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.

Time Too Precious

Do you remember the naturalist and mountaineer John Muir? Of course you do. I called him “Dreamer John” and he said “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

Well, his friend William Badè said this about John Muir in his introduction to Muir’s A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf.

[John] concluded that life was too brief and uncertain, and time too precious, to waste upon belts and saws; that while he was pottering in a wagon factory, God was making a world; and he determined that, if his eyesight was spared, he would devote the remainder of his life to a study of the process.

Eyesight spared? Wikipedia explains:

In early-March 1867, an accident changed the course of his life: a tool he was using slipped and struck him in the eye. The file slipped and cut the cornea in his right eye and then his left eye sympathetically failed. He was confined to a darkened room for six weeks to regain his sight, worried about whether he would end up blind. When he regained his sight, “he saw the world—and his purpose—in a new light”. Muir later wrote, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” From that point on, he determined to “be true to [himself]” and follow his dream of exploration and study of plants.

Escape! When work almost ruined him, he had an epiphany in quiet darkness, then answered the call of the hills.

Dreamer John again:

There’s plenty more Escapological wisdom in our forthcoming Issue 16, available to pre-order now in print and digital formats. Do so and rejoice!

Living on the Ideas We Come Up With

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata is a very enjoyable novel about the experience of being an outsider.

The characters believe themselves to be aliens since the demands of society–tolerated or enjoyed by seemingly everyone else–feel too great. The main character, Natsuki, is afraid of sex and reproduction. Her husband doesn’t like sex either and also hates going to work.

Before we go any further I should explain that these characters are not exactly role models for Escapologists: they’re darkly messed up and the way things end for them is… insane.

(I kept flipping to the author photograph on the flyleaf. This came out of you? The cute hedgehog on the cover is a complete swizz designed to disarm you before its attack.)

Crazy it all may be, but the following moments of alienation are probably relatable:

Everyone believed in the Factory. Everyone was brainwashed by the Factory and did as they were told. They all used their reproductive organs for the Factory and did their jobs for the sake of the Factory

“The Factory” is what they call society. They see themselves as “tools” of the Factory, that they’re expected to work and breed in its service.

Our “aliens” escape in a very limited way and we get the kind of epiphany-like simple sentence I always love:

From the next day, our way of life changed completely.

And then they discuss their new life on the lam, which feels decidedly Escapological:

Yuu was still a little anxious. “But what are we going to do from now on? We might very much be Popinpobopians now, but to stay alive we need to rely on Earthling knowledge. And if we keep doing that we might become Earthlings, mightn’t we?”

“We’ll have to think about it. Staying alive is about coming up with ideas. Living on the ideas that we come up with.” My husband frowned and sniffed.

“Ideas? Really?”

“Yes. Not imitating the Earthlings but coming up with our own ideas for living. That’s how we can live on a planet that isn’t our own.”

*

It’s safer for everyone if you become an Escapologist, not a Popinpobopian. New Escapologist Issue 14 is no bad place to start.

Reprioritisation

Further to yesterday’s post about the Guardian report on younger people who ditched hard work:

James, a 31-year-old in Glasgow, had always worked hard, from striving for a first at university to working until 8pm or 9pm at the office in the civil service in the hopes of getting noticed. But during lockdown in 2020, James had an epiphany about what he valued in life when reading the book Bullshit Jobs by the anthropologist David Graeber. “He talks a lot about how jobs that provide social utility are generally pay-poor while the inverse are paid more,” James says.

Hooray! Graeber’s legacy lives on. His message was heard. Meanwhile, New Escapologist (and the Idler and others) will continue to chip away at grind culture and the Protestant Work Ethic from the sidelines.

[James] now focuses on his life, putting his phone on aeroplane mode while doing activities such as hiking, reading and watching films. “I still value work, I’m very committed to my position. But I’ve just realised that this myth a lot of millennials were told – graft, graft, graft and you’ll always get what you want – isn’t necessarily true,” James says. “It’s a reprioritisation.”

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New Escapologist Issue 14 is available now from our online shop.

Good News If True

The Guardian reports that young people are ditching “overtime and excess work stress” in favour of “family and fun.” Good news if true.

When Molly, 35, was growing up, she remembers the message of “work hard and you’ll get rewarded” being drilled into her by parents and schoolteachers. As a result, she spent her early career putting in the hours. But when she had a child and sought a flexible work pattern at her professional services job, the company denied her request. “I was replaceable,” she says. “I was very much a cog in the machine.”

I always enjoy hearing about the epiphany. I collect epiphanies: the memorable moment, perhaps with one foot in the commuter carriage and the other still on the platform, when a person snaps and says “no more” and “there are other worlds than these.”

This said, I’m always amazed that it takes such an existential shock as having a child or getting ill to discover that “work hard and you’ll get rewarded” is bollocks.

The most “rewarded” in our society have not worked hard for it: they’ve usually inherited their wealth in some way or were born into the sort of privilege that results in playing the game on easy mode, or else they’ve done something clever and/or immoral. There are exceptions, of course, and the media is all too happy to spotlight them to prop up the myth of meritocracy.

Meanwhile, people who work hard are usually hospital porters or cleaners or the hardhats who maintain railway lines at night. They bust a gut and aren’t rewarded for it beyond the essential basics that will keep them coming back to work. Some of them die at work.

These twin observations–that the rewarded do not work hard and the hard-working are not rewarded–are as plain as day. You shouldn’t need a baby or a tumour to come along to shock you into sense. Then again, we get the “work hard and you’ll get rewarded” message on all sides, don’t we? From parents and teachers and colleagues and bosses and the television. It’s insidious and it’s everywhere. It’s called the Protestant Work Ethic and it’s a scam.

Molly is one of many in her generation readjusting their work-life balance to focus less on their job. Research published this month from King’s College London based on surveys from 24 countries found that just 14% of UK millennials (people born from the early 80s to mid 90s) believe work should always come first, compared with 41% in 2009.

So maybe it is true. Good news indeed.

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New Escapologist Issue 14 is available now from our online shop.

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 68. Reading Massive Books.

I just finished reading Stephen King’s It. Why??! Why did I do it?

Well, it was Halloween.

It’s also been on my bucket list for a long time. I liked Stephen King’s books as a teen, though whenever I revisit him as an adult I’m usually a bit underwhelmed. Still, I didn’t want to die without having read It. I think I wanted to honor something my younger self would have wanted.

As a teen, I did a strange thing with It. I saved it. I knew it was the special “Spine Kingler,” up there with Misery and The Shining but purportedly epic, and I was enjoying the experience of looking forward to it. How lower middle-class is that? It’s like saving the juiciest sausage on your plate til last.

This turned out to be a mistake because I’d probably have really enjoyed It when I was 17. As an adult? Not so much.

There’s a good book in It but it’s swamped by hundreds (hundreds!) of pages of inessential, indigestible crap. It was a slog. And there was no “Camino de Santiago”-style epiphany to found in the long distance struggle.

It took me a month to kill it off. I kept thinking of the three or four short novels I could have been reading instead. Urgh. With four short novels, even if you don’t love them all, there’s something to be found in the diversity of experience.

The It paperback I read is 1,166 pages long. I have no problem with long books but this one didn’t warrant its girth. I didn’t savor the experience like a final sausage. It was an ordeal. But I wanted to slay that dragon because it felt like too much of a shame not to read It while I’m here on Earth.

There’s a lesson here about bucket lists, isn’t there?

*

After the It ordeal, I’m glad to have slain the dragon, but my overwhelming feeling now is one of malnutrition. It’s time for a superfood salad: a strict diet of Fitzcarraldo Editions for a few weeks.

I’m half-joking, but I do have three unread ones on the shelf and they will contain multitudes.

Indeed, I just started on Moyra Davey’s Index Cards and it’s already a breathe of fresh air simply by virtue of being something else.

*

Random bookish thought:

There’s a similarity between travel and reading: knowing that you’ll probably never be here again.

You might re-read the same book or make a return trip but the chances are against. There’s always another book, another place to go.

One book leads to another, seldom back.

Given my experience with It, I wonder if I’ll ever do the Great American Roadtrip for example. It would be a shame not to, but for the investment of money and time I could probably go to eight short novel destinations in Europe.

*

Prefer a medium-sized read? Look no further. The Good Life for Wage Slaves by the unstoppable Mr. Wringham is your path to literary enlightenment.

A Whole World Out There

This is from Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, a good book about walking in cities and its relationship with personal freedom:

There was a whole world out there and I didn’t have to live in America simply because I was born there. I could live anywhere I liked.

This was an epiphany. One rainy night over a pasta dinner with my flatmate, we contemplated the enormity of it. We can go anywhere, we can do anything, we told each other.

She goes on to say “but it wasn’t true” because there are complications with visas and borders, challenges around finding income when you live abroad.

As someone who has had the same epiphany and then struggled through the same problems, I’d say it’s better to contemplate the enormity of your freedom in adventurous good faith than to deny it in bad faith just because it can be difficult.

To start with, you can go to a lot of places for six months without any kind of visa woe. Like Rolf Potts, you can save a battery of wealth from perfectly conventional employment and use it to escape for just a little while or to buy time while you figure out how to escape more permanently. You can travel across multiple countries in Europe or states in America in a state of constant motion without worrying about visas at all. Other places, where visas are a problem, you can still work intelligently and patiently to, you know, get the visa.

Elkin herself is an American who lived in France for several years as an academic. She went “home” to New York when her Paris work contract was not renewed, but she still lived abroad legitimately for years. She lived in Toyko for a while too, under the spousal sponsorship of her partner who was offered a job in finance there.

Getting a visa for my Canadian partner to live with me in the UK was an anxiety-producing nightmare but (a) the UK is particularly troublesome on that front (I had less difficulty with my visa in the other direction), (b) we were asking for rather a lot compared to someone who just wants to live abroad for a year or so, and (c) we won in the end.

I do not deny the awfulness (awfulness!) of the artificial barriers to moving around freely–like Rutger Bregman, I’d prefer to see a borderless or soft-bordered world–and we all know that many of those barriers are getting less and less permeable. But to assume you’re not free to live wherever you want and do whatever you want is to live in bad faith. Do it! Be fleet of foot! Walk through walls!

My partner and I, when moving around between the UK and Canada, did everything by the book, but you could just go somewhere anyway if you feel bold enough. Millions of people move around the skin of the planet illegally or by bending the rules. Momus lived in Japan for years by going back and forth on renewed tourist visas. When one of his visas was coming to an end, he’d go to Europe to work for awhile or go travelling to somewhere like Korea, returning to his girlfriend’s apartment in Japan on a fresh tourist visa for another six months. It came to an end eventually but nothing bad happened to him. And even now he remains a British citizen living in Paris and Berlin without much care for formalities. Heroic.

(Lauren Elkin’s book is great, by the way. I might say more on it sometime but for now I’ll just say that it’s a great addition to any flaneur’s personal library).

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For tales of visa woe, please try The Good Life for Wage Slaves. For more positive exercises in good faith and meditations on the enormity of human freedom, try Escape Everything! (a.k.a. I’m Out).

Wit

I’d been thinking about the expression “to live on one’s wits” and its connection to “being witty.”

Here, I talk about living freely and ethically and tactically. There, I tell humorously-intended stories. Is there an overlap contained in the word “wit”?

Just as I was having these thoughts, clever old friend Unclef gave me a book called Wit’s End: what wit is, how it works, and why we need it by James Geary. It’s a good book. Playful, brief and smart.

Its most important contribution to solving my wit-based question is the phrase “improvisational thinking.” That’s it! That is what connects ha-ha wit with living on one’s wits. Both are direct expressions of improvisational thinking.

But this paragraph explains it neatly too:

forms of wit other than the pun [can be] understood as compressed detective stories. I’m thinking in particular of people who “live by their wits,” as the saying goes. Inventors, scientists,and innovators of all kinds, people skilled in improvising fixes, finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, or making unlikely discoveries under seemingly inauspicious conditions.

Finding clever escapes from tight scrapes, by jove. Geary goes on to tell the stories of some of those scientists and inventors by way of illustration, but it’s also what Escapologists do every single day just by going about our general business. Improvisational thinking is at once the alternative to the rat race and the swiss army lock pick (if there could ever be such a thing) required to escape it.

It’s what they don’t teach you in school because they can’t teach it in school even if they wanted to. It’s a mindset that needs to be cultivated through unusual experience and by thinking constantly about the world and its mechanisms: “Why isn’t X like so? Can Y function better upside-down? Can I live this way instead of that way? Do I need as much money to do Z as they tell me?”

It’s the essence of an Escapological mindset or outlook. Things like minimalism, finding clever backdoor ways of doing exactly what you want to do (rather than what other people think you should do), and “building muscles of resistance” (see Escape Everything!) by not watching television are all ways of using or honing one’s improvisational thinking, one’s wits.

I’m happy to report that I say this in relation to minimalism in The Good Life for Wage Slaves so this isn’t a total epiphany, but I wish I’d made a little more of it because it’s so important.

I think I knew it all along: have I not said many times that our practice is “Escapology” because it comes with a sense of humour and theatrical aplomb? But the Wit’s End book really homes in on that truth.

Another useful point concerning the Escapological mindset (which comes from the same chapter of Geary’s book) is:

Now, you might wonder whether this type of wit is innate–you either have it or you don’t–or whether it might not in some form be nurtured and cultivated. Well, it turns out there is a way to hone the powers of attention and observation needed for serendipitous discovery: live in a foreign country.

He means that, abroad, everything is different and a certain “cognitive flexibility” is required (and is developed) at all times. It keeps you on your toes, which is useful. So live abroad! Or do the sort of things that might have similar effect on your brain to living abroad: walk through streets that you don’t need to walk through, read a different sort of book, write one, talk to different sorts of people, learn another language.

Cognitive flexibility and improvisational thinking, kids. It’s what’s for dinner.

I haven’t mentioned Patreon in a while, have I? I have a series of posts over there called “Running Man” (now in its sixth installment). It’s essentially all about living on your wits. Chip in at Patreon if you’d like to read it. There are other items to see there too, including older essays and the brand new “Hypocrite Minimalist” show-and-tell series.

Escapology as Crisis

I’m reading Out of Time by Miranda Sawyer. It’s a recent book about midlife crises.

At 34, I’m not quite the intended reader but you never know how long you’ve got left, so the concept of “midlife,” is surely always relevant. Who are you to assume you’ve got a full 83-year lifespan to work with, Mr Complacent-pants? We’re all in a state of mid-life no matter how far along one happens to be. As in “I am amid life.” (Fuck off, that absolutely works).

I’m reading the book because I heard Miranda interviewed on a podcast and I liked her. She strikes me as someone who lives quite fully and won’t have many regrets, but is also aware of mortality and temporariness. That, my friends, is how to live. Her book has been described as “anti-self-help” but it’s really an introspective memoir about youth — as seen from the vantage point of being 45 in 2016 — and time moving on.

As someone who lived through the brilliant, sanguine ’90s and inherited the cultural changes delivered by clubbing, ecstacy, Madchester, Steve Coogan, Britpop and all those magazines but was a bit too young to experience it properly, I’m finding it fascinating. From my perspective, it’s a very-recent-history book, about the ten years that came before my adult consciousness kicked in. Explanations at last!

Anyway, something that struck me are the book’s various descriptions of midlife crisis. Frankly, I think I’ve been in a state of crisis since I was about 11 years old. It’s the sense of there not being enough time to do the things you want to do despite them being relatively modest, the feeling that the odds are against you, and the sense that escape is a solution, and perhaps the only one.

There were other feelings. A sort of mourning. A weighing up, while feeling weighed down. A desire to escape – run away, quick! – that came on strong in the middle of the night.

and:

I would wake at the wrong time, filled with pointless energy, and start ripping up my life from the inside. Planning crazy schemes. I’d be giving [my daughter] her milk at 4am and simultaneously mapping out my escape, mentally choosing the bag I’d take when I left, packing it (socks, laptop, towels), imagining how long I’d last on my savings. I’d be rediscovering the old me, the real one that was somewhere buried beneath the piles of muslin wipes and my failing fortysomething body. I’d be living life gloriously.

So maybe Escapology is the practical application of crisis. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Many people who’ve told me about their sudden, deliberate change in life direction also mention an epiphany — a moment when you’ve got one foot in the commuter train and the other still on the platform and you say “no more” — and what is that but a crisis?

Look at this beauty:

In short, you wake one day and everything is wrong. You thought you would be somewhere else, someone else. It’s as though you went out one warm evening – an evening fizzing with delicious potential – you went out for just one drink… and woke up two days later in a skip. Except you’re not in a skip, you’re in an estate car, on the way to an out-of-town shopping mall to buy a balance bike, a roof rack and some stackable storage boxes. “It’s all a mistake!” you shout. “I shouldn’t be here! This life was meant for someone else! Someone who would like it! Someone who would know what to do!”

I genuinely remember feeling this way when being sent off to secondary school. And again, later, when walking a steep incline one morning to reach a university lecture I didn’t want to attend, to get a degree was ambivalent about, to get a job I’d barely be able to tolerate.

Perhaps a midlife crisis can be experienced at any age, especially to those with strong ideas about the kind of life they want or at least a strong sense of direction that isn’t being granted by inertia alone.

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