’ll be back on the horse tomorrow, I’m sure. Today I will read and drink coffee and wallow in my abysmal failures.

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Please take £5 off a copy of The Good Life for Wage Slaves, my survival guide for a life of work. Use coupon code CITIES at checkout until June 15th.

“Warns Against”

The Guardian reports today that

office workers in central London are spending on average 2.3 days a week in the workplace, according to a report that warns against a wholesale switch to working from home.

The thinktank Centre for Cities carried out polling of office workers in the capital and found they were spending 59% of the time in their workplace compared with pre-Covid levels.

The finding of 2.3 days sounds about right. I’ve been hearing that some people work from home all the time now or that they visit the office once a week. Others are being forced back into the office full-time, so 2.3 days sounds like an approximately correct average.

The “warns against a wholesale switch to working from home” part is only conjecture though and probably reveals the motivations behind this study. After all, anyone can “warn against” something imaginary. The study offers no evidence that working from home leads to a decline in productivity (nor, seemingly, was it designed to detect it). In fact, evidence so far suggests the opposite:

Several studies over [2021] show productivity while working remotely from home is better than working in an office setting. On average, those who work from home spend 10 minutes less a day being unproductive, work one more day a week, and are 47% more productive.

As well as scientifically-collected evidence, doesn’t it also defy belief that tired workers, fresh from the morning commute, are likely to be productive? Especially in an environment of ringing telephones and fire drills and birthday parties and all the rest of it. How could city centre offices be more productive environments than our homes? As George Orwell put it: “imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

Moreover, productivity is but one way to assess how well work is working. What about the quality of output? What about impact on the natural world? What about contribution to human culture?

The name of the think tank, Centre for Cities, is another hint at the motivation behind the report. According to their website, their “mission is to help the UK’s largest cities and towns realise their economic potential,” which is fine I suppose, but their vision of how to achieve this is of a certain mindset. Clearly, they want people to return to city centres in bigger numbers than they have been, and they want those people to be workers. Just as Andrew Lloyd Webber wants to trap sensitive personalities in a pit, the people at this think tank want to see people in office attire with wristwatches and Bluetooth earpieces criss-crossing glass-fronted streets and spending digital money at rubbishy franchise sandwich shops. I guess that’s just some people’s aesthetic preference, which is permissible I suppose, but it’s not science and its not progressive.

Meanwhile, I just got back from Montreal where the city has a distinct feeling of thriving. Their solution seems to have been an increased pedestrianisation of downtown areas and the expansion of proper cycle lanes.

I walked on many streets closed to cars and bustling with well-dressed people on personal missions. They were buying records, walking to and from the mountain, meeting for arty chats, painting on little easels, learning to walk on stilts, doing yoga, quietly jamming with acoustic guitars, busking, cycling and smoking at the same time, reading real books. I’m not exaggerating: I saw all of this in a single afternoon on Avenue Mont-Royal in my old neighbourhood, now closed to cars for the summer.

Imagination to get beyond “BUSINESS” is all it takes really. What I saw in Montreal is still economic activity but it’s also human and inherently worthwhile and it doesn’t involve sweating in an office while your real creative projects and the people you’d rather like to spend time with are on the other side of a tinderblock wall.

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To celebrate the culture of imagination today, please take £5 off a copy of The Good Life for Wage Slaves, my survival guide for a life of work. Use coupon code CITIES at checkout until June 15th.

Class Detention

I never once got detention in school. This wasn’t because I was a goody-goody. I just always wanted to leave on time so I never did anything to warrant detention.

But there was that one time, wasn’t there? I was part of a “class detention” where we were all kept back for one kid’s misbehaviour. I think the logic was to turn us against him, or maybe the teacher wasn’t sure which of us had thrown the ball of paper or whatever it was.

I’m not sure what reminded me of this today but when I remembered the incident I was surprised to still feel angry about it.

After all, why should we all be punished for someone else’s crime? Why should my parents worry when I didn’t arrive home on time? Most importantly, my personal record of not getting detention was 100% unblemished except for this one minor exception. I wouldn’t consciously count it as a detention, obviously, but it remains the one complication to stop me from standing up in a court of law to solemnly swear that I never got detention in high school. It’s the detail that might make a lie detector spike someday; a microscopic imperfection in my personal narrative that will be with me until I die. Where did that teacher get off?

What I should have done is put my exercise books away as usual, casually shouldered my school bag, and calmly made for the door. When the teacher inevitably said, “and where do you think you’re going, Wringham?” I could have said, “you have no legal or moral reason to detain me” and walked out. I should have gone home and watched Batman Forever on VHS.

It would have been an act of real Escapology. The door was unlocked and I could have opened it and walked out. Righteously. The audience would have cheered.

What would he have done? A teacher can’t physically restrain a pupil. I daresay he’d have referred me to the head master to whom, the following day, I could have restated my position: “He had no legal or moral reason to detain me.” Any further discussion would have been on school time instead of my own.

Man, that would have been delicious.

If you’re a kid in school and you’re ever in the same situation, do that. Avenge me!

See also: I’m Out: How to Make an Exit.

“Working Life” is an Oxymoron

Because of our material needs, work forces us to give up our freedoms. Our life is no more — if it ever were — a flourishing tree of possibilities. Work is destitute, the death of choice. Thus, if life is choice, as many seem to think, then “working life” is an oxymoron. The more we work, the less we get to live. This is the real reason why work is harmful. Even if isn’t physically or mentally taxing, work hurts us existentially. It restricts our freedom to be anything but bored.

Thanks to Reader Rad for directing our attention to a superb article about the realities of work and boredom by Andreas Elpidoru, a philosophy professor who writes whole books about boredom.

So how can we cope with it? Professor Elpidoru says there are three main ways. One, which most people do, is to simply accept boredom:

We can submissively accept it. The need to work isn’t going away and not everybody can afford to quit their job or reach FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early). Work is many things. It is tiring, stressful, depressing, painful, and even dangerous. So what if it is also boring?

Another is try to make it bearable in a Good Life for Wage Slaves sort of way:

We can take breaks, change our routines, spice things up, or gamify our tasks. We can even demand distractions, entertainment, or a Google-like workspace with pool tables, bowling alleys, and other perks. Even if we can’t get rid of boredom altogether, we could at least try to experience it sparingly and between activities that are fun.

Or we can use Escapology:

The lack of satisfaction that is endemic to boredom is its greatest tool. We are pained by boredom and precisely because of that, we are pushed to undo its cause. Boredom, in other words, is a powerful motivator. It’s a catalyst for change: an emotional force that propels us to pursue projects that could eventually relieve us from the absence of satisfactory cognitive engagement and the suffocating constraints that work imposes on us. This is no small feat, of course.

No indeed. But given the three options, is it not the most exceptional?

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 72. The Right Kind of Work

We’re going on holiday tomorrow. A proper one! We will retreat to our Montreal volcano lair, where we will eat and drink and be merry for two weeks. The sun promises to shine and I plan to do very little work indeed. Reader, I will be wearing shorts.

Most trips my partner and I undertake can’t very well be described as holidays. They’re usually pilgrimages of some sort or research missions or to meet someone connected to my writing business. All pleasant and desirable and wilful but hardly holidays. This time, I really mean it. We’re going to climb the volcano and eat poutine and marvel at the locals and chill the heck out.

The truth is I’ve been quite busy lately. My life has been filled with what Moomin Mamma Tove Jansson called the right kind of work. I’m not complaining, nor is it my intention to humblebrag. I’m reporting to this diary what my low-income, outsiderish life has been like of late.

Between production work on my novel, the writing of a secret project with friend Landis, and managing the return of New Escapologist (as well as the usual uphill attempts to sell my other books), I’ve barely had a proper day off in months.

I’ve loved every moment of it though. Our single-bedroom flat has been buzzing with pleasant activity as in the early days of the Hogarth Press. Well, maybe that’s a bit much. Mucking about with the design programme has been fun though, as has remembering the tricks of typography I learned from New Escapologist the first time round. Commissioning cover artwork, emailing with people all over the world, solving minor technical and logistical problems, conspiring with my allies, imagining, imagining, imagining.

While typesetting my novel (a skill in which I was trained some years ago by a very clever man) I was overcome with the notion that this is what I should be doing. All was right with the world in that moment. That’s a nice feeling to have and probably a rare one. It’s certainly not a feeling I ever noticed while working in offices or even libraries: in those days I felt constant separation anxiety from my real work of cultural production. I suppose you could argue that, if I had found a proper publisher for this book I wouldn’t need to typeset it myself, but I didn’t find a proper publisher for it. I don’t have the resource to find a proper publisher for it ultimately because I’m of the social class of expected to work for a living: I don’t have the connections, I don’t have the time, I need the money and the satisfaction now because I don’t have secret hoards of either. I already worked for two years trying to find a proper publisher for this novel and that’s enough already: most of the publishers I approached haven’t even rejected it so, by their terms, I should still be patiently waiting. Yes, I’m doing what I should be doing.

“Over and over again I have asked myself,” wrote William Morris in a letter to a friend, “why should not my lot be the common lot […] I have been ashamed when I have thought of the contrast between my happy working hours and the unpraised, unrewarded, monotonous drudgery that most [people] are condemned to.” That sounds a bit arrogant, doesn’t it? But I think it comes from the right place. We should all experience the happy buzz of the right kind of work and the knowledge (okay, the feeling) that you’re doing what you should be doing, but it is not generally possible. I don’t wish it for other people where they’re already perfectly content but I certainly wish I could go back in time and give this life somehow to my bored and humiliated past self.

I’d recommend it to anyone: fill your days with the right kind of work and you’ll not remain in The Trap for another day of your life. But for crying out loud, don’t forget to have some real days off too.

So that’s what we’re doing. Well, there will be one work-adjacent thing to do: I’ll write to you (via the newsletter) from New Escapologist’s second home: Montreal. Catch you on the flipside!

Working With the Public

At the grocery store I worked at I had to explain to a woman why we couldn’t take back the apple core she had clearly eaten as a return.

and

I’ve had to explain to people why we can’t extend their hotel stay because the hotel is fully booked out. They threw a fit because we “Sold the room out from under them,” as if the concept of booking a room for X days meant we hold the room for additional days just in case they wanted to extend.

and

I work IT support. I had to explain to a 23 year old what a capital letter was when helping them set up their password. Twice. I’ve also had to explain the concept of using a word to help distinguish letters, i.e. “A as in Apple”.

and

I had to explain to a guy how the older fish would go out of date sooner than the brand new ones.

At first, I wasn’t sure about posting this because I don’t believe the public are stupid. But some of them (us) are!

If you’ve ever worked with the public in a service capacity, this Tumblr thread (you have to open the comments under the video post) will be… cathartic to you.

Poverty With Complete Liberty

This past few weeks (it’s a very large book) I’ve been reading Carrington’s Letters, edited by Anne Chisholm. It’s a huge wealth of letters sent by the artist Dora Carrington (pictured, 1893-1932) who had one foot in and one foot out of the Bloomsbury Group. It’s wonderful. At times it’s naively funny in a Diary of a Nobody sort of way. At other times it’s tremendously revealing of the way artists think (then as now) as well as of the foibles of this particular time and place. A brilliant book.

Anyway, all I wanted to share with you here at our Escapology blog is this funny passage written just after Carrington’s husband, Ralph Partridge, was fired from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press for being the worst. Carrington writes haughtily:

The Tidmarsh Press will be better because Ralph will have free hand to do what he wants. He will work for himself at his own hours. He can hardly make less money than he did with the Woolfs […] and after all, poverty with complete liberty is worth more than a safe income of £300 a year (not that he got that with the Woolfs) in a business in London, with the dreary prospect of 2 or 3 months freedom every year…

A footnote from editor Chisholm then clarifies that “This notion of setting up another Press came to nothing.”

Hah! There’s so much to say, isn’t there? I mean, she’s right about threadbare freedom beating a stiff day job, but her imaginings are a bit dreamy.

One has to begin somewhere though and it’s a shame when dreams come to nought, so I’m tempted to rename my own up-and-coming small press “the Tidmarsh Press” to avenge Carrington belatedly. Then again, it would be avenging Ralph really, which I don’t particularly want to do since he was such a boorish and proprietorial twerp.

But also, hang on, “2 or 3 months freedom every year”? In a London business? I’m not sure if such long periods of leave were standard practice in clerical jobs of the time (surely not) or if the Woolfs were excellent bosses or if Carrington just doesn’t know what normal leave from a pen-pushing job might be. I expect the latter but I honestly don’t know. If two or three months could be standard vacation today, I’m not sure I’d bother with Escapology anymore!

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Alas, we’re not there yet. If you want to escape a “safe income” and contemplate the prospect of “poverty with complete liberty,” please read my books I’m Out and The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

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