Ah God. 2020. What a year. All that handwashing.
Was this year worse than 2016? Well, yes, but I have a feeling that 2020 was when we began to reap what was sown in 2016. Ask me how. (Please don’t).
So here goes. The annual statement for my imaginary shareholders. For 2020. Urgh.
— Robert Wringham (@rubberwringham) January 9, 2020
Escape Towers is on the top floor of a very old building, and water drips into our spare room whenever there’s serious rain. We reported the problem to the landlord some time ago, but no repairs were forthcoming. Since it was only our spare room and wasn’t a constant problem, we didn’t put any pressure on him to get it fixed. Bohemia!
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Depressed by scenes of maskless Soho revelers seemingly rain-dancing for a second wave, my mind drifts in the direction of escape. I can’t help it. I’m an escape artist.
Unfortunately, my would-be escape is prevented by iron-clad reasons to stay put on Covid Island, but maybe you could act on this escape plan if you wanted to.
While the air bridges are open (act fast!), I would bugger off to Copenhagen for six months and wait the rest of the crisis out.
Denmark has suffered 600 Covid deaths to the UK’s shameful 60,000. Relatively normal life continues there if you don’t count today’s racist fish incident.
I like Copenhagen quite a bit, so I’d take a short rolling lease on a small apartment. I’d do the right thing by voluntarily quarantining my potentially asymptomatic ass for fourteen days, but after that, I’d spend 5.5 months looking at museums, walking, cycling, drooling over the urban planning solutions, drinking coffee and beer, reading and writing.
Maybe I’d even take the train to Billund to see Legoland. Come winter, I’d become acquainted with hygge. By then, one hopes, the Brits would have sorted themselves out and I could come home. If not, maybe I’d beg Denmark for asylum.
There’s probably something similar you can do if you live in America. Escape to somewhere in the Caribbean maybe? Japan?
Please send me a postcard if you do this.
Happier news in creative life. I’ve committed (emotionally, not contractually) to an idea for my next book after abandoning with a heavy heart the one I was writing before the Pandemic hit.
The new book will not be directly Escapological so I will shut up about it here and plop any more thoughts I want to communicate about it on my personal blog. I’m excited about it though, and I can’t wait to get started in August if not a little sooner. Much of the rest of July will be spent on a couple of other creative projects, not least helping to midwife The Good Life for Wage Slaves (pre-order, please!) into existence.
We’ve set up a small bird feeder in the hopes of attracting some feathered
fools friends. This is something I do periodically it seems. The feeder we found is a little plastic house-shaped seed tray with suction cups for fixing it to the window. The idea is to attract smaller, prettier birds, but so far we’ve only drawn magpies, wood pigeons, and a crow.
Being large birds, this fearsome crew tend not to use the feeder itself and make do with any seeds or mealworm that have fallen onto the ledge. This means we generally only see their heads peeking over the window frame, apparently checking to see if we’re looking at them.
The name we’ve given to our crow is Corvid-19 (well, obviously). The magpies are my favourite though because they make a lot of noise, adding something natural and woodsy to the soundtrack of everyday life. And if we ever tire of their noisy visits, we can at least have some nostalgic fun by shouting, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, Out, Out!”
Lockdown is easing here in Scotland, though I’m glad our government has been more cautious than its counterpart in London. On Friday night, unless someone tells us we’ve misunderstood the rules, we’re going to visit some friends in their house. This will be the first time in three months we’ve been in anyone’s home other than our own. It’s going to be strange to see our friends’ faces without their constantly glitching. I might do some Max Headroom-type shtick just to make everyone feel more comfortable.
A rare opportunity for a minimalist purge arose today. Oh yes indeedy.
When we first moved into Escape Towers over four years ago, this fireplace (pictured) was adrift in the middle of the floor in the otherwise empty main room.
We had no such appliance as an electric fire or television set for it to frame, nor was it attached to the wall in the spot where a wood or coal fire would once have stood. It was just there, in the centre of the room; a heavy, dirty, useless, suburban-looking, possibly Alpine-inspired fireplace.
Since it was surely the property of the landlord and therefore our responsibility to keep safe lest we lose our deposit, we tucked the fireplace sideways into the hall closet and tried to forget about it.
Tried to forget is the key thing here. As a minimalist, I have a sensitive, almost spiritual, awareness of every item under my jurisdiction. If something’s not right–if an alien object should trespass or something of ours should go missing–I’ll know about it. It’s like a disturbance in the Force.
Every thing we own weighs slightly on my consciousness and in proportion to its size, so it was hard not to be continuously aware of this hulking great fireplace: a lump of someone else’s hardware for which we were annoyingly responsible. After bed and chaise, it was the third biggest object in our home.
At war with moths at the moment, I wondered if this fireplace could be offering my winged enemy safe harbor. The little blighters, I’m told, are mad for gloom so I conjectured that perhaps they dwell or find respite in the slim space between the cumbersome object and the wall. I wracked my brains as to how to get rid of it.
Though it felt hopeless, I dug out and scrutinized the letting agents’ inventory on the off-chance that a fireplace was in fact not listed.
Reader, in this thorough inventory, rigorously compiled by a pro-bean counter down to the condition of individual floorboards and cornices, the fireplace was not listed.
It was absent from the list. Which meant (fanfare of fanfares) we were free to get rid!
(It also meant, of course, that we’d had this stupid thing in our lives for over four years unnecessarily. We could have slang it on the day we collected the keys. But let’s not dwell on that. We’re free, now!)
The picture above is of said fireplace, exposed to the rainy Scottish elements, cast asunder and waiting for council uplift, no longer collecting dust or providing a home to the trouser-munching Scourge and their maggotty sporn. Daft really, but the difference it has made to my minimalist temperament is considerable.
Reader, have you ever had the pleasure of casting out some ungainly hunk of matter, perhaps one that you didn’t even own? Refreshing, isn’t it?
The contents of hall cupboards (in-use coats, umbrellas and shoes excepted) constitute dark matter and should be expunged. (And I’m reminded here of a cupboardy tale by friend Henry.) Well, we’ve just expunged some 30% of our pesky dark matter in a single liberating schlep. Oh baby.
UPDATE: Friend of New Escapologist David Cain is enjoying a similar pleasure in purging his pantry. It’s a fun time!
The end is nigh! The end of the year, that is. Which means it’s time to file an annual report for my imaginary shareholders.
Anxious political horizon-scanning aside, my 2019 was dominated by Operation Breadhead. As of a few weeks ago, the entire business is complete. Here’s what my motivational pie chart looks like now:
It looks like the flag of a parallel universe Japan. Job Done.
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I’ve just returned from a whistle-stop tour of England. Well, London and Birmingham and bits of the countryside anyway.
A fine time was had, but when I saw an otherwise-pretty country cottage plastered with Brexit Party logos and slogans, I felt a surge of genuine shock. I wouldn’t want a world so homogenised that people didn’t have different ideas on how to run it, but my life is so insulated from hardcore Brexit sensibilities by living in Scotland and rarely visiting anywhere other London when I venture south, that it felt like I’d seen a house emblazoned with swastikas.
I’m willing to accept that this might say more about me than it does about the world. Nobody yet knows how history will see the present moment, but as a rootless cosmopolitan I found it chilling to say the least. It’s the idea that this madness was present all along–all through the sanguine ’90s and the neolib noughties–lurking darkly and burning hot.
Around the time of the EU Referendum, I saw some graffiti in Glasgow that read, “Let all the poison that lurks in the mud, hatch out.” This turns out to be from I, Claudius by Robert Graves (from whom, incidentally, New Escapologist takes it’s subtitle, “Goodbye to all that”). Maybe this is what we’re going through: letting the poison hatch out, getting some bile up for a nation’s health and a better world, the cottage I saw being but one manifestation of this. I’d like to believe it, but I don’t. I think there’s years of this bullshit yet to wade through and there will be huge amounts of additional damage to control.
Something else. There’s been an aesthetic change in England since I’ve been gone. Things feel distinctly folksy and anti-Modernist in a theme parkish way well suited to the era of Amazon and Etsy. I saw lots of people wearing tweed waistcoats and Peaky Blinders caps, and everything now seems to be covered with bunting. These pretensions to “vintage” style are aligned somewhere between hipster and UKIP, a Wartime tweeness represented in cutesy little cakes, pinafore strings, the union flag, electro-swing, and stocking seams. It all seems to say “This is as it should be,” but the aesthetic has confused authenticity with kitsch. I can just see them all huddled in bunkers after the Union and the EU, singing “we’ll all go together when we go” and believing it to be a consoling English song. The English are bringing back Their Day, reimagined and remixed through the lenses of nostalgic conservatism, CAD technologies, and an online shopping experience that grants people whatever they want. What they want in provincial England seems to be a sort of Replicant village May Day, Empire without the Empire.
Hey, do what you like! But please remember to also do the right thing.
I witnessed further historical moment in London when rubbing shoulders with Extinction Rebellion. I joined a small Idler contingent at Trafalgar Square for a “Do Less” campaign proximate to the somewhat larger XR disruption. I was over two hours late, which means I win at idling.
The event was quite exciting. I’ve been to lots of protests and marches and Anarchist or Socialist events over the years, but there was a palatable sense here that the protest was a genuine interface with Power, that They might be paying attention. Who knows?
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb to the level of the lions on Nelson’s Column, but Tom and Brendan and Flo offered encouragement: “Just get your knee up!” I’ve said it before: the strongest force in the universe is peer pressure.
Flo has filed a nice and more detailed report at the Idler website:
Also present was Robert Wringham, Idler contributor and frugality expert. Robert doled out cheese sandwiches at Nelson’s Column to keep starving editor Tom Hodgkinson from going full anarchist and smashing up a police van. Thankfully he arrived at just the right time for lunch, or we may have been making this report from a prison cell.
We sang Lie Down And Be Counted by Neil Innes to the strumming of Tom’s uke. I’ve been suffering from laryngitis and so my deeply-hoarse Larry David (Larynge David?) voice was extremely audible over the others, especially when I routinely came in early on “what are we standing for.”
I missed my Patreon deadline last month because I decided that my essay about tiny houses wasn’t quite up to scratch, so nobody was charged. This is the kind of quality control you can expect from New Escapologist. Will there be an essay at the end of this month? Join us on Patreon to find out.
Sound the party alarm, for this is the one-year anniversary of escaping my most recent brush with employment. To hear about why I ever went back to a jay-oh-bee, you can read this previous diary entry, but for now I just want to say a resounding “phew!” and also “wow!”
Nothing on Earth can hold Houdini a prisoner!
It can be hard to know for sure if your decisions are the right ones. I’ve learned over the years not to sweat the small stuff though, learning that optimisation and “best possible outcomes” aren’t as important as just having a nice time and doing things well and in the right spirit. I’ve also learned to ignore pesky thoughts of Sliding Doors-style alternate realities: “what if I did this instead of that?” But on this occasion, I am certain I made the right choice by escaping as soon as possible. The job really was a hindrance to getting on with what I wanted to do. It was also beginning to make me fat and depressed. Zero regrets.
I find myself in good shape one year on: financially, creatively and in terms of physical and mental health. I do not feel sluggardly or anxious at the moment, ready instead to have fun and to create some amusing, useful works.
My first order of “business” on escaping again was to write my next book, The Good Life for Wage Slaves. Based on a true story! It’s coming out in Germany in March and in the UK… eventually. But it is written and I’ve even seen the typeset German version and its lovely cover, all of which is a fairly amazing turnaround for just one year of finger-wiggling, and I still remember how good (if slightly odd) it felt to start writing as soon as I’d quit, almost as if nothing had happened.
The rest of the year has been busier than I’d typically be when unused because of Operation Breadhead. This, I’m happy to report is going well too. We are now (as of 5th October) halfway through the event and 86% through target. We might even have made target by the end of November. This is a relief, as all we’ll need to do to win our “indefinite leave” visa at that point is to run out the clock and complete the forms. The financial woe—always the hardest part for me—will be behind us. For this I have to thank some of you for buying my stuff and for engaging my writing and editing services. Thank you, readers and friends. Moral turpitude issues aside, I might yet not be chased out of my own country!
I have been in a nostalgic mood lately, especially after visiting my parents last week and, when fancying a stroll, deciding to recreate my old walk to school and back. I hadn’t seen these houses and corners and minor landmarks for over twenty years and I almost blubbed. So in thinking about the old office job as I sit to write my diary now, I find I have some fond memories of former colleagues and of the Blitz spirit of shared boredom. But no! Always remember, never forget!
Thanks for your help this past year, everyone. If you’d like to help with the final furlong of Operation Breadhead, you could buy some stuff here. But don’t feel pressured because (and I’ll say this part quietly) I think we’re fine.
A few years ago, I attended a conference just outside Glasgow. It was a waste of time and energy even within the framework of my already-a-waste-of-time job, but attendance was mandatory and that was that. It was precisely the sort of thing that would push me from a state of generalised frustration and into a bleak, chastised, depression-adjacent funk.
As I walked deliberately slowly to the conference centre from the train station, weighed down with a laptop bag of stupid paperwork, I crossed the Forth and Clyde Canal. I looked down from the bridge at the still water, and thought “one day, I’ll walk through this junction again, on my own terms and trouble-free.” I knew that my state of consciousness would be completely different to the one that was currently currently me to grind my teeth. It was such a certainty that I could practically see my future self walking contentedly along the towpath.
I looked up at the bridge and imagined my past self and sent the telepathic message back through time that things would be okay.
And then I climbed up onto the bridge and took a photograph for a reminder. This spot can now be called Future Echo junction. (Thankfully I did not also see my bloated corpse floating face-down in the canal.)
I’ve been working harder than usual to make money. It’s a year-long project of uncharacteristic money-grubbing. I call it Operation Breadhead and we’re three months in.
I have a big pie-chart, which I look at every day to see how far I am from making the money I need. Cash earned so far displays in the pie as green (my favourite colour) and it advances against the red (my least favourite colour) in a genuine attempt at motivating myself (to replace red with green). Instead of red, I thought about using a picture of Theresa May’s office-manager face, which I could gradually cover with pleasant rain-forest green, but I couldn’t work out how to do that in Google Sheets.
This is all to do with the visa again, I’m afraid, and the associated minimum income requirement. We satisfied it last time through horrible, horrible employment [place werewolf howling sound effect here], but this time we have chosen to resist such catastrophic disruption to our lives and to do it through part-time employment (on my wife’s part) and self-employment (on mine). Tactical!
For my part, this has meant writing, writing, writing. And managing that writing enterprise in a way that I have never bothered about before. Honestly, I even have an accountant now. I’m dabbling with overseas editions and things like that too.
It’s actually been a lot of fun. Being creative and resourceful instead of submitting to a tedious day job is Escapology in a nutshell. And where the project is not “fun” per se, it has at least been instructive and interesting. I’ve had to stretch myself and increase my usual annual income by about 20% but, let’s face it, that’s something I should do anyway.
It’s also rather exciting to know that once it’s done, it’s done forever this time. At the end of this financial year, we’ll have everything we need for “indefinite leave” on the visa front, and my wife and I can be together with minimum threat of being separated or forced to leave my own country.
Anyway, we’re three months into Operation Breadhead and all goes well. In fact, I hit 50% of my target after the first two months, which was a considerable confidence boost and a welcome relief of pressure, but this large chunk relied on shaking some old piggy banks — calling in my book royalties and the likes — rather than creating new work.
I’ve also been running around, writing bits and bobs for magazines, though this has been for comparably small amounts of money and involves an inordinate amount of chasing people up to actually get paid. I don’t know why they’re like this: I doubt they’re so evasive about paying, say, their electric bill, so why give the writers a hard time when they’re arguably an even more important ingredient in conjuring up a magazine? Has there ever been a strike? Surely, we’re essential?
It has proven less difficult to extract money from less-creative writing projects. Copywriting and the likes. This is because the money for such work seems to come from marketing budgets, which are generally taken more seriously. You know, because marketing.
In particular, I’ve been doing some copywriting for English universities whose marketing budgets are clearly through the roof. This is fairly dull, though the people are nice. One fellow for whom I’m writing is a kindly Canadian who grew up two streets over from where my in-laws now live in Montreal. He’s a lovely fellow with a passion for his academic subject, though he rarely seems to remember who I am when I call. This sort of thing always bewilders me: even if you can’t remember my name, why isn’t this pre-arranged phone call in your diary? Why are you expecting the call? Still, at least this sort of scatterbrain nature doesn’t seem to be in service of “forgetting” to pay me.
As a consistent side project that will take far longer than the Breadhead period to complete, I’ve been editing and transcribing sections of a friend’s life-long travel journal. He is kind to pay me for this as I used to read his writing purely for pleasure. The total work is (genuinely) three times longer than War and Peace and its not finished yet. He’s going to be the Samuel Pepys of end-of-the-century travel writing one day. He has, quite simply, been everywhere. Literally everywhere you can think of.
Elsewhere for this omni-caper, I directed a one-person comedy show, helped to design a library (not sure if that qualifies as literary work but it was at least pleasant and studious and was no struggle to get paid), and edited part of a book about ’80s indie music.
Aaaaanyway. I just wanted to let you know what’s happening at the moment in this life on the lam. I’m treating the visa situation as just another escape: escape from a pesky situation using tactics and a little bit of elbow-grease, this time (largely) on my own terms.
I know this all looks rather busy and manic but the fact remains that I really do only put in about four hours a day before kicking back with a book (I’m currently reading the diaries of David Sedaris and a funny old book about “microbes”) or hitting the pub or the cinema.
Don’t worry, gang. The next Escapology-focused book is in the works too. It is written and is in the hands of my agent. More on this when I have it.
The point of this here long-running Escapologist’s Diary series, by the way, is to chronicle the life of an Escapologist, to help answer the question of “what would I do if I didn’t have a job?” in almost sarcastic detail. You can now do this in even more granular detail (what joy!) over here. Leave a comment to help me feel less like I’m spaffing away into the abyss.
Wehey! I have escaped again. How’d you like that, my imaginary shareholders?
Admittedly, this particular escape involved running the clock down on something like a prison sentence more than the commitment to a clever escape plan. But an escape’s an escape and it feels good to be on the lam again, feeling the breeze around the old wosnames.
As some of you know, I put a peg on my nose and took a job when we came back to Scotland from Canada. It was to help my partner secure her visa to live here.
We won that visa in September (using the immense stack of paperwork pictured below) and we immediately set about getting our lives back on course. On my part this means a full-time return to the cheerful, frugal literary life. Much better.
Bagging the visa and escaping office life again were the key events of our 2018, though they do not feel particularly like achievements. It’s just a happy return to the status quo, to what we were doing until someone stopped us.
But hey! there was also the book deal. That was big news. The first half of the advance came in and I started writing. I’ve almost written a whole new book this year. I hope to have finished it by the end of January 2019.
At the start of the year, I set up a mailing list to try and guarantee a readership for my weekly diary. I kept up the diary itself until October (31 entries – medal please) and was rewarded with the highest numbers of visits ever to my website (even if those numbers are admittedly small potatoes). I plan to pick up the diary again in 2019, but not until the book is written, obvs.
There were seven new installments of my Idler column, bringing the total up to 17 (plus extra bits and bobs) and my longest-running gig outside New Escapologist, which hardly counts. I’ve enjoyed getting the occasional email (and Idler letters page response) about the column, none of them (yet) irate.
Tim Blanchard’s book about the novelist John Cowper Powys was published in November. I had some small editorial involvement before Tim found a publisher so I was very happy indeed to see the book come out.
In non-writerly action I spent the occasional Friday at a botanical library near to where I live. Here I have a freelance project to catalogue the collection. I spend these days handling attractive books about trees and flowers and mushrooms and the likes. Why not?
I also had the pleasure of calling the fire brigade, joining Instagram, remembering the spice girls, finding run-up-to-the-visa solace in the best ever Lego set (and reselling it – minimalism!) and taking a reaction test.
As traditional, here is my year in books. A change on previous years is that I’ve stopped recording comic books in this list. There’s too many of them and, let’s face it, it’s a completely different aesthetic experience. (If you’re interested, I enjoyed Ms. Marvel this year and the first volume of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I was surprised not to enjoy the new Multiple Man series.)
I made an effort this year to read some new fiction instead of old everything. I also made my usual effort to read more women and non-white writers.
Lest we forget, an asterisk* denotes an out-loud read while the dagger† denotes a re-read. Schwing!
Bill Bryson – Neither Here nor There
Bill Bryson – The Road to Little Dribbling
Daphne du Maurier – Not After Midnight
Alastair Bonnett – Off the Map
Bill Bryson – African Diary
Joe Dunthorne – The Adulterants
George Orwell – Coming Up for Air †
Shoukei Matsumoto – A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind
George Orwell – Keep the Aspidistra Flying †
Patrick Hamilton – Hangover Square
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Sam Selvon – The Lonely Londoners
Donald Westlake – The Hot Rock
Yanis Varoufakis – Talking to my Daughter about the Economy
George Perec – W, or the Memory of Childhood
T. H. White – The Once and Future King
Clive Bell – Old Friends
Darren McGarvey – Poverty Safari
Alex Masters – A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip
Muriel Spark – The Girls of Slender Means
Helen Russell – The Year of Living Danishly
Caitlin Doughty – From Here to Eternity
Fumio Sasaki – Goodbye Things
George Saunders – Pastoralia
Limmy – That’s Your Lot
Michael Booth – The Almost Nearly Perfect People
Nan Shepherd – The Living Mountain*
Matthew Crawford – The Case for Working With Your Hands
Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women
Matthew De Abaitua – Self and I
Helen Lamb – Three Kinds of Kissing
Kamin Mohammadi – Bella Figura
Tade Thompson – Rosewater
PD James – Sleep No More*
Evelyn Waugh – The Loved One
Jonathan Meades – An Encyclopaedia of Myself
Books read in substantial part but left unfinished:
Richard Sennett – Together: the rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation
Mary Beard – SPQR
Richard Gordon – Nuts in May
Robert Skidelsky – John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946
I am currently reading After the Snooter by Eddie Campbell (a comic) and Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (essays).
I end 2018 happy with my personal lot at the age of 36, though I also feel irritated and under siege for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. I might have to stop drinking. Or ideally they’ll cancel Brexit.