The Brown Billies

So I’ve got these bookcases.

They’re just Ikea ones. Billy bookcases. One of them is a big, full-sized bookcase and then there are two miniature versions of the same.

(No, this diary entry is not about the frustrations of building furniture from flat pack. I don’t find that particularly challenging. Do you? What are you, st00pid? Just follow the instructions, it’s a delight).

What makes my bookcases unique is their colour. Brown. You can’t get brown billies anymore. Ikea discontinued them in the UK because we can’t be trusted to be a part of a coherent global supply line.

But I want to replace the two smaller ones with two full-sized ones. Together, these three mighty obelisks would perfectly fit the space I’ve reserved for them and would give the illusion of a full-blown book wall. (Finally my friends will respect me!)

Most importantly, my hot new library setup will expand my book storage capacity by a third. This increase in shelf inches — combined with how we bought our first flat and hopefully won’t have to move so often now — allows me to end the book-buying embargo I’ve imposed on myself for about twelve years. It’s big news, guys.

Lord, I just remembered someone telling me that librarians aren’t so much interested in books as they are in shelves. Maybe that wag was right. I might not work as a librarian any more but I’m probably still a one ethnically.

Since you can’t get these bookcases in the UK anymore, I figured I had two options. I could find someone sufficiently devoted to drive to Belgium with me and transport the desired bookcases from the Gent branch of Ikea (a bit much, probably) or I could buy the hopeless white-coloured version from our local Ikea and then prime and paint them (tricky, messy, smelly). A third option, I suppose, would be to replace all of my existing brown shelves with white ones, which would be wasteful and also suck.

But then someone suggested I set up a Gumtree alert for “ikea brown billy” to see if they’d turn up naturally. I did this. And then I waited. I waited and waited and waited.

Daily, for months, my phone would ping with news but it was always a false alarm. We were talking light-brown billies or brown billies in the wrong shape or size, or brown billies that had suffered so much abuse they’d never take the weight of any actual books.

Finally, without fanfare (if you don’t count the literal fanfare sound I set my phone to make for each alert but had learned to distrust most scornfully) the billies I so desperately wanted popped up on Gumtree yesterday. Four of them. Four beautiful brown billies. For free. I may have drooled. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.

By the time the alert had hit my phone, they’d been online for 22 hours. Not long surely? I got in touch.

“I’m sorry,” said the seller, “but I’ve already promised them to someone else. She responded this morning.”

My heart sank.

Well, I did what had to be done. I begged and begged and begged and then I offered a bribe. A hundred pounds for just two of her four bookcases. A trip to Belgium would have been twice this amount so I’d still be up on the deal.

A night passed with no response to my undignified scrounging. I barely slept. I wanted those bookcases. Needed them. There was no other way to adequately house enough books for my next decade on Earth. Maybe I’d find the seller’s address and break in, taking my brown billies under cover of darkness. It couldn’t be called theft if she was publicly trying to give them away could it?

Next morning, the message came in. The seller had checked with the original responder and they’d agreed between them that I could have the two bookcases. “I don’t want money,” she said, “I said they were free and I stand by that.”

Just because I’m a living monster doesn’t mean there aren’t still decent people in this world.

“THANK YOU,” I said.

“You just seemed so pathetically desperate,” she said.

I wondered if she’d ever met anyone with such a zany, almost deranged, need for bookcases before. In the twenty-first century when we’re all supposed to be preparing to ditch physicality and move to the Metaverse.

The seller is moving house on June 15th and I’m to collect them from her vacant property the next day. This means a fortnight of looking forward to getting my mitts on them.

I’ll have to enlist somebody with a van to transport them. And I suppose shouldn’t count my bookshelf chickens before they’re bookshelf hatched. Any number of things could go wrong before those shelves are installed in their rightful place. But, somehow, I have no anxiety about getting them here. I feel an odd sense of serenity in having finally found the brown billies and now I can look forward to their near-magical arrival.

How will I occupy the time until then? Well, I’ll do what I always do, I suppose. I’ll read books. And I’ll write books. And I’ll think about the bookshelves and how nice they will look once they’re in place. Maybe I’ll allow myself to buy some of the books that have cluttered up my wishlist for so long, safe now in the knowledge that they’ll have a proper home here and won’t push another book into the charity/eBay pile.

It was only then that I realised quite how bookish I am. Practically everything in my life has revolved around books. I read them, I write them, I stack them up nicely. I buy them, sell them, find the best place for them when I have to give them away. I worked in libraries for years. Even as a teenager, before you’d think the mania would have set in, my Saturday job was in a W. H. Smiths.

Books, books, books. They’re all I know.

This shouldn’t be a discovery, but it is. I already knew that I read a lot and my tendency to resist e-books shows I’m a paper freak as well as just a reader, but I had’t understood quite what a central place books occupy in my life. Mine is a life of books and soon I’ll have the book-lined wall to prove it.

The Sleeping Pods

I went to Shetland this week, first taking a train to Aberdeen and then an overnight ferry out to the islands. It was a grand adventure.

I’d originally decided to rough it on the ferry by sleeping not in a cabin or even one of the poorly reviewed “sleeping pods,” essentially a reclining Marty Crane-style barcalounger with blinkers, but in one of the standard airline-style seats. In the end, I crumpled and paid a little extra for a sleeping pod. It took away my twin concerns of how I’d charge my phone (because the pods have built-in USB chargers) and that I might end up sitting with a drunken Shinty team who wanted to party all night long in plastic Viking helmets. That’s the kind of luck I have when travelling sometimes.

In the end there were no party people, but I was happy to have made the minor upgrade nonetheless. Those roughing it in the standard seats didn’t look wholly uncomfortable but they were certainly crammed together and they were at the mercy of the sunrise. No place for vampires. Conversely, the sleeping pod room had dipped lights and was practically silent. There was hardly anyone in the room, which suited me just fine.

One thing struck me as potentially imperfect, however, and it was that the pod chairs came in twos. There had been an assumption in the design process that most people would travel with a partner. A solo traveller, I felt glad that the room was so empty and that I wouldn’t have to sleep next to a stranger. The armrest dividing the two recliners was slight. It would be practically like sharing a bed with them. How could anyone cope with that?

Maybe you’d get lucky and end up with a good-looking partner and you could lie there feeling titillated. I can’t speak for everyone but this would make me feel like a terrible creep and I wouldn’t like it at all. But wouldn’t that be better than being paired with a snoring, farting walrus of a travelling salesman? Or an angry mohawked punk rocker who liked to play with knives? I’m actually not sure which scenario would be worse.

These were the thoughts that went through my mind, stopping me from sleeping, for much of the crossing. I spent my two Shetland days in a near-shamanic state, dream-walking through columns of ancient stone.

On the return journey, I boarded the ferry and once again went straight to my sleeping pod. This time, my pod was in a slightly different sort of room. The lights were not dipped and one bulkhead was lined with bright, sunny windows.

Hmm, I thought. Okay. I can handle this. So long as I’m not given a neighbour, that is! Even as the thought took shape, I knew in my heart I’d be given a neighbour. This ferry seemed busier than the last one; I’d queued for slightly longer while boarding. Urgh. As well as my terror of having to essentially sleep with a stranger to secure cheap passage back to Aberdeen, mine was a window seat which meant I’d have to bother them whenever I wanted the toilet or simply to exercise my freedom by going for a walk around the deck.

The neighbour came up and said, “have I understood properly that this is Seat 10?”

“Yes,” I said.

“I think we’re going to be neighbours.”

He seemed friendly and almost apologetic, but there was something offputtingly zany about him too. He wore an ironical smile and a pair of patched, multi-coloured trousers like something a trainee juggler might wear. He was perhaps 20 and reminded me of the Little Prince. I couldn’t sleep next to the Little Prince. I just couldn’t. Not tonight, not ever. I’d feel like a nonce. Maybe it would turn me into one. Aren’t you one? said something evil in my brain. NO I AM NOT said another bit of my brain. It’s difficult being insane.

“Oh that’s just perfect,” I said, unable to hide my distaste.

The lad looked crestfallen. I hadn’t meant to be unfriendly but the lack of sleep had clearly made me incapable of disguising my thoughts. Obviously, few people would really want a neighbour in these situations but there was something in the way I’d said “Oh that’s just perfect” that sounded personal, that I’d judged him by his age or possibly his trousers and I might not have rejected someone else.

“Let’s see how things go,” I said, trying to sound more friendly, “and one of us can move later if there are still spare seats. Then we’ll both have plenty of room.”

“It looks like a busy crossing,” he said. Did he want to sleep next to me? Why? I’m almost 40 and I hadn’t showered in three days if you didn’t count the rain shower I’d endured at the Broch of Clickimin. My beard and hair were long and Jesussy and I looked like someone who’d been on a vision quest, which I sort of had.

He left his rucksack on the seat next to mine and went out to the bar. I spotted him later when I went for a walk, reading a magazine with his headphones in and still wearing that same ironical smile. We avoided each other’s gaze.

When I saw an attendant, I asked if I could switch to another sleeping pod room and he asked why. “The, um, Little Prince,” I said, gesturing toward the bar with my thumb as if he’d immediately see my position.

“I’m sorry?” said the attendant and, trying a different tack, I explained that the window seat made me feel claustrophobic.

“The window seat makes you feel claustrophobic?” he asked, presumably contemplating the wide, even desirable, vistas across the sea.

I explained that I prefer the aisle and that was that. He said I should come back and ask again in half an hour when the Captain had emailed the full manifest and he’d know where to reseat me. I enjoyed this minor insight into how the ferry was organised.

I went back to my sleeping pod with the intention of waiting out the half-hour for the Captain to send his email and then fell asleep at the window while watching our gentle passage through the sea.

When I woke briefly in the night and looked around in mild disorientation, I saw that the Little Prince had silently collected his rucksack while I drooled unconsciously at the window. I felt terrible.

Toothbrush Blues

I can never find quite the right toothbrush for me.

Well, actually, the ones sold by Muji come pretty close but this is where it gets complicated. First, they’re made of plastic and I’d really like to start using those bamboo ones that take less of a toll on the environment, so when I buy my Muji toothbrush it’s always with a slight sense of failure and a vow to do better next time.

I’ve been using a Muji toothbrush now, as usual, for about a year, which is far too long. The bristles have started to come out and they’re probably so raddled with mouth bacteria by now that not brushing my teeth is probably healthier than brushing them at this point. So, today, I finally went to an organic grocery store to check out their line in wham-bam-boo.

The trouble with bamboo brushes is that the head is always absurdly large. I can’t get over it. Who needs such a big head on their toothbrush? You can’t get into the grooves between indivudual teeth with such a big head and whenever I scrub the roof of my mouth with it, the wooden backside of the head feels like a veritable expanse and it makes me choke. It’s not ideal.

The naughty Muji ones meanwhile look so good in the glass on the side of the wash basin. They feel nice in the hand, nice in the mouth, and they have the perfect head size. Even accounting for the twice-daily pinch of plastic guilt, I’ve just never been able to do better than the ones at Muji.

I don’t like to order Muji toothbrushes online because the shipping is expensive and, actually, I like to go to Muji just to look around every so often, so the need for a toothbrush is always a good reason to visit a branch if I find myself in London or Paris or some other city blessed with a Muji.

I suppose I could buy a clutch of Muji toothbrushes whenever I’m in a Muji so that I don’t end up using one for a whole year but I never do this. In part it’s because I’m a cheapskate but it’s also because I vow, every time I buy a new Muji toothbrush, that this will be the last time because I really should be using bamboo anyway.

So I’m in the organic grocery store, looking at the toothbrushes. They’re all sealed into little carboard packets which look difficult to open with tearing them and, you know, you probably shouldn’t be opening sealed toothbrushes and putting them back on the shelf anyway. But then I noticed that they sell a kid’s version so, thinking a kid’s version would surely have a smaller head, I bought one.

On getting it home and opening the packet, I find that the head is still absurdly huge. The concession for children is that the handle is small. So now, as well as having an inch-long head that fills half of my mouth with zero precision, I have to daintilly use the child-size handle. It’s so small that I worry about losing it in there.

If you’re reading this and there’s a chance that you’ll cross paths with me at some point, please, in the meantime, look out for the perfect bamboo toothbrush with a small head and a handle designed for adults. I want as many eyes on this search as possible. Or, you know, if you live in a Muji-blessed city, please just bring me a good one from there. Help me to end the madness. Thank you.

Escape Paperwork

Originally published in Idler 68.

I’ve been thinking about paperwork lately because I’ve had to get a bit more serious about the business side of being a writer, lest various government darlings come and smash my knees in.

I used to make a habit of ignoring paperwork completely, going as far as putting it in the bin, unopened to see what the consequences would be. Sometimes, they’d be literally nothing. Today, I prefer to handle paperwork quickly, as soon as it comes in; putting paid to it in a lightning pounce, as in a game of whack-a-mole. Feel the wrath of my padded mallet, utility bill!

My gripe now is with the archive. I can live with the onus of paying an invoice quickly, but I dislike the presence of dead paperwork in my happy, idle life. I don’t like to have a bulging file of administrative documents lurking in my cheerful “tropical-gothic” flat, like a sober accountant at a party, grinding his teeth and reacting badly to my attempts to put a little hat on him.

So here are my newfound tactics for having almost no paperwork in the house:

Reduce it. The surefire way to escape paperwork is stop it at source. A contraceptive approach will prevent your nightmares from ever coming to life. This should work beautifully for idlers, as the kind of activity that generates paperwork is of the effortful variety: shopping, business-conducting, expanding of operations, formal ceremonies under the eyes of God and the law. You know, graft. It’s a pleasure to avoid.

Dependence on services and products generates paperwork too, so we must find ways to live without overly depending upon the commercial world. No television means no TV licence renewal woe. A small home with little stuff in it, means no insurance bullshit. No car means a galaxy of bureaucratic hassle eliminated. Escaping such unnecessary dependencies is the heart of self-sufficiency.

The idler prevails by putting her feet up and leaving them there. The less of a worker-consumer you are, the less paperwork comes your way. They have a saying in Denmark: “A brook-smoothed pebble receives no post.” Well, they don’t actually, but they should.

Minimise it. When archiving paperwork, it’s tempting to err on the side of caution. We fear that if we don’t keep every receipt and every communique, we’ll somehow pay for it later. It doesn’t generally happen though and you can ditch almost everything. If your entire paperwork archive was lost to a house fire, there’d be one or two inconveniences (retrieving a forgotten PIN, reissuing a passport) but, on balance, the loss would be a gain. Whack-a-mole it and throw it away.

Digitise it. Most companies and government bodies are keen for you to “go paperless” or “submit it online,” because it saves them money and gives them (they think) a firmer hold on your soul when you can no longer claim that something is lost in the post. Personally, I prefer digital paperwork because you no longer have an archive. Invisible it away and life feels much nicer, no dusty graveyard of old transactions lurking in the corner when you’re trying to make the love. Cyberspace (and I will never stop using that word) is as a good a bottomless pit as any when it comes to important documents.

The result of all of the above is that I’ve got my paperwork down to a single A4 tickler file and it feels good. The contents are just the truly useful stuff: passport, birth certificate, licence to thrizzle. Everything else is either online (in systems paid for and looked after by banks and whatnot) or snuggled down warmly in the landfill. The rain-soaked mulch of an old P45 is visible in the gutter of a neighbour’s house because I folded it into a plane that went further than I’d expected.

Psychopathically, sarcastically treasure it. An alternative to some of the above is to have one’s paperwork professionally bound into a beautiful, timeless book. This is a bit silly and I’ll confess to only thinking of it a few minutes ago, but why not take all of your admin down to an old-fashioned bindery (or to a branch of Mail Boxes Etc.) and see if they can bind it into a beautiful, clothbound volume to treasure forever next to your Sherlock Holmes and P. G. Wodehouse omnibuses. Have the words “My Lovely Paperwork” embossed into the cover, ideally in gold leaf. Imagine a tax official coming over for an audit, demanding to see your paperwork, and then seeing you pull this gorgeous tome down from the shelf. An unfamiliar feeling of hopelessness will surely fall upon him and he’ll start making motions to leave quietly. Naturally, this is when you should put a hand on his shoulder and say, “But you came all this way. Now then. Page thee fyrst…”

But seriously, you might be thinking. And I assure you I’m deadly serious. I’m as serious as can be. If you could see me now, you’d know that my eyebrows have knitted firmly into a devastating letter “X” the likes of which are seldom seen outside of 1960s science-fiction movie posters. Paperwork can be reduced at source, minimised in archive, and dumped into the infinity of Cyberspace where you could find it again it if necessary but will never need to.

What about HMRC though? Well, if you have a job, let HR take care of it. PAYE is one of the few conveniences of having a job. If you’re self-employed, do what I do. Have a single spreadsheet called “cash-based accounting 2019/20” or similar and treat it like a cash register for the duration of the financial year: enter any money that comes in or goes out in a pair of aptly-named columns. I also record invoice and receipt numbers (e.g. IDLER1) here so that I can search for them in my email or Google Drive later if they should ever be needed.

At the end of the tax year, either file your own tax return for free through the government’s Self-Assessment thing on the Internet or email your spreadsheet to an accountant (mine is called Brian – hello Brian!) who will do it for you for about £200. You are unlikely to ever be audited if your business is adorably small, so don’t worry about archiving your receipts in triplicate in a big scary box-file. Just don’t bother. It’s sunny outside. You weren’t built for admin.

If this resonated with you, you’re probably already doomed so you might as well buy my books Escape Everything! and The Good Life for Wage Slaves for additional wisdom from the goblin king.

Categorised as Columns

Au Revoir, Ennui

Originally published in Idler 67.

Since quitting my job — escaping, hopefully forever, the world of conventional work — the main change I have noticed in myself is that I am rarely, if ever, bored.

I may be less busy (and certainly less hurried) than when I had a job, but what rushed to fill the so-called void left by the absence of full-time wage slavery could hardly be said to be boredom.

As idlers, you’re probably not surprised by this, though I suspect most people would be. “What would I do if I didn’t go to work?” is the big question asked (directly or through implication) by careerist dullards and slavish Muggles who do not have the imagination to fill a day without being cattle-prodded into service — any service.

By contrast, filling a day is unlikely to tax the imagination of an idler worth her salt. In the event of not having anything to do at all, “nothing” is a perfectly acceptable stand-by. The wise idler knows, of course, that “doing nothing” and “being bored” are hardly the same thing. Who is bored when blowing smoke rings, mixing a drink, walking around the block, or fingering the veins on the underside of a leaf? Life is interesting, stimulating, unboring by default.

Having “nothing to do,” merely means “having nothing productive to do” and, let’s face it, the worker-consumer mindset promotes a narrow band of what it means to be productive. When the idler has nothing to do, we default to something pleasant like flipping through a book containing some nice pictures of ducks: hardly productive in the industrialist scheme, but we know otherwise.

In this hopefully-handy guide, I have itemised the ways I find myself occupied post-job. This has, quite simply, happened, and was not the result of some grand masterplan to escape boredom. It could, however, be repurposed as such if you would like to tear out this page and give it to someone you have noticed struggling to do nothing.

Multiple creative projects. I all but live for my creative projects now, some of which are lucrative, others not. The “multiple” is the key. Leaving a day job to manage a creative monoculture — to write a novel, for example — risks falling out of the frying pan and into the fire. It is the single drone-note that kills. Instead, I have several projects on the go, flitting between them all in a single day, advancing some of them a little and merely tapping on the glass of others. This should be the new work ethic rolled out en-masse by our next government: the gains in productivity, though considerable, are of less interest than the gains in escape from boredom. Bliss.

Reading and walking. Reading and walking, for me, have become the idle standbys. When I have nothing productive to get on with (or when deciding to honor the sabbath or to symbolically squander a Monday) I find that I entertain myself either by reading or walking. I do the former when I feel at home in my head and the latter if I’m in a more outgoing mood. I’m sure you need neither activity recommending to you, dear idler, but it’s useful to keep “reading and walking” in your armory for the next time you are asked what the Hell you do all day when not busying yourself in some white-collar hellscape. Through walking, I have internalised a high-resolution model of the landscape of my local area and I have exchanged atoms with it through the soles of my shoes, all but becoming one with it. Through reading I have expanded my knowledge and walked in a thousand other worlds, which is quite a trick to perform in your pajamas. Me: millions. Boredom: nil.

Domestic improvement. It is risible that people draw a red line between domestic and professional labour, that one should be seen as menial while the other is apparently the very meaning of life. The division is ridiculous and leads to boredom in both departments. Why is looking after one’s home and kit, as a trillion women (and millions of soldiers) have done since time immemorial, seen as servile compared with the apparently highly-desirable and exhaustingly tedious task of going out to earn money? Whatever the answer, only domestic labour (or perhaps a little of each) is so diverse and directly-useful enough to lose yourself in and fend against boredom. The happy, idle, useful hours I have spent polishing boots or scouring tiles or cooking spaghetti with The Thieving Magpie or Blue Train playing relaxingly in the background are not something I will regret.

Obliterate the enemy. A way to remain entertained and never bored is to hone your wits against the enemy, like a soldier might do in her barracks or the Predator might do in a handy tree. This sort of thing is a byproduct of idling and there is no real need to go out of one’s way to do it. It just comes naturally as you become widely read, familiar with your surroundings, have embraced meditative domestic labour, and have become properly satisfied through diverse creative projects. When you do these things, you will defeat any foe in political debate, and obliterate any pub quiz team with the cheek to go up against yours.

Whatever argument may be put against the idle life — that refusal to work will sink the oh-so-important economy, that infrequent showers leads to smelly nether regions, that decadence leads to hangovers, that inactivity doesn’t consume or pollute enough of the world to be taken seriously — let it not be said that it is boring.

If this resonated with you, you’re probably already doomed so you might as well buy my books Escape Everything! and The Good Life for Wage Slaves for additional wisdom from the goblin king.

Categorised as Columns