The Escapes of John Dowie

In February I read The Freewheeling John Dowie, the wise and funny memoir of a comedian who ditched the conventional notions of career success, sold his home and all of his stuff, and took to the open road with a bicycle. I found the book utterly compelling and suspected I’d found my “book of the year” rather early.

He writes in the first chapter about his early brushes with employment. He mopped floors and answered phones but the funniest bit is when he works in a branch of W H Smith (which, coincidentally, I also did, albeit in 1999 rather than 1966):

“When you work for W H Smith,” the twenty-year-old in charge of the paperback department told me proudly, “you’ve got a job for life.”

Apart from the chilling horror such a statement generates…

He lasts nine months at Smiths before seeing a Spike Milligan play at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton and deciding to become a comedian. As you know, I love to hear about these epiphany moments. Most people just drift between life chapters and never really “decide” anything, which is what makes these moments so special.

So he concocts a simple escape plan: work and save until you have enough money to put on a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe. And then he does it:

After three months of two jobs and very little sleep I managed to raise the money I needed – about £500. I took myself to Edinburgh, performed every day for three weeks, returned to Birmingham with a vastly improved act, got myself an Arts Council Grant and, I’m happy to tell you, haven’t done a day’s work since.

When comedy itself came to feel like a job, Dowie looked for other freedoms. He sold everything. His friend Stewart Lee writes:

Each time I [visited him,] Dowie had less stuff. In the end he had reduced his possessions to five basic food groups; records by Bob Dylan and Moondog; books by William Blake and [Philip K.] Dick; and some Batman comics. It was as if he was preparing to depart. And pretty soon he did. No-one in our gang knew where he’d gone, but we knew he could now carry everything he ever wanted in a backpack, and he’d bought a bike.

And in Freewheeling Dowie writes of his minimalism:

At first I thought that getting rid of the vinyl I’d been collecting since the Sixties would be a wrench. But, with each cardboard box that [the record dealer] packed, carted off and placed in his car, I felt a lightening of the spirit. It lightened even more when he paid me. Several hundred quid. I was astonished. I’d been hoping for a tenner.

Speaking of money, it cost a pretty penny for me to get a copy of Freewheeling, even though it was only published in 2018. Luckily, my copy was badly damaged in the post and I was able to get a refund, reading it in the end for free. Take that, Music Magpie!

Anyway, I got in touch with Dowie about how much I loved his book. I couldn’t help myself. When he explained that the rights had reverted to him since the book went out of print, I pulled some strings and levers to get it re-published, albeit only as an e-book for now. You can buy it here and I recommend that you do.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

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