An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 77. Escritores de Lisboa

Last week saw a short trip to Lisbon. What an anarchic city. People talk about the ceramic tiles on the fronts of buildings but nobody mentions how it’s all up-and-down and higgledy-piggledy. The cube-shaped cobble stones fan out from their groundings like madmen’s teeth. Near the place we were staying, some graffiti read “Alfama, don’t break your ankles.”

At another spot, the graffiti said “clean is boring.” The city isn’t particularly unclean though: this being continental Europe, the streets are cleaned often enough and the people are evidently proud or smart enough not to drop much litter in the first place. There’s a lot of messy graffiti though, mostly unimaginative tags at shoulder-height. They’ll get that fixed one day: it’ll be the big cosmetic change that makes the city super-liveable like the sandblasting of the tenements in Glasgow in 1990.

I’m not down on the anarchism of Lisbon. I like it. The energy, the hustle and bustle, is great. It feels a bit like being in Asia in some ways. Africa feels tantalisingly close. My walking boots were up to the challenge of not breaking my ankles. I like how the old-fashioned wooden trams rattle around the hilly streets. You’ll be in a caf√© somewhere when the light changes suddenly as the tram blasts by the window.

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An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 75. Boat!

As part of my ongoing hostelling adventure, I slept on a boat!

We’re looking at existenzminimum again:

You get a private cabin (privacy being a plus in hostels) reminiscent of the cabin you get on a sleeper train or an overnight ferry.

Since the boat is on an Amsterdam canal rather than a life on the ocean waves, you feel no watery motion while sleeping at all.

But if you open a curtain in the dead of night… you might see a duck. 🦆

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There’s a little more about the minimalism of hostels in Issue 15.

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 74. Existenzminimum

I just got back from a happy few days in Paris. I met Friend Landis who was over from Chicago for a book tour, swanned around at the AsiaNow art fair, listened to live jazz (and got hit on) at Harry’s Bar, and visited the Louvre for the first time.

What I mean to talk about today however is the hostel. I stayed in a proper hostel dorm for the first time in perhaps 20 years. I loved it and I’m going to do it again in Holland and Luxembourg next month.

Seemingly, Paris hostels have privacy curtains on their bunks, which really changes everything. The bad thing about hostels as everyone either knows or can imagine is the feeling of overexposure; that strangers might be looming over you as you sleep. But the simple addition of a curtain makes a hostel every bit as good as a Japanese capsule hotel. You can still hear people moving around in the room at night, but I found it oddly comforting; you can tell from their soft movements, careful not to cause a fuss, that they’re just sleepy travellers the same as you.

For about ¬£30 (instead of the ¬£100+ you’d need for a hotel room in a city like Paris) you get the privacy of your bunk (in which there’s a reading lamp, a socket for charging your phone, and some little shelves for anything else you like to have nearby in the night), a locker in which you can stash your bag for the duration of your stay (actually a cube-shaped chest with a padded lid, good for sitting on to remove or put on your shoes), and access to the communal kitchens and toilet/showers.

Sorry to rattle on excitedly, but I am excited. I really enjoyed all this.

The toilet/shower rooms are much like the ones you’d find at a modern gym: by which I mean private shower cubicles, not the horror of shared showers like the ones in which footballers practice their heterosexuality. The kitchens, I was surprised to see, were spotlessly clean but well used: as well as being a casual social space for strangers to chat, I saw travellers preparing decent meals in there like fresh soup and spaghetti. (I just used it to fill my water bottle before vanishing off into Paris for pastries and cocktails).

There was also a cafe-bar in this particular hostel. I assumed it would be a basic affair for weary travellers so I dropped in on my first night with a plan to read my book over a quiet pint. But there was a jumping party going on! Glamorous drag queens were spinning records while the well-dressed Parisian youth gyrated and laughed and mingled. The place felt like the colonial bar in Lawrence of Arabia where he demands lemonade after crossing the desert; it was decorated with strings of muted lights and lazy palm fronds.

I was wearing my smelly Montreal Bagel t-shirt and some old jeans, so I was hardly presentable for it. I thirsted for that beer though, so I courageously ensconced myself at the bar and chatted with a bar worker who wasn’t bothered about my grotesque appearance and texted with my partner at home who assured me I was beautiful. I felt too self-conscious to read though, so I quaffed my refreshing blanche and made a dash for my bunk.

Sleeping with that curtain closed was a bit like being on an overnight ferry or a sleeper train without, obviously, the sensation of motion. For three nights in my coffin-like quarters, I slept like a brute.

The hostel struck me as quite the model for living. It was my socialist motto of “private sufficiency, public luxury” taken to the extreme and placed under one roof. I was happy to be far from material responsibilities and domestic maintenance. I think I could have worked on my books there if I’d wanted to.

If my partner ever throws me out, I’ll look into a long-stay hostel arrangement. The existenzminimum of a bunk, a locker, and access to those shared cooking and showering facilities was extremely liberating. And when you’re not sleeping or padding around in the communal spaces, you’re out there in your new town, living.

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Be frugal, be free. New Escapologist Issue 14 is available in print and digital formats now.

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.

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!

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 71. Germany und Switzerland.

Dear Diary, I write to you from continental Europe, where I’m basically on vacation but where I’m also conducting research for the magazine. It feels good to be footloose, blasting through the deep green countryside on Swiss and German trains.

In Freiburg, I visited Jonathan at Analog Sea, a publisher and cultural institute whose work I’ve admired for the past four years.

An early subscriber to New Escapologist, Jonathan is the real deal and his little team do everything the right way. As well as promoting real culture and philosophy, they’re deeply committed to staying offline: they have almost no web presence and Jonathan talked to me about the challenge of resisting Amaz*n who can still apparently devour the data and labour of those who make special efforts to avoid them.

As well as exchanging ideas and information about independently publishing a small press magazine, we recorded an interview for publication in a future New Escapologist. As we talked, my partner, Samara, sat quietly by and drew our portraits. It tickled! But it also felt like the sort of convivial creative moment that might lead to even bigger and lovelier things.

In Weimar, Samara and I visited the original Bauhaus University. We were expecting to join a walking tour but either it wasn’t running or we’d misunderstood the rendezvous point. We were ready to leave, thinking, “well, at least we came to the spot where it all happened,” but then I decided we should just enter the main building anyway.

I worked at Glasgow University for a while and it always amused me that, while the beautiful campus and many of its buildings were open to the public, few people ever ventured into the cloistered space. So, in Weimar, we burst inside uninvited to see frescoes and statues dating back to Bauhaus’s pre-War era and even a bust of founder Gropius himself.

Our covert explorations stopped, however, at the door of the Director’s Office which was, perhaps sensibly, locked. We hung around for awhile in case the scheduled tour group should appear and the guide unlock the door to afford us an undeserved peek, but it never turned up. The only other people we saw were a couple of hurried lecturers retrieving paperwork from their own, presumably less pretty, offices.

Less covertly, we visited the nearby Bauhaus Museum where, among other things, we saw independently-published books, artwork and pamphlets that may yet inform the future look of our magazine. Rest assured, it won’t be too fancy and we’ll keep it cheerfully cheap. In fact, that was a point of inspiration: talent and resourcefulness (and the use of technology unavailable to Gropius and his friends) can make up for modest funding.

In Basel, our EasyJet Hotel room felt ominously like a prison cell, bewilderingly small, with no window and with a toilet in the room. Avoid it, mein kinder! It was considerably worse than any hostel dorm or ‚ā¨9-a-night Turkish flop I have stayed in. It was almost worth the not-particularly-low price to see the spectacle of it. I have asked for a refund, which, if successful, will go into our printing fund for the magazine.

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A confession, oh secret diary. There’s a vacancy at a library in Edinburgh. It’s a very dignified and well-paid job and, before our trip, I was tempted to apply for it.

Were I to get through the interview, the job would have salted my mild but persistent money anxieties once and for all and my days would have been filled with fairly pleasant and bookish work. On the other hand, it would have scuppered the New Escapologist comeback and probably also any future books I might write. I would have accepted the offer with a heavy heart.

Fortunately, the trip put paid to this rare temptation to grapple with a job application. My desire to create and to be on the front line of cultural production instead of merely toiling in support of it has been redoubled. I have Jonathan and Elena at Analogue Sea–and Bauhaus’s Kandinsky, Schlemmer and Klee speaking to me through the years–to thank for that. Another narrow escape, perhaps.

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If you enjoy this blog and would like to see the return of a real New Escapologist magazine, you can help by buying my book The Good Life for Wage Slaves. Also still available are bundles of New Escapologist in print (1-7 and 8-13) or PDF (1-7 and 8-13). Anything you buy will help me to further this tiny non-profit enterprise.

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 70. Belgique.

We took an 8-hour train journey from Scotland to Belgium last week. I wanted to go on Eurostar* and to see THE ATOMIUM.

(*I’d somehow never been on this famous train, yet I longed to go on it when they were still drilling the hole)

For years, I thought the Atomium was a sculpture but, of course, it’s a building. You can go inside it.

Each of the little pods holds a visitor attraction: there’s a restaurant, a contemporary art gallery, an exhibition about the 1958 World’s Fair for which the Atomium was built, and so on.

One of the pods held a scale model of the Atomium. I was in a silly mood, high on life, so I gave it a kiss.

(I have a cold now, but I’m sure that’s an unrelated coincidence.)

Much like in Naples, we saw a lot of rain during this trip, but we’d have got just as wet if we’d stayed at home in Glasgow. Besides, when you travel by train you can take an umbrella along without worrying that it will be confiscated when it doesn’t fit into your little travel bag.

And in Glasgow we wouldn’t have seen the six art museums we visited in Belgium, enriching me to the very core. The older I get, the more I thirst for art. I was desperate to see art during the pandemic. I’m keen to see more of the world, to see more art and to hear more languages, before the next disaster forces us all to stay at home again. The pandemic happened after a year of voluntarily not travelling in order to save money or emissions or something, so I saw shit all for three years. I have learned my lesson.

I won’t say too much more about the trip because my travel entries to this diary are boring. All you need to know, dear imaginary shareholder, is that we saw four cities (Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp) in four days (or in three days actually, since the fourth was spent in Brussels where we began) and that it was great, great, great.

Travel. It cannot be beat. Also, I saw THE ATOMIUM. With mine eyes. We went up it in a lift!

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Help me to fund more micro-adventures buy buying my books, I’m Out and The Good Life for Wage Slaves.

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 69. 2022 Review.

Here we are again, thank goodness. Another annual report to my imaginary shareholders.

The year found me feeling far happier than in recent years. 2020‘s lockdowns, 2021‘s covid problems and house move, years of catching up after the visa struggle are all behind us now and I find myself on the other side of a recovery process. I felt extremely creative this year and hungry for action. Next year, all being well, will be even more gorgeous.

Here goes. Read the rest of this entry »

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

An Escapologist’s Diary: Part 67. Napoli

The “what I did on my holidays” entries to this diary are never the best ones. I think that’s because I write them from a mild sense of obligation; since there’s effort involved in travel, I might as well get something (a post!) out of it. Not a great motivation for writing really. Or maybe it’s because I think the eventfulness of a travel experience will translate to a good entry, but it doesn’t. As someone against eventful writing, I should know this.

I’ve always tried, however, to relate these entries back to Escapological lessons beyond the simple “free movement” theme of travel: the attitudes inspired by travel that might be more generally helpful in life, the ways another society can look and how we might emulate that ideal. I think I’m starting from that point of view this time so maybe my Naples entry will be better than, say, this slightly empty one about Berlin.

So we went to Naples. We stayed in the Spanish Quarter, which is part of the crumbly historic side of town. There’s a fancier side of town up on the mountain, which has lovely tree-lined streets and feels more like Paris or Rome, but we had decided to stay in the thick of life. Travel guides to Naples tend to start with “don’t be afraid of Naples’ reputation for crime,” which people also say about Glasgow, which is where I live. So I wasn’t afraid at all.


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