The Cockchafer

I visited my parents this week. As we sat there, watching the television, a large flying insect suddenly flew up from out of nowhere.

It bounced off the mirror, ricocheted off the bookcase, and then began to buzz around violently inside the ceiling lantern. It razzed around and around in there like a motorcyclist on the wall of death.

“What the Hell!?” I shouted over the loud buzzing noise.

“Oh,” said my mother coolly, “it’s just a cockchafer.”

“A what?!”

There’s a strange tendency in England for natural things to have appalling names.

“A cockchafer,” she said again, “they just bash themselves into things until they die.”

I’d assumed that the name of the creature would be the most appalling thing about it, but apparently their antics are even worse. This thing hatched out only to keenly brutalise itself to death. Why would such a thing exist?

The way my mother referred to it so matter-of-factly suggested this was a regular occurrence. But I’d grown up here and I’d never before witnessed the sudden appearance and instinctive suicide of “a cockchafer.”

While it was a new experience to me, there was also something typical about it though I wasn’t immediately sure how.

Its name reminded me, I suppose, of driving through the countryside as a young family and my mother saying “ooh, a lovely field of rape.”

It might be the correct and original name of the crop that becomes canola oil but it still makes you think of, well, rape. I mean, how can it not?

To make matters worse, it’s often called “rapeseed” which is arguably even more unpleasant. Why not change the name to canola? As in “a lovely field of simple, non-upsetting, uncontroversial, nothing-to-do-with-sex-abuse canola.” It doesn’t matter if it was called rape before rape was called rape because it still makes you think of rape. Rape!

Maybe people just enjoy the frisson of saying a forbidden word while still being within the bounds of technical correctness. If anyone should object or spit their breakfast tea into the air, you can say “oh yes, it’s from the Old English, you see. Cockchafer! Cockchafer!”

But it wasn’t just the extraordinary name that made the cockchafer incident feel oddly typical. It was also the witnessing of something completely insane while everyone else acted like it was normal. Just like the testimonies in those Scarred for Life books, my childhood was full of strange and unsettling things that were generally considered okay or even de rigueur despite being straight out of Blood on Satan’s Claw. I can’t quite put my finger on a good example now but there was certainly a lot of Morris dancing. I do remember a man at a country fair, with the full approval of my parents, bopping my head with a bit of wood “so that I would grow tall and straight.” (One out of two isn’t bad, I suppose.)

“Just ignore it,” said my mum of the cockchafer, “it’ll exhaust itself soon and die.”

The cockchafer fell to the rug but I could see that it wasn’t dead.

“Shouldn’t I put it outside?”

“Go on then,” she said, humoring my eccentric city ways.

I drained my glass and placed it over the cockchafer.

I then put a sheet of notepaper underneath and escorted the cockchafer off the premises. I watched it buzz out into the night but not before it bollocked itself of numerous pieces of garden furniture.

When I went back to my seat, my dad said, “it’s called a cockchafer. How do you like that?”

Caffeine

You: Would you like a coffee?

Me: Well, when you put it like that…

You: You mean when I mildly suggest it?

Me: Yes.

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.

Published
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.

Published
Categorised as Columns

Ye Olde Internet

Originally published in Idler 70.

Listen. Grandad wants to tell you about the early days of the Internet. It’s hard to believe, but before social media, people used to build their own websites from scratch. We also used to look at other hand-made websites set up by enthusiasts and eccentrics from all over the world.

Some of those websites and blogs were bloody ugly as it happens, but it was the sort of ugliness that is borne of a punk DIY ethic, which is surely better than the corporate evil ugliness of Facebook and YouTube today. The social media era of Internet in which we now live (and can’t end soon enough) is sometimes called Web 2.0. I think it’s crap and you probably agree: it’s generally seen as a necessary evil or a hopeless addiction. Nobody really thinks that looking at Twitter or Facebook is a good use of their time, do they?

The independent website-based Internet of yore provided a sense of connection — genuine connection to other minds — which is what social media is supposed to do but doesn’t. Ideas used to prevail and a sense of defying borders was palpable. I remember astonishing an American in a chatroom simply by being from Britain. He couldn’t believe it. “A Brit,” he wrote, “I. Am. Talking. To. A. Brit.” It was beautiful.

There is no “going on the Internet” anymore. Thanks to Google and social media, all content and every user just squats on three or four gigantic platforms accessed through apps and manipulated by sinister Russian and Brexitty forces. It’s also as dull as old boots.

The first true social network I joined was called Friendster. It was hilarious to cajole friends from different real-life social groups into the platform, to watch them rub shoulders for the first time, leaving witty “testimonials” against each other’s names. Some people couldn’t see the point: “Who would bother with this?” they said. Almost everyone on the planet, it turns out.

I remember my dad, a lorry driver, talking about CB radio. “It was fun,” he said, “until the moron element got involved.” That was his term, “moron element,” but he was right and the same thing has happened to the Web. Morons, trolls, spies and dullards run amok. There is no salvaging it, especially as so much of it is unreal, automated Bot Country now. We need to escape Web 2.0 and here are the escape routes I’m toying with:

Go outside. One way of escaping Web 2.0 is to go out for a walk, leaving the smartphone at home or getting rid of it altogether. But I like the Internet. The Internet is not the problem. It’s just an infrastructure like the sewers or the pavement. Besides, even outside you’ll see people jabbing at their smartphones, and shops and businesses ingratiating themselves to Web 2.0 by displaying TripAdvisor and Twitter logos in their windows and on their products. The Web (the actual HTML content) is not the problem either, which is why I’ve decided to turn back the clock on the Web and live as if it was the days of Web 1.0 (which nobody ever called it) as well as going outside.

Ditch (or drastically reduce exposure to) social media. Let’s delete our accounts. I’ve deleted 75% of mine. Facebook is dead to me, as are Instagram and others. I’ve kept one of my two Twitter accounts for now because I fear professional ramifications, which of course is part of why so many people feel they can’t escape at all. But I’m skeptical of the benefits and I’ve put it on notice. Perhaps you’d do the same: kill the accounts you really hate and get it down to one.

Turn a smartphone into a tool instead of a toy. My friend David Cane has a high-quality, long-running essay blog, which is a good use of the Web. It’s called Raptitude.com and he wrote recently about his attempt to convert his smartphone “into a tool instead of a toy.” He removed all social media and other “fun” apps, keeping his phone for useful activities. A month later, he still finds himself spiritually drawn to his phone and thumbing at apps in search of semi-conscious entertainment, so ingrained is Web 2.0 addiction. The same happened to me: though the social media presence is expunged from my phone, I still keep looking pointlessly at my bank balance and step count because that’s all there is to see. It has turned us into zombies. Even so, I have faith that the addiction cycle will be broken and that this portable supercomputer will become a useful tool instead of an addictive burden. We’ll see.

Build a website. A core activity of the old Web was coding up a website. It’s creative. If we all did this, we’d have multiple — millions!, billions! — of platforms and voices and contexts instead of everyone piling into four gigantic, obnoxious moshpits. Re-find your voice, choose your own questionable colour palette, use it to circulate your long-form writing and hand-drawn pictures. Build.

Go back to blogs and blogging. I have been blogging in one form or another since 1999. A change I recently made is to blog almost daily: small, easy bits of writing. This is fun and it also serves as a direct social media replacement scheme. Whenever the urge to tweet arises, I post to my own blog instead. This is far more creative and nobody in Russia or Silicon Valley is going to diddle with my data. Anyone who reads my blog will be doing so at social media’s cost, and while they’re on my site they’ll not be subjected to advertising or behaviour modification techniques.

Start an email list. Idler editor Tom has said it before in these very pages. An email list creates a sense of community, a direct way to speak to people who know who you are, instead of jostling and competing for attention on social media. An Australian journalist called McKinley Valentine runs a smashing newsletter in this way called The Whippet, which dispenses quirky science stories along with her agony column, “Unsolicited Advice.” Trust your Internet grandad: email is the future.

Double down on print media, love your books. Of course, you could always resist social media by going offline entirely. As I said earlier, I don’t see the Internet itself as a problem and I don’t want to throw the baby out with the cyber-bathwater, but when you’re determined to avoid the toxicity of social media and to escape the digital world properly, you really can’t do any better than buying physical copies of The Complete Dickens and consuming it piecemeal in the park. Just watch out for actual trolls.

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.

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Brrr! On Dressing for Winter

Originally published in Idler 69.

I’m conked out in a deckchair at the Five Arrows Hotel in Buckinghamshire for my sister’s wedding and soaking up the last struggling photons of the year’s sunshine, when editor Tom asks me to write a little something for the Idler about winter clothes. That’s the problem with magazines: we’re always operating a whole season ahead and we must channel the spirit of Christmas while simultaneously enjoying the last day of Hawaiian shirtdom.

Still, as someone has has lived in thrillingly cold climes, I certainly have a thing or two to say about winter clothes and I know in an instant how to dovetail the subject with the raison-d’etre of this column, which is “escape.” In this column, we usually talk about “escape to the seaside” or “how to escape social media” or “how to escape housework.” That’s the indelible paradigm here and, in the acquiring of winter clothes, there’s a broader parable about the escape artist’s special talents of resourcefulness and imagination. There is so. Now gather round:

When I lived in Montreal, Canada–a strong contender for the idler capital of the world, the year being divided into yoga season and poutine season–the winter temperature would routinely stand at -20°C, often falling to -30°C. To put this into perspective, -30°C is colder than the surface of Mars and -20°C is still colder than your freezer. You could leave a plucked chicken on the street and it would solidify sooner than your freezer could ever manage. If you packed it in snow, it would be, by outdoor standards, positively toasty.

This is to say that Montrealers take winter clothing seriously. If, for example, your bus is late and you’re forced to wait twenty minutes without adequate clothing, you could end up like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, lightning blue icicles hanging from your eyelids. I remember standing at one such bus stop, watching the powdery snow blow down from the mountain like something from Captain Scott’s diary, and thinking “there shouldn’t even be a place here.” It’s as if Jacques Cartier and his merry band of explorers arrived on the Saint Lawrence in spring, hastily staked a claim, and, by the time winter rolled in, they’d already thrown a city up and by then it was too late.

When I first arrived in Montreal, I had no job (hoorah!) and no dough (bah!) and I didn’t know quite how crazy these winters would be. When asked about my winter coat, I may have said something like, “Oh, I have a good sweater.” Fail!

Without $1,500 (~£1,000) for a “Canada Goose Arctic Project” parka that everyone else snuggly sported, I had to do something clever. Reasoning that Captain Scott (yes, he who died in the cold, but still made considerable headway into the Antarctic) didn’t have recourse to such high-tech parkas, here is what I did:

  1. I wore dollar-store thermal underwear, hiking socks, and two t-shirts for underwear;
  2. I wore my regular jeans and a thin sweater as a second layer;
  3. I wore the aforementioned “very good sweater” as a third;
  4. I wrapped a cashmere scarf around my neck and face, and sometimes, over my cranium like an old woman’s headscarf;
  5. I wore a dollar-store beanie hat and gloves;
  6. I wore sunglasses to protect my eyes from snow glare;
  7. I topped everything off with my long-serving Paddington Bear duffle coat, its Black Monk of Pontifract hood pulled up over the beanie for absolute isolation from the elements;
  8. I bought a decent pair of walking boots so that I wouldn’t slip on ice or snow. I forget the brand of my longest-serving pair, but I can also recommend Blundstones for £150;
  9. I employed Stoicism, the hardy twin of idler’s preferred Epicureanism.

I wouldn’t suggest mountaineering in this sartorial Frankestein’s monster, but there was no way I was going to apply for a jay-oh-bee just to buy a fancy parka.

I called this outlandish outfit my “spacesuit” because, as I’d prove, it would help me to survive even Martian temperatures. I didn’t look too ridiculous because the attractive duffel coat covered the improvised truth. Moreover, nobody was overly interested in my appearance because they were too busy with their own struggles to stay alive.

The other way I stayed warm was to walk. I walked almost everywhere under these insane conditions, so long as it was in a 1.5-hour radius and not an active snowstorm. As documented elsewhere, not least in former editions of this column, walking is the happiest mode of transport for idlers: it takes longer but affords leisurely thinking time and gets you out of what Will Self calls “the man-machine matrix.” It costs nothing, squanders no fuel, and–it being an easygoing form of physical exercise–saves you from the indignity of the gym.

Striding though the snow keeps you warm. Even in these sub-sub-sub-zero temperatures, which hopefully you don’t face too often, I’d sometimes get so hot while bouncing along in the spacesuit, I’d have to remove the hood to let off steam: big mistake if you’re Neil Armstrong, perfectly fine if you’re me and you’re willing to feel the life-enhancing burn of -20°C for a while. Solvitur Ambulando: it is solved by walking.

So. I escaped the need to work for money to buy that expensive coat. I escaped the obvious commercial solution to a problem with resourcefulness and imagination. I escaped the man-machine matrix and dependence on commercial services by walking. I escaped fear with Stoicism in service of idler’s prize of Epicureanism a little later on.

This has been a first-person case study into “escape as way of life.” While this column usually focuses on a single issue such as walking to escape the costs and ecological perils of the internal combustion engine, this week, hopefully, I’ve shown how to bring multiple escape skills into cunning, life-enhancing work-dodgery. Try it yourself:

Never spend money when there are other resources at your disposal; avoid work at all costs.

And now, citizens of the future, I’ll leave you to your frostscape and I’ll get back to my last piña colada of festival season here in the good old European Union. Stay warm, my darlings.

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.

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The Tracks of My Tears

Originally published in Idler 65.

Commuting. That the word for such violence is so mundane and ubiquitous is a sad reflection on what is expected of the wage slave. We don’t count it as a real activity in our lives yet we lose thousands of hours to it: thousands of hours lost in transition.

Commuting is a special source of extracurricular soul torture on top of everything else we must do for work. One not only agrees to swallow the misery of the job itself, but it is expected that we physically transplant ourselves daily, extracting ourselves from warm beds while it is still dark outside. We become short-range economic migrants and nobody sees this as a crisis.

The sadly salaried catch rush-hour buses: standing room only on a juddering Tonka Toy, clinging for dear life to an aluminium pole grubby with the fingerprints of a thousand other sleep-deprived skivs. Others go underground for the subway, where we hang — stretched like hapless Gladiators contestants — from plastic rings, trying not to catch the eye of our fellow humiliated incarcerates, tubed like polo mints and seeking micro-escape and semblance of self in an intangible iPhone playlist.

People take cars onto the road at no small expense to self and planet (see this column in Idler 54 for a heartfelt tirade against the automobile) and they rage against “the traffic,” while moronically being traffic. They sit in their privately-owned wheeliebox, inhaling fumes and becoming increasingly anxious about everything and nothing thanks to drivetime DJs and their endless prattle around some inane new meme or faraway war which, from the commuter’s VW prison, she is uniquely qualified to do nothing about.

We catch commuter trains: commuter trains with their engineering interruptions and replacement bus services and indecipherable PA announcements, and endomorphic middle managers who try to reclaim a modicum of rapidly-diminishing dignity by bullying their way into the carriage ahead of all others so that they might get a seat. Ooh, what a prize! “Man is born free,” said commuter-poet Roger Green, “but is everywhere in trains.”

There are, as it stands, two main ways to escape the commute: one is to move home closer to the workplace, the other is move the workplace closer to home. The first involves moving house, which is something most people prefer to avoid but when you’re a tenant rather than a homeowner and a minimalist rather than a consumer (see this column in Idler 55), this need not be too difficult. The prize is ten hours of luxurious idling time per week or 520 per year, which is not to be sniffed at now is it?

The necessity of commuting came with the invention of suburbia; the idea that we should live in big houses miles away from where business is conducted. If instead urban planners had prioritised high-density living and had built upwards instead of wastefully outwards and into the province of nature, one’s commute would have been as uneventful as an elevator ride (or fireman’s pole) to street level. As it stands, the ‘burbs are the home of the aspirant, enabled only by a slog into and out of town to earn a living, like the bears and Bigfoots we hear now stray into American cities due to food shortages in the countryside. The real solution to ridding ourselves of the commute, then, is to abandon the missold dream of suburbia. Live in the city, I say, in a small, single-floor home, up in the clouds and close to the action. Expensive? In London, Paris and New York, perhaps, but not in Glasgow, Montpelier or Montreal.

The category of “move the workplace closer to home,” meanwhile, may sound like a mountain-coming-to-Moses-level impossibility but in fact we have multiple solutions in this category, the first being to work from home either with the blessing of one’s current employer or by employing oneself. This reduces the commute to a simple rolling motion from bed to kitchen table. You can eat your breakfast while you wait for Skype and your work email to load, and enjoy the additional advantage of being able to complete minor domestic tasks (or take sofa-based naps) on the clock.

Depending on your qualifications and career ambitions, a bold but agreeable way of bringing work closer to home is to change your job so that you can work within a ten-minute walking radius of home. Keep an eye out for Help Wanted signs in your locale and go in for a chat with the proprietors to see if you like their vibe. Not far from where I live today are a number of small businesses — a butcher, newsagent, artisanal deli, cornershop, bookshop, bakery, a dry-cleaners and a small restaurant — and I wonder which of them will have the pleasure of giving me six months of employment when I next need or fancy it. Naturally I hope for the bookshop, but even to don the bloodied apron of Mr Bones the Butcher would be preferable to another tedious, wasteful commute. When we abandon the dullard’s folly that is careerism (this col’, Idler 48) and start seeing work as a form of subsistence income, proximity might become a job’s major virtue.

The commute! Its days are numbered. But not numbered enough. Take action and get out while you can. Then, at 8am, when you peep out at the clock from your snug idler’s bed, take conscious pleasure in the fact that you’re not straphanging or lost in the drivetime.

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.

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The Dexterous Dissenter

Originally published in Idler 63.

According to my incarcerated office bod friends, there’s a hip new management system in town. It’s called Agile. Nobody likes it.

Out of morbid curiosity I did some research. Perhaps I’d get an article out of it if I could trace Agile’s origins to Russian concentration camps or something. Its origins, alas, are in software development. I don’t know why I thought it would be anything else; almost all of today’s managerial drivel comes from Silicon Valley. Didn’t you know that people in an organisation are just the same as the logic switches in a computer?

Anyway, Agile seems to be about building flexibility into working life so that employees aren’t as directly as supervised and overtly controlled as they used to be. It means that wage slaves can work to their own schedule (within certain parameters) and that they’re not duty-bound to report to a particular desk each morning as long as the job gets done. Instead, offices are equipped with “hot desks” and everyone uses sleek mobile technology instead of a Blunderbuss 5000 that takes the first fifteen minutes of a working day to boot up.

This actually sounds good to me. I’d rather not work in an office, but if I had to, I’d doubtless prefer this to punching the clock at nine on the dot or getting stiffed with a desk that faces a wall. And yet…

Agile has apparently led to a situation where workers don’t know if they have a desk to sit at when they arrive in the morning. This makes it difficult to visualise what tomorrow’s working day might look like and thus to emotionally prepare for it. It also nudges workers towards using their own mobile phones and computers instead of equipment paid for by the company. People are no longer allowed to personalise their workspaces.

The googlization of workplaces (especially offices but you also see it in farms, factories, warehouses and shops) is all a bit sinister. We should be skeptical of it. Why, after all, should Mr. The Man suddenly give us a taste of liberty? Is it because he’s obsolete and dying and this is a last-ditch attempt at retaining a workforce? Does The Man have cancer? I hope so.

The motivation for all of this is to increase productivity, to blur the lines between work and play (so that it’s no longer unreasonable for a manager to call you at night), to nudge people into using their own equipment which will save the company money, and to benefit from a captive Precariat who are willing to work remotely and on fixed-term contracts. Horrible.

But maybe, if workers play their cards right, there’s a silver lining and Agile can be used to serve the wage slave instead of The Man. Given that a big part of wanting to escape office life is to flee the shitty working environment, clunky technology, and being over-supervised by bellends, why hang on to the old days? Wouldn’t a flexible schedule and an end to desk-based imprisonment make employment more tolerable? Yes, I know, that’s the point. That’s the trap. But if we must work, isn’t an improvement in jail cell conditions desirable?

Here are my tips for wage slaves to use this latest management fad as a way to work less and not feel guilty about it. I am not a shill.

Move around. Instead of seeing desklessness as homelessness within an office, see it as a step towards the mobility you’ve always craved. No more getting stuck at the same spot in an awful corner of the office. No more sitting next to that idiot who chews with his mouth open and no more staring at that piece of leftover Christmas tinsel stuck in that corner. Moving around provides excellent opportunities for giving management the slip.

Work from home. Agile allows you to work from home, the Holy Grail of grunt work. Finally, the dream of telecommunications serving your advantage can be realised. Escape the commute! Send insulting, noncommittal email from a bubblebath! And if you can’t work at home full-time and forever, you may at least extend your weekend by working from home on Fridays or shatter your week in twain by doing so on Wednesdays.

Work at a different office. If your organisation has multiple offices, you can work at one of those instead of at the one you’ve been shackled to for so long. You’ll still be stuck beneath fluorescent lighting strips, but at least you won’t be directly accountable to anybody there, meaning that you could go for long lunches in town or browse the Internet without having to minimise the window whenever someone walks behind you. You might even be allowed to travel to this other location on the clock, meaning your commute — so long as you keep a laptop open on the train — could count towards time worked.

Abuse the flexitime. You can say you’ve worked a full day when in fact you’ve merely put in two good hours and spent the rest of the time reading Biggles stories and smoking a pipe. Agile managers are keen to point out that lying on a flexitime form is fraud! since any time declared that wasn’t actually worked is a fraudulent claim. Well, that just makes skiving all the more exciting doesn’t it? You’re no longer a furtive little slacker; you’re a white-collar criminal, just like your boss! The idea of “misrepresenting” your hours is obvious nonsense anyway, since anyone officially “working” their hours still spends swathes of time making coffee and eating caterpillar cake for the birthday of a hated colleague and standing at the toilet mirror silently mouthing the words “help me.”

Destroy the culture of physical attendance. If we could get our act together, it would be in the interests of employed idlers to campaign for shorter working hours while keeping wages the same. Agile might be an opportunity to do this without the campaign. It gives us, regardless of its motivations, the chance to illicitly stay in bed late and to spend less time in offices and to no longer have to affect a poorly voice when calling in for an unsick sickie.

It’s important to stay safe. We must remember to set clear boundaries and to fight the “always-on” culture by switching off mobile technology at 5pm and by keeping separate work and personal email accounts. But if we must stay in employment, we could play our cards right and let Agile be the skiver’s friend. Feeling guilty for abusing a generously liberal system? Don’t. Remember that it wasn’t invented to be generous — it’s a system designed to juice you for more labour, to perpetuate your oppression, and to make the bars of your cage a little less opaque. And if you still feel guilty, just remember the old days when we had to get up at six to catch the bus to a place we hated. We’re owed and if this system prevails it could be payback time.

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.

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Beside the Sea

Originally published in Idler 60.

One sunny day, I drove back from the Latitude Festival in Suffolk with Idler webmaster Neil. I can’t actually drive, of course, so Neil volunteered to do all of the steering wheel and pedals stuff. My job as I saw it was to sing at the top of my lungs all the way home to Scotland.

After an hour or so, we came upon something rather odd. It was the English Channel. We’d gone the wrong bloody way! If only we’d had a third person in the car whose job it was to read the map, we wouldn’t be in such a pickle. I still blame Neil for this oversight.

A speedy u-turn and a few verses of “show me the way to go home” later, I got to thinking about that sight: the sight of the Channel. It had risen up in front of us, majestically grey-green, a transit link to eternity. It had been accompanied by the dawning recognition of a major navigational cock-up but it had also come with a sort of ticklish, awesome excitement. The sea! The sea!

An awful city slicker, I hadn’t seen the sea in years. And now that we were zooming away from it, I was pinched by a sense of loss. How could I have forgotten about the sea? Are the city lights so exciting that I’d exclude that lovely salt water we all paddled in as children, screaming gleefully as the waves lapped in and out? Is the buzz of urban action worth sacrificing the connection with our aquatic, primordial origin? It takes a steely determination to forget the sea when you live on an island.

After this awakening, I decided to visit the coast more often — deliberately — and it has become something I do from time to time. My usual spot is Largs, near Glasgow, but I’ve been all over: Margate, Tenby, Rhyll, Eastbourne, Skegness, Blackpool, Prestatyn, Minehead, Brighton, Southsea. I have rituals on the coast. I like to build at least one sandcastle regardless of the weather. I like to pick up some litter to intercept its journey to the Pacific Trash Vortex (something that genuinely troubles me). And I like to bring back a shell.

It’s an idle idyll and one could do a lot worse than forsake the city in favour of the coast. I sometimes think of moving there for good. Here are some practical considerations when weighing up the matter of city versus coast.

It’s cheaper than living in town. A recurring theme in this column has been the importance of saving money — or at least living so cheaply that you don’t have to sell what remains of your soul to make ends meet. The less money we need, the less we have to work, and the more time we can dedicate to idling. One could sell up in London and buy half of Skegness if one were so inclined — or just buy a small place in Skegness, bank the rest of your London wealth and be happy.

You’re less likely to be hassled by busy-bodies. In the city it seems everyone wants you to be busy all of the time. It’s not just the people who are arguably invested in your activity — bosses, colleagues, partners — but neighbours and friends. It’s bizarre. If you’re not dashing around, trying to make ends meet, forehead contorted into what Bill Hicks called “furrows of worry,” you’re treated with suspicion. This is why tedious humblebrags like “busy-busy-busy!” and “phew, it’s been a monster of a week” are so commonplace. Given that everyone in Eastbourne retired years ago, they can’t very well take issue with you doing the same.

It’s safer. If your base of operations happens to be somewhere “a little bit out of it,” as Philip Larkin described his life away from the bright lights, you’re less likely to be hit by a car or clipped by a bicycle courier. You’re less likely to be hacked to pieces by a religious maniac or nuked by the tiny-handed one. The marketing slogans of seaside towns should say things like “Welcome to Rhyll. You’re off the political map. In a good way.”

Fewer encounters with status anxiety. People are probably more humble when they live in a town whose name is used so frequently as a punchline. You’re not going to be troubled by too many superflash millionaires in Tenby or Largs. It’s hard to be such an arsehole when you can taste the salt on your lips when you wake up in the morning or pass an afternoon watching a crab make its sideways way along the rocks.

A burgeoning artistic community. Someone followed me on Twitter recently. I remember it well because it’s quite rare and my computer almost exploded with delight. His avatar showed him standing outside something called the Margate Arts Club. I liked the sound of that so I Googled it and it looks fabulous. There are places like this — alternative, lovingly-organised small arts organisations — popping up all along the British coast. It is well known that the cool kids of London have been deserting pricey Shoreditch for cheap and cheerful Margate and it could be a happy thing for seaside communities. Just as British industrial towns reinvented themselves as artistic and cultural hubs — except for Birmingham, obviously — when the coal or oil or tweed or ran out, coastal towns whose tourist industry isn’t what it used to be can make a similar move.

A better class of eccentricity. In London and Edinburgh and Manchester, the sort of “eccentricity” we usually witness is in the form people who’ve finally snapped on finding that their car has been clamped. In Bognor Regis on the south coast, they have a Birdman competition, in which people leap off the end of the pier, wearing their own icarus wings and onion-fuelled rocket packs. That’s more like it. I don’t think anybody would begrudge your stringing up a hammock.

Away from the centre. Flaneurs and drifters need margins for a psychogeographically-meaningful experience (oh yes) and the coast is a margin. I’ve long been suspicious of Middle Places. Middle England, Middle America, the landlocked Middle East. These are the windowless offices of the world, cut off from the life-giving gazpacho that makes Planet Earth so appealing.

Obviously, there will always be Middle Places and I don’t mean any overt offence to the good people who live in them. All I’m saying is that they’re not fit for human life and that when the robot uprising happens, we should move to the seaside and let the robots have Coventry.

A sense of escape. The sea — even if you never venture in — is suggestive of great journeys, of distant-yet-tantalisingly-close otherness, of adventure, of life. Imagine waking each morning and throwing open the curtains, not on a garbage-strewn alley or a trainline, but onto the sea — an eternity of possibility.

The seas and oceans are Planet Earth’s USP. Don’t wait for a distracted driver to accidentally deliver you to the coast on the way back from a festival. Go on purpose! Now! Five trillion fish can’t be wrong.

🐟

I found this alternate version of the seaside column in my files. I can’t remember if it was spiked by the editor or if I decided not to submit. It’s funny though, so here it is:

Move to Bognor
Robert Wringham has a drastic plan

The raison d’etre of this column is to give you a practical, applicable-to-life escape plan as a bonus when buying the Idler. I like to think of it, if this is not too grand, as the free fizzy lolly or chew bar they tape to the front of the Beano.

Some of the escape plans so far have been potentially complex routes out of servitude, requiring new mindsets and the exercise of willpower. Today’s escape plan is rather more simple: move to Bognor. That’s right, Bognor Regis, the ever-do-slightly naff seaside town on England’s south coast. Wait! Hear me out.

Before we rush off together, let me be perfectly clear: I’ve never so much as seen a photograph of Bognor, much less been there. A quick poll among my friends reveals that I don’t even know anyone who has been there. But so colossal is the computing power of my brain, I can offer this Jeeves-like miracle solution based on a few prejudices and a handful interesting facts. If you don’t like this approach, you can take a flying leap (ideally from Bognor pier, where they used to hold a homemade flying machine contest for people willing to plunge into the Channel while wearing a pair of Icarus wings. See? Facts!)

No, the idea came to me in bed, at home, some 460 miles away from the town we’re talking about. I was flipping through a book in which I learned that Bognor council once assembled a task force with the mission to attract 500 million pounds of foreign and domestic investment with which to rescue the crumbling seaside town. Quickly finding that this was too ambitious, they pragmatically adjusted the goal to half of that amount and, later, half again. When even this proved impossible, they settled on the more realistic target of zero pounds. Even I, an unfeeling millennial blank, found this rather sad. A once-adored seaside town, reduced to nought. A finished place.

My heart cried out a little for Bognor and I idly fantasised about relocating there, heroically bringing my money, skills and general coolness to save the seaside. Maybe the Bognorians would make me their king. My next book could be written from a humongous, completely affordable house near the seafront and be about “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bognor Regis.” It could be a sort-of off-the-beaten-track biography, taking in my life in Dudley (my birthplace), Glasgow (my home today) and Bognor (my one true home and final resting place). It could be called My Three Holes.

There’s a lot to be said for living somewhere commonly thought of as a bit shit. I speak from experience. When my peers were all trickling off to London in pursuit of a career, I fled North in the hopes of avoiding that fate. I have never regretted it, even for a second. I feel very welcome here, enjoy a sense of community, live in the very nicest part of town, and have savings where others have debts. You could sell up in London — escape your horribly expensive bedsit with the mushrooms growing on the walls — and buy half of Bognor. All the litter, noise, pollution and puddles of sick you associate with town would be gone from your life. You’d no longer waste time, money and brain on commuting across a busy city. Your humble neighbours are unlikely to instill the sort of crippling status anxiety you get in the capital. Oh, and you’re unlikely to be nuked one day by the tiny-handed one.

Bognor has all of this and is totemic of the sort of place few would think to visit anymore let alone up sticks and move to, but I’d sooner live in Bognor than any other punchline burg I can think to name — Bilston, Shetland, Gravesend, Slough, Shitterton, Splott — in part because it happens to be on the sea. Remember when that used to be the finest thing imaginable? When a dip in the sea was the high point of summer? Whatever happened to the idea that sea air is restorative (which, incidentally, led to Bognor Regis’ royal-sounding name after George V spent some recuperative idle time there)? I’ve long fancied that middle England and middle America — famous culture voids — are so awful because they’re the windowless offices of the world, completely divorced from that life-giving element and the possibility of escape it brings.

Too remote or out on a limb? Maybe. But it’s close to London when you think of the ludicrous definition of the commuter belt and it’s almost certainly one of those south coast spots from which you can see the lights of Calais at night. Strange to think of, but you’d be closer to continental Europe than anyone else in Britain if you ran down to the end of that pier.

So move to Bognor. Not literally, necessarily. One could move to any smallish, perhaps coastal, edgeland in pursuit of low-cost quality of life and still be following my escape plan in the spirit intended. But, also, you could move to Bognor literally.

🦀

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.

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Bare Necessities

Originally published in Idler 58.

I’m utterly dependent on a certain popular brand of razor blade. I can’t shave satisfactorily with anything else. This troubles me because I dislike being reliant on any one thing and they also happen to be stupidly expensive. What’s more, the only reason I started using them in the first place is because the manufacturer cravenly sent a freebie when I turned 16. I’m nothing but a victim of drug dealer-style marketing.

We idlers want to be free; free to live pleasantly, creatively and with little fuss. The best way to be free, I’ve found, is to have as few dependencies as possible. You’re not really free when you have dependencies. Sometimes we freewheelers have be tough and fall back on our resourcefulness instead of indulging expensive, work-generating habits.

I suspect, alas, that being in thrall to multiple dependencies is the default state for most worker-consumers. Wage slavery itself is a kind of dependence — dependence on a pay cheque — or we wouldn’t bloody well do it; caffeine and alcohol are the standard substance dependencies for those trying to survive wage slavery without going insane; and of course mobile phones, cars, convenience food, trips to the mall and all the rest of it are learned (or remotely-cultivated) dependencies that make us work ever harder.

Best, I reckon, to wean ourselves off each and every dependency so we can be free and properly idle. This is not to say we should be Puritanical — I for one continue to drink, fornicate, swear, lie, occasionally steal, pick my nose, and frighten flocks of pigeons — but that we cultivate lives where pleasures are mindful ones and not dependencies. I suppose the defining difference is that a pleasure is indulged in occasionally and deliberately, while dependencies are constant, dictate our actions, and contribute to the “fixed costs” of living. When we can’t engage in our dependencies — can’t get coffee or look at our phones — we feel uncomfortable and removed from the moment. In my case, I have to fork out fifteen quid for razor blades each month.

Aside from the razor blade fiasco, I’m quite good at quitting things. Here are the little tricks I use for beating addictions to worker-consumer shite:

Don’t be a Muggle. Because of my little round eye-glasses, a lot of rather dim-witted people like to tell me that I look like Harry Potter. I don’t. I look like Harold Lloyd and, in the right light, Sue Perkins. I accept the charge of being magic though. Such imaginary superiority gives one the strength to do magical things; things like have the sheer arrogance to not to watch television or drink fizzy pop or drive a car. Those things are Muggle technologies and not for promising young wizards. Try it. Pretend to be magic. Just don’t hurt anyone by waving that stick about.

Identify. On what are you unnecessarily dependent? Make a little list. Or a big list. Soon we can have fun eliminating them.

Eliminate the easy ones with hard-and-fast rules. Choose a couple of the listed dependencies — easy ones — and resolve never to indulge in them again. How hard would life be without, say, chewing gum? It wouldn’t be hard at all. It would be easy. Be the person who doesn’t do that, starting now.

Replace. Bigger dependencies need replacing. Dependency upon a pay cheque needs to be replaced by some other sort of income, but it can be a smaller amount and more creatively arrived at. Dependency upon television, if we really need two hours of vegetation in the evening, might be replaced by reading aloud to a partner. Dependency upon coffee might be replaced by green tea, another comforting hot drink but cheaper and less caffeinated.

Swish. According to a friend who knows about neurolinguistic programming, there’s an exercise called “the swish” that can help eliminate a dependency. To swish: identify the negative behaviour (e.g. drinking coffee); imagine how you want to feel instead (e.g. a clear-headed, super-focused Buddha-like figure); find the trigger for the negative behaviour (e.g. the coffee flowing, strong and black from the pot to your favourite mug); swish between the two images (e.g. visualise the coffee pot image being pushed into the background while bringing the Zen-master image to the foreground). The effect is to make the alternative to the dependency appealing by bringing it to the forefront of the mind, replacing the thing we’re trying to avoid.

Cold showers. Short of self-flagellation, cold showers are perhaps the go-to image when thinking of Puritanical self-mastery, but the smashing David Hunt who films the Idler online courses strongly recommended them when I was whinging about my various allergies because, he says, a cold shower acts like a reset button for the immune system. Dave is right. I’ve been doing it for a month now and I can finally breath through my nose again. A noteworthy side effect is an astonishing boost of willpower. When you don’t need a hot shower, you don’t need anything. Roar!.

Indulge. In Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee and Cigarettes, Tom Waits enjoys a cigarette with Iggy Pop to celebrate that they no longer smoke. “The beauty of quitting,” he says, “is that now that I’ve quit, I can have one”. It’s funny and true. If you’re not dependent, you can enjoy any pleasure properly. Hence roller coasters: fun as a treat, a nightmare to live on.

The key is not to abstain from pleasures, but to be independent of them. Freedom is being able to do what we like when we see fit: not because it is habitual or a need.

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.

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Give Me the Simple Life

Originally published in Idler 57 and based on an earlier blog entry for New Escapologist.

“You’re forever escaping from things,” says a friend who reads this column, “but what are we meant escape to?

At first I thought this was a variation on the standard anti-idler “what would I do if I didn’t go to work?” rhetoric (rhetorical to anti-idlers at least; idlers have bags full of answers) but he was coming from an angle more akin to Oscar Wilde who said, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

It’s a fair point. I suppose escapes from are easier to write about since they’re fuelled by dissatisfaction and are seldom far from the conscious mind. Escapes to require a balance of forward-facing idealism and pragmatism and are, as such, less accessible to keyboard-happy fingers. But never fear. For every Escape from Alcatraz, there’s an Escape to Victory. So what are we escaping to? Why, the good life, of course. It’s entirely possible I never mentioned that.

The good life can be reached from almost anywhere. Granted, it’s probably easier if you happen to live in sun-baked Corfu instead of, say, Dudley, but the good life has little to do with geography. It’s a country of the mind and soul, accessible through the observation of some remarkably straightforward, philosophically-supported tenets. What’s more, idlers will immediately see they can be observed through the simple relaxing of ambition.

Here’s what you need:

A relatively good state of health. Stay away from the gym for crying out loud—avoid all treadmills, both literal and metaphorical—but life is better when you’re not panting, itchy and tired.

As much free time as possible. Nobody on their deathbed says “I wish I spent more time at the office”. They say “I wish I’d spent more time with nature” or “I wish I’d spend more time with my friends”. These things are only possible with free time: open, unscheduled, and ready to be filled with whatever takes your fancy.

A few dependable friendships. Not three-hundred phoney Facebook friendships but seven or ten proper ones—people you’d give £500 to if they asked for it and vice versa.

An appreciation of your existing surroundings. The most important lesson to learn from Epicurus is that pleasure can be found almost anywhere if you can find ways to appreciate the mundane. You don’t have to flee, expensively and stressfully, to foreign climes to find pleasure. Pleasure and beauty can be found in a glass of water, a smooth pebble and in your own pants.

Sensual pleasure. Is anything better than sleep, sex, easy music, simple food, a walk, the sensation of cool cotton sheets on a bed? No!

Purposeful and purposeless intellectual stimulation. The combination of a creative hobby and a library card beats the living jelly out of anything an iPhone can do.

A satisfying creative output, in which you have personal pride. Building things from scratch feels good in a way that an office job never, ever can.

A clean and dignified living space. The wise idler knows that small is beautiful if only because it’s less to keep clean and dignified. Bohemia!

A modicum of peer recognition. But not too much or they’ll stop being your friends and you’ll be elevated to a less desirable and more competitive stratum of peers.

Some good habits to be proud of. If you can trust yourself to eat a healthy breakfast each morning and work diligently between, say, 11:00 and 13:00, you can probably take the rest of the day off.

Few dependencies. If you need little, it’s easier to walk away.

A funny thing about these eleven tenets — which were not arrived at casually, by the way, I’ve been chewing this over for years; when it looks like I’m doing absolutely nothing I’m probably going over my tenets again — is that none of them is commercially available. This should make idlers very happy and chill non-idlers to the bone.

It’s also noteworthy that none of them is helped by working hard: little striving is required. In fact, conventional employment will seriously hamper health, friendship, intellectual stimulation, good habits, sensual pleasure, and free time. The labour market is not a condition for the good life. Arbeit does not macht frei.

It might be tempting to build optional extras onto this design for life, so that we feel a little richer. But it doesn’t work. Optional extras, the feature creep of life, do not contribute to the good life. They almost certainly detract from it. That’s why things that go “ping!” seem rather clever for a while but eventually leave you feeling bored and poor.

So this is what we escape to, my loves. We escape from work and consumerism to the Good Life. This is not a real-meaning-of-Christmas-style consolation prize. This is what I’ve found, so far, to be true.

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.

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Canadian Idle

Originally published in Idler 56.

I’m filing this column from Montreal in Canada. More specifically, I’m writing from a hammock slung between two trees in a public park, my feet significantly higher than my head. The sun is shining. Cicadas buzz in the leaf canopy.

At the risk of sounding like someone who struggles to find inspiration beyond the tip of his nose (though what dwells beyond said summit, I’ll admit, is of limited appeal today) I’d like to describe some of the attractive (and potentially replicable) ideas native to this island city. As a point of fact, fellow idlers, I’ve wanted to tell you about Montreal for quite a while.

It’s not that people don’t work here, but there’s a certain lackadaisical attitude towards it. Most people I know here, young and old, work cheerfully as short-order cooks, bicycle couriers or cinema projector operators. The same people also have creative practices—puppetry, screen-printing, music production—but they appear neither to dislike their day jobs nor lust for commercial success in their side projects. Montrealers do not seem to define themselves through work as we do in Britain, nor do they slavishly devote themselves to it.This makes Montreal an appealing place to live and extremely compatible with the idle life.

None of this is to suggest that you sell up and move to Montreal (though you quite possibly could) but rather to import a few ideas from this joyful little island. In the way one might improve life by adopting Scandinavian aesthetics or a Mediterranean diet, the idler could do worse than adopt a Montrealer’s lifestyle.

Small is beautiful. Modest jobs like short-order cook and the likes do not court the strong and wealthy in an attempt to bring down the big dollars. They serve one’s peers. In fact, Montreal’s is very much a peer-oriented economy and it seems to work rather well. At no point do you feel alienated and mystified by the world of business. “Growth” might not be a dirty word but it feels like a waste of time. Better to work a little to keep things ticking over in a human-sized scale and then retire to a hammock like mine, eat exquisite food on a terrasse, or practice some yoga on the mountain.

Roll with the seasons. The spring, summer and autumn are glorious but the Canadian winter is truly punishing. Contrary to Britain’s uniform grey, one has to roll with the seasons in Montreal. Spring and autumn are for production, summer is for joyful lounging, while winter is for lockdown. This all helps to maintain an appreciation for both indoor and outdoor pursuits, a connection to nature, and a neighbourly synchronicity with the rest of the community.

Keep it cheap. It requires little economic privilege to live here. Montreal is not a retreat for the wealthy or a popular holiday destination. Life here is generally quite threadbare but in a lovely, peaceful, freedom-loving way. Once the lust for money and the grasping attitude exhibited elsewhere in the west is removed from life, one’s general inclination falls toward making your own entertainment with cookery, walks in the park, and house parties.

Reject extremes. In Britain, too many people live by the “work hard, play hard” mantra out of the curious misconception that this will result in “getting more” (and indeed that “getting more” rather than, say, “enough,” is especially desirable). In Montreal, you’re more likely to work and play in a leisurely, kind-hearted fashion. Few will drink to the point of vomiting or work to the point of burnout. It’s about maintaining a background level of gentle hedonism instead of desperately scavenging for rare moments of intense and ultimately regretful decadence.

Love the body. Instead of fighting your natural, gentle manner in a punishing and unnatural gym as so many do in Britain, a Montrealer is more likely to cycle, swim, walk, practice yoga, make love, and eat well. Don’t treat your body as if you were some savage manager and it your undisciplined underling. I’ve often felt that Montrealers aren’t Cartesian mind/body dualists at all, not seeing themselves as ghosts in machines as we tend to, but completely at one with the body.

Keep it open. A liberal, permissive society is not about dangerous debauchery, nor is it about political correctness. Great things happen when you eat well, read widely, smoke gentle pot instead of vulgar tobacco, make love, and welcome all comers. Montreal’s liberal attitude probably has something to do with its historically being a port town, regularly encountering influxes of transient otherness.

Educate the pallet. The harsh winters lead to a pleasing tendency to Epicureanism. When you can’t or don’t want to leave the house for a few days, one falls back on simple pleasures. Six foot of snow may be the cultural source of this, buy not an essential prerequisite. We can do the same.

Yawn in the face of big ideas. The barefoot Montrealer would laugh at the loadsamoney Torontonian if only she noticed his existence.

Ignore the class barrier. North Americans don’t have class in the same way as Brits but Montrealers don’t even seem to have the libertarian class system of the rest of North America. This is to their credit and contributes to the greater glory of life: easy pleasures are diverse and myriad when you’re not concerned about something’s being chavvy, bourgeois or too posh.

Various local phenomena—extreme seasons, cultural diversity, cheap hydroelectric energy, the disruptive influence of the French language—contribute to this way of life, but I believe the lifestyle can be exported by individuals, especially where those individuals are idlers. You see, Montreal’s glorious attitude to life is directly connected to the near-total absence of the Protestant Work Ethic. The city was founded by Portuguese and Italian Catholics, Jewish people, and the French. Today it is populated by the same groups as well as First Nations families, Cirque du Soleil performers, Hell’s Angels, elitist hipsters, trustafarian transients, Leonard Cohen mourners, bookish Anarchists, and penniless poets. Puritanism simply doesn’t—and never did—get a look in. Travail? Je ne pense pas.

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.

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How to Get Minimal

Originally published in Idler 55 and derived from an earlier piece co-written with my friend Tim for New Escapologist Issue Three.

An awful lot has been written about minimalism. The irony of this is lost on nobody, least of all the people actually writing about it. In a perfect world, this vast body of self-improvement literature would be eliminated. As it stands, however, we have a world in which work and consumerism are valued above almost anything else. If you want to go against this status quo, to live a free-wheeling, leisurely life without work, minimalism is key. It remains a powerful and accessible way to live, hence the need to reiterate it, to keep it on the agenda.

Minimalism’s joy can be summed up thusly: The less you own and consume, the less you’ll have to work in order to pay for it all. Moreover, with less physical stuff in your life, you won’t have much to do in the way of storing, dusting, repairing, moving, hiding and ultimately disposing. As a result, minimalists experience less stress, less debt, less obligation. Suddenly, there’s ample room (and mental bandwidth) for creativity, love, health, spontaneity, and for doing pleasurable things. Idlers will be pleased to hear that minimalism doesn’t ask you to do very much: in fact it requires you to do less. The arts of minimalism and reclining on a chaise are next of kin.

With this in mind, I’d be pleased to share some time-honoured tips and directions for living with less.

Learn of the disease. Know that stuff accumulates of its own accord. No effort is required on your part for drawers, shelves and cupboards to fill with junk. Recognising this tendency, and the vigilance consequently required to counterbalance it, is the first step to minimal living.

Have frequent mini-clearouts. There’s much to be said for the drama and progress of a major decluttering session, but the technique I find most effective (and idler-compatible) is to seize upon a single drawer or cupboard when the fancy takes me. I call this a “minimalist cleansing ritual” and I tend to do it when I’m feeling lethargic or rudderless, or in some way out-of-control. It feels good and helps you to advance your utopian territory demonstrably and bit-by-bit.

Be organized. The better organized you are, the less stuff you’ll need. If you don’t misplace your can-opener or your screw-driver, you won’t need a spare. Likewise, the less stuff you have, the easier it will be to keep yourself organized. The traditional maxim “A place for everything and everything in its place” is easier to heed when you have more places than things.

Be bold. It’s unusual to regret getting rid of something, so you can afford to be bold. On selling, disposing, or giving something away, you’ll quickly forget you ever had it. In rare cases of regret, you can almost always re-buy the item on eBay if you simply must. “It is lumber, man — all lumber!” says Jerome K. Jerome in idler’s favourite Three Men in a Boat, “Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars.”

One in, one out. Fancy a new shirt? Marvellous. Get yourself down to Mr. Pink’s. But when you put the new shirt in your wardrobe, find your least favourite existing shirt and bin it. Better still, bin two. In this way the average quality of the things you do own will go up and your clutter burden will go down.

Encourage consumable gifts. For better or worse, gift-giving is part of the fabric of human life. Presents are laced with social obligation and, as such, can be difficult to jettison. The minimalist will counter this by broadcasting broad hints as to the sorts of presents that will go down well: booze, food, books, socks, toiletries and stationery are all orthodox gifts that can be used or, at the very least, disposed of without offending. Of course, you must reciprocate by giving consumable presents to others.

Treat shops like museums. Thanks to the acquisitive tendency of Western culture, when we see something appealing we all too often want to own it, to possess it. It is important that we squash this desire. In particular, if you see some trinket in a shop that takes your fancy, regard it as you would a museum artifact: appreciate it and move on.

Use a library. Almost every book written in the course of human history is available to you, for free, so long as you’re willing to cease thinking in terms of ownership. You can use the library mentality elsewhere in life too: instead of thinking of something as your own permanent property, try and see it as being on loan from the World Library of All Objects. Sooner or later, you’ll have to give it back.

Reduce storage space. The purpose of decluttering is not to make way for fresh clutter. Once you have freed space, keep it as space. However, stuff tends to fill the storage space made available to it. Therefore, try to eliminate storage space as soon as you have freed it. For example, once you have cleared a bookcase of science fiction paperbacks, consider Freecycling the bookcase or using it for firewood. This will deter you from accumulating more paperbacks.

Seek experiences rather than things. Life experiences take up no space and will not weigh you down. Strive to do and to be, not to own. Do you own your possessions or do they own you?

I sometimes think minimalism might be the most important skill for an idler to master. Cottage industry, the ability to laugh at voices of authority, the joys of simple pleasures: all are easier—and in many cases made possible for the first time—without the costly burden of so much stuff. Minimalism: can’t get enough of it.

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.

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Kerb Your Enthusiasm

Originally published in Idler 54.

Owning a car is just about the stupidest thing you can do. Driving may be lazier than walking but it certainly isn’t idler.

Cars, it won’t be news to you, are extremely expensive. A useful website called whatprice.co.uk calculates the typical running cost of a Renault Clio as £208 per month. This excludes the cost of buying it (£11,215 or £234 per month over four years) so the total monthly cost is £442, less any parking or speeding penalties. For comparison, my frugal Bohemian life costs £476 per month, which includes rent, energy, food, broadband, and beer.

But enough vulgar money talk. As well as the hours of wage slavery required to pay for it, think of the tedious effort of car ownership. Before you can even use a car, there are the humiliating driving lessons, anxiety-producing tests, and expeditions to boring car dealerships. When you finally get the car, you’re pumping fuel, inflating tires, changing oil, feeding meters, getting tickets, driving around town centres in search of a space, and trying to decide whether you should worry more about “the rattly noise” or “the clanky noise.” Worse, your Sunday mornings are spent washing the damn thing when you could be taking a leisurely breakfast or playing the trumpet in the bath. It’s the reason so many poor souls will never get around to blowing their first smoke ring or trying kedgeree.

But how to get around? Walk, silly. A single walk may take longer than a drive, but walking as a policy will save a lot of time overall. A perpetual pedestrian, you’ll never catch me in a place called “Jiffy Lube” or waiting in line to buy something called a flange compactor. Admittedly, you might find me in a place with a name like Jiffy Lube and buying something with a name like flange compactor, but that’s my own business.

When walking, you see things you wouldn’t see from a car. You notice masonry and statues at the tops of buildings, leaving you with questions like “Why is there a statue of Aristotle in Wolverhampton?”. You see clouds forming and reforming in the sky. You see people putting on gloves to pick up their dog’s poo, and suddenly your problems don’t look so bad. Walking in Montreal, I once saw a hawk plummet from above, seize a starling in its talons and fly off again into the night. Nobody saw it but me. If that doesn’t impress you, in London, I saw Scroobius Pip eating a Twix.

Walking and idling are bound together. It’s the only mode of transit for the gentleperson of leisure, the congenitally unhurried, the flaneur who takes things at her own pace. It keeps you sane: Solvitur Ambulando is Latin for “it is solved by walking.” Probably.

Walking is a way to take exercise without it being a big event. I never suffer the spandex indignity of the gym. On a regular Friday walk, I happen to pass a gym window through which I see people on treadmills, sweating hard but going nowhere. I feel like a wild bird must feel when spotting a canary in a cage, perched on his trapeze like a little yellow dolt.

The only downside to an urban stroll is exposure to the noise and emissions caused by cars. Even in parks, the roar of the traffic can still be heard and exhaust fumes felt in the lungs. Drivers tear up the environment for their own personal convenience. Everyone complains about carbon emissions from airplanes, but they only contribute 18% compared to the 40% from cars. Airplanes don’t tend to run over people’s dogs, cats and kids either.

Have you ever tried to have sex in a car? It’s supposed to be exciting or something, but it makes me think of that Harlan Ellison story where the characters are trapped in the unnatural stomach of a robot. The upholstery has a distracting “1982” smell and there’s the fear that you might fall backwards and be impaled on a gear stick.

Why be responsible for another violent heap of metal on the streets when you can disappear into the urban jungle on foot? Why contribute to congestion problems or pollute the already acrid air? Why be responsible for consuming our rapidly diminishing oil supplies so America has to go to war again?

I’ve never needed a car. I struggle to envision a case where I might. When shifting furniture, I’ve hired a man-with-a-van for £15 an hour, a very minor cost and incredibly convenient. Cars, like sandwich toasters, electric toothbrushes, and mobile phones (see this column in Idler 49) are a complicated marketable commodity, detrimentally pushing out simpler pleasures; another purchasable replacement for personality.

Final word against cars? Try “Clarkson.” Wit of a carburetor. Escape the imprisoning bubble of the car, idle pleasure-seeker. Walk and be free.

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.

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Joys of the Three-Day Week

Originally published in Idler 53.

The most effective escape routes from the world of work usually involve a halfway house, some form of airlock between wage slavery and idle bliss. The most obvious and accessible of these is part-time employment.

By cutting down to a three-day week, you immediately escape two days of graft, winning 104 days of freedom per year. As well as 15-20 hours reclaimed from actual toil each week, you’ll also ditch three hours of tedious commuting, three hours of bleary-eyed morning preparation for work, three hours of crap lunches, and ten hours wasted in the post-work recovery position. That’s an awful lot of time to take back from The Man in a single, perfectly conventional maneuver.

You can use your newfound free time to concoct a more ambitious escape plan to dispense with the remaining three days by way of cottage industry or similar, but even if you choose to fritter it all on idle pleasures like reading library books or wallowing in a warm bath, you’ll still be better off than the full-time wage slave. Part-time work can be a stepping stone on the road to total liberty or a satisfactory result in its own right.

Meanwhile, the experience of work itself feels less oppressive when it’s for so little time. The novelty of being in an office after four days of birdwatching and blowing smoke rings makes the first day pass swiftly. The second morning’s a little steeper to climb but it’s hump day and by the time lunch rolls around you’ve broken the work week’s back. The third day is your last, and, psychologically, an effortless roll down the hill.

If this all sounds appealing, here’s how to move from full-time to part-time employment:

Cut your living expenses. You’ll need to balance your new working hours with your consumption levels. You no doubt understand the basic economics of work and consumption already: whatever you consume must be paid for directly in toil or fall into debt, which is best avoided. Cutting your work hours means cutting consumption in proportion to the decrease. Embrace minimalism, Epicureanism and frugality—none of which should pose much of a challenge to the idler, who knows from experience that true pleasure costs little or nothing. Move to a smaller house or a cheaper neighbourhood to facilitate this if necessary. If moving seems like too much upheaval, remember that the alternative is another thirty years or so of full-time toil.

Look out for part-time jobs. Set up some email alerts with the usual roster of job search websites for part-time work within plausible commuting distance of your home. Review these weekly, throwing out the majority, which will be too menial or for which you’re not qualified. A tolerable one will show up eventually, and you can apply for it. If you’re offered the job, either accept it or use it to assist your negotiations in reducing your working hours with your current employer.

Convince your boss to reduce your hours. The best way to land part-time employment is not to move to another job but to reduce the hours in your existing one. Better the devil you know, especially when you can know him pro-rata. Unfortunately it can be tricky to arrange these circumstances because you’ll need the blessing of your boss and to get this you must sell her on the benefits of part-time work. To a boss, it can feel like a pain in the backside to not have a team member accessible all week long. There is, however, a case for part-time work and you can present it to your boss.

First, it will help to cite a good reason for wanting to reduce your hours, as “I hate this job and want to be free” will smack of insult or ingratitude. Say you need the hours for childcare (if applicable: lying about a child you don’t have is probably unsustainable) or to run a burgeoning home business (ideally one that will enhance the skills you bring to your boss’s company) or that you’ve done some sums and found that it’s more economically viable to work three days than five because you can minimise commuting expenses and/or limbo beneath a costly tax bracket. A compelling phrase is “I can’t afford not to” because it implies there’s an economic necessity floating about somewhere, external to your ideals.

Second, say that your change in working practice will save the company money and, being a team player, you find this desirable. Acknowledge that it will be a challenge to do your job in 15 or 25 hours instead of 35 or 40, but that you’re an increasingly efficient worker and you believe it to be possible. In reality, of course, your full-time job could be done part-time, with ease, by a monkey, but it’s probably best not to mention this.

Third, agree to be flexible: say you’ll work additional (paid) hours if there’s a sudden crisis requiring all hands on deck, and will attend (again, for pay) any important meetings or events that fall outside the new hours you’re proposing. Offer that in the early days of this new arrangement you’ll work extra time to pick up any undone tasks (don’t worry – it won’t happen. Just spend less time on Facebook).

If your organisation professes to practice “agile working,” familiarise yourself with the policy and get them to put their money where their mouth is. If they’re willing to benefit from pesky hot-desk arrangements and from the cool factor associated with agile working, they may be obliged to consider part-time work proposals. Agile working also opens up the possibility of job shares (two people sharing a full-time job), home-based work days, and condensed hours (working longer shifts over fewer days): all of which can be mashed into something like part-time work if required.

If further argument were needed, part-time work happens to be quite fashionable: it’s on the rise in almost every economically-developed country (with the notable exception of the United States).

Lin Yutang who writes in favour of “the half-and-half lifestyle,” says we should look for balance “between action and inaction, between being led by the nose into a world of futile busyness and complete flight from a life of responsibilities.” Perhaps we wouldn’t want to escape work so badly if it only took 15 or 20 hours of our week. Maybe it would even become a pleasure.

Part-time work. It’s not half bad.

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.

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Escape Advertising

Originally published in Idler 52.

I sometimes wonder about the person who decided to start flogging fizzy drinks and West End musicals through wall-mounted plasma screens instead of old-fashioned posters. The first time I saw the screens running along the escalators of the London Underground I thought “cool, just like in Bladerunner,” forgetting momentarily that the world of Bladerunner is a dystopia: a compromised and dytopic future to be prevented, not emulated.

At best, advertising is a nuisance visual pollution, stinking up our sightlines and distracting us from what we were doing or thinking about before it lumbered into view. At worst, it’s a nefarious attempt to modify our thoughts to in favour of someone else’s wallet. If an advert’s spell actually works, we part with money, committing ourselves to more wage slavery. When it doesn’t, it’s still contaminated our mental space with inane brand names, bad grammar, barked commandments, airbrushed humanoids, aesthetically tonedeaf CGI mascotry, and arse-handed attempts at humour.

The jury’s still out on whether advertising even works, many big companies having advertising budgets simply to avoid tax. Economics writer Joseph Heath says we could reduce advertising and divert huge channels of wealth to the public purse by campaigning to prevent advertising costs from being tax deductible. But until that happens, there are ways to largely if not entirely escape advertising.

Install AdBlockPlus on your Web browser. It’s a free application that banishes unsolicited guff from your Internet experience. Gone is the marginal clickbait of Google, social media and YouTube. Gone are the ugly banners and sudden, noisy pop-ups. If you’re concerned that favourite sites will die without advertising revenue, change the settings to allow ads on certain websites or keep them blocked but upgrade to the ad-free service at said websites to support them directly.

Don’t read newspapers or trashy magazines. The Idler is hardly trashy and its advertising is generally compatible with the idle life. Aspirational mags like Sunday supplements, however, are best avoided along with gossipy tabloids, women’s weeklies, men’s monthlies and printed newspapers crammed with barely-literate attempts on your wallet. Read your ad-free online news sources instead or, simply, stop reading the news since it makes you anxious anyway. There are also splendid magazines with no advertising whatever, such as Slightly Foxed, Adbusters, and (yes) New Escapologist. Viz has adverts, but it’s hard to get cross about slogans like “Special Brew: it’s central heating for tramps.”

Never listen to commercial radio. From anywhere in the world, you can listen to BBC radio, which is completely free free from advertising and is of an exceptionally high quality. It’s a wonder anyone ever listens to anything else. Classic FM is a special enigma: relaxing classical music incessantly interrupted by inane adverts for double glazing, completely negating the reason you tuned in—as if there were no alternative.

Read library books on public transport. It’ll stop you from glancing up at the witless posters above people’s heads, improve your grasp of the world’s literature, and, in being seen reading, helps spread the word that books and libraries still exist. If companies can advertise fizzy pop, idlers can advertise the thrifty good life.

Opt out of third-party emails. When a company you can’t help but do business with—the electricity company perhaps, or a purveyor of fine teas or cigars—asks if they can give your details to parties whose products may interest you, your answer must be firmly in the negative. Unsubscribe from any naughty email circulars that sneak through your highly-guarded perimeter.

Stop watching television. There’s generally ten minutes of advertising to thirty minutes of entertainment on TV. In my telly-watching days, a commercial break could sometimes seem so long, I’d forget what I’d been watching in the first place.

Arrive at the cinema on time, not early. Trailers before the film might be fun and informative, but arrive too early and we have to hear about cars and pizza restaurants. On the subject of film, we must learn to recognise movies that are essentially adverts. You can recognise this sort of film if it’s promoted on the side of a bus, is a reboot, prioritises title recognition over new ideas, features Benedict Cumberbatch or involves increasingly-obscure superheroes punching holes through buildings.

Don’t respond to advertising. To strike a blow against advertising you see accidentally, try not to dwell on it and never discuss it. Don’t ask people if they’ve seen the funny advert with the chimpanzee: you’ll extend its reach and influence without commission and sound like a witless, lowbrow twerp. Instead, treat it like the unfortunate glimpse of a dog’s bulbous testicles or a cat’s pinkish asterisk and discretely erase it from your mind.

Be an outsider. When walking in the urban environment, treat any advertising encountered as an anthropological oddity: as a flaneur you’re in the city but not of it, and so the only way to relate to advertising is as an artifact.

Adopt a leisurely pace of life. We can escape advertising by staying true to the idle life. Very little advertising is digested when absorbed in a game of chess, when playing lawn bowls, meditating, experimenting with LSD, being creative, reading books, studying nature or strolling alongside a river.

The fact that sci-fi films like Bladerunner so often depict futures diluted with invasive advertising should be a warning. We don’t want a world in which we’re endlessly cajoled into buying unnecessary things. Let’s stop that from happening, fortify ourselves to advertising’s siren song, embrace the time-honoured idle pleasures, and be free.

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.

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Phoney Baloney: Escape the Cell

Originally published in Idler 51.

It’s sad how much has been sacrificed to convenience. Strivers shun idlers for our apparent laziness, but it’s they who shamelessly sing the praises of any undignified gizmo promising to make life easier.

What of the pleasure of doing things long-hand? What of time-honoured, analogue ways? What of the contemplative scenic route? If a technology is sold as liberating, it’s likely to be anything but. Guaranteed, it’ll seduce you into replacing something durable, social and stylish with something ephemeral, isolating and naff. Perhaps most emblematic of this problem is the mobile phone.

It’s beginning to seem unthinkable that a person might live in the modern world without a mobile, but (predictably) I believe it’s both possible and desirable to escape the tyranny of the network. If Houdini could escape a jail cell, we can escape a cell phone. But why, you ask? Hear me out before you have me arrested.

When you escape your mobile phone, you also escape your bosses. With no direct line from their office to your eardrum, they can no longer startle you into action when you’re lounging on the sofa or sitting on the bog. Without a mobile, you’ll never be caught.

Dependencies detract from your freedom. If you need a thing, you’re under it’s spell and therefore not free. This is much talked about when it comes to drugs and alcohol, but not often when it comes to technological or commercial dependencies. Sever all ties, my friend, and fly free.

No mobile means one less information channel. The best way to eliminate stress is to limit the number of channels through which you receive information. Be like the 300 Spartans: force your pursuers through a single gap and dispense with them at leisure.

To escape the mobile is to reject the myth of meritocracy. A mobile phone is an all-too conventional symbol of “success”. This sort of success—the kind evocative of hard work and hard consumption—is to be sneered at. Angry Birds is not the only game you should refuse to play.

To escape the mobile is to escape with dignity. Mobile phones were undignified when they involved a lazy thumbing of little Nokia buttons. Now they’ve got you aggressively jabbing at a screen like a moron.

To refuse the mobile builds muscles of resistance. “Anything popular is wrong,” said Oscar Wilde and I agree. You don’t have to do what you’re told. Finding your own solutions instead of defaulting to the standard one is always more creative and rewarding.

A mobile phone spoils the line of a suit. I finds my outfit looks better with one less lump in it.

Financial cost. In the second edition of this column (Idler 49) I encouraged you to cut yourself loose from commercial commitments wherever possible. This is a good idea because the less your life costs, the less work you must do in order to pay for it. If you can get your fixed monthly costs down to £500, part-time work and cottage industry suddenly become more feasible.

Social cost. There was a time when people stuck to their social plans instead of tentatively scheduling them and cancelling by SMS at the last minute.

Divest from unethical toil. Mobile phones are the product of big firms in which workers toil in near-slavery. It’s best not to give those companies your money if you believe in the idle life for everyone.

It’s entertaining to tell someone you don’t have a mobile phone. They’ll be either be curious or appalled. The way people respond to your eccentricity will help you decide if it’s worth talking to them for long.

Someone has to stay in control. What if it turns out that mobiles are cooking our brains or making us stupid? Wouldn’t it be a good idea for some of us to stay disconnected just in case?

Put distance between yourself and the alarm clock. Chances are, your phone is also the cursed, goddam thing that arrests you from sweet slumber in the morning. Why carry such a hated object around all day, so close to your heart?

Four things depress you: work, consumerism, bureaucracy and fear. A mobile phone contributes to all four.

There are some possible objections. The usual one is that you might need your phone in an emergency, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever be in an emergency: living in fear is for chumps, especially when the cost is so high. Apps? There was no such thing a few years ago and the old systems are all still there. Social ostracism when people can’t reach you? You have three things to help you here: landline, email, and personality. You’ll never hear the last of people.

If you’re on the fence about this because you can relate to the points above but you also like to play Pokemon Go, ask yourself: are you ever happy–truly happy–to hear the damn thing ring?

Escape the eye in the sky! Escape the dull gamification of quiet moments! Escape dependence on a little jabby screen! Take of your shackles and be free!

🐌

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.

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Run Away Together

Originally published in Idler 50.

There are many great things about living with someone you love. You get to see daily a person you’re fond of, you learn exciting new things about them, and it’s easier to warm a bed together than apart. There are also fine efficiency gains to be found when pooling resources: expenses divided, record collections merged.

Somehow though, the advantage of resource pooling is not commonly seized upon. Today, when a couple get married or decide to cohabit, it’s become conventional for them to acquire a bigger house together and to fill it up as quickly as possible with more than twice the stuff they owned separately as bachelors. The logic, presumably, is that because there are now two bodies in the home and double the income, it’s desirable to scale everything up. If this seems reasonable it’s because our culture of conspicuous consumption and devotion to work demands that we remain vigilant in looking for opportunities to spend, devour, and dispose of more.

This is a boneheaded interpretation of what it means to pool resources. Not only does entering the rat race together in this way put enormous pressure on a romantic relationship, it causes both parties to miss an easy opportunity of a life of leisure.

Few people see it this way, but sharing a home is a terrific escape route from the drudgery of work. Instead of using a partnership to maximise debt and consumption, why not escape together? We can do this by sharing duties instead of liabilities.

One wage slave, one free person. There are many ways a couple can ensure liberty for each other. Suppose, in the first instance, one partner continues to work in their existing full-time job and uses this money to pay the monthlies on a modest home, just as they did before cohabiting. With everything covered, could the other partner not go free? What finer gift to bestow upon the apple of one’s eye: total freedom from servitude. Go free, my love and write that novel, keep our new home smelling fresh, but of all things, loaf.

The system of a working partner and a stay-at-home partner has the whiff of a 1950s household about it, but there’s no reason a division of labour should occur at the fault line of gender. Indeed, a married couple of this century could be of the same gender. I suggest we leave the gender roles in the dustbin of history but think seriously about one partner shouldering the work burden so the other can go free. If we all did this, half of all wage slaves would be freed overnight.

Two part-timers. We can fine-tune this old system further. There’s a second way, and that’s for a couple to share the burden of work by both working part-time. If the couple were both to go out toiling for perhaps 17 weekly hours each, the combined efforts will be equivalent to one breadwinner and one freeman.

If it seems inevitable that the free partner will end up responsible for any domestic labour in the household, this “two part-timers” modality would mean both partners doing both types of work, equally responsible and equally benefitting. This is perhaps the fairest, most egalitarian and most agreeable way of keeping a modest household solvent until total escape from employment can be arranged.

One wage slave, one escape planner. Or: Two part-timers, two escape-planners. If you’re keen on total escape from servitude and see that neither system above will cater for this, you should use one of them in the first instance anyway, to reduce the amount of work required en-route to banishing it. While one partner works full-time, the free partner after a period of delicious indolence might point their finally-fertile, Jeeves-like mind toward the problem of freeing the other. The free partner, when ready, can concoct the cottage industry or the investment plan or the automated business required for total liberty. Otherwise, if you’re using the two part-timers scheme, the concocting of an escape plan can be shared and a scheme entered into hand-in-hand.

Two full-timers, two investors. A final option might be to both work full-time while living modestly, squirreling away the money in a joint investment and retiring phenomenally early. Very appealing, though the idler can be forgiven for wanting liberty, even half-liberty, a little sooner.

Whichever way it’s done, it can be seen that a couple might form an Escapologist tag-team and break free of the work trap together. Even Houdini couldn’t have done it without Bess, his partner and confidant. A “couple” need not even be romantically involved at all: two platonic flatmates could use any of the aforementioned arrangements if they were comfortable with it. After all, symbiotic relationships take place in nature all the time.

If you take nothing else from this or are committed to eternal singledom, it’s still useful to think of a home as a miniature economy with the necessary wealth coming in and ideas flowing out, a fruitful and non-competitive enterprise run with an eye to liberty.

🐌

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.

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Consume less, work less

Originally published in Idler 49.

To escape work, we must escape consumerism. They are two sides of the same coin. “Consume less, toil less,” is the mantra of the successful escapee. Idlers will see the logic immediately: if we cease in our lust for daft commercial products, we’ll no longer need work to pay for them.

A full-time, high-stress job isn’t required to meet basic consumer needs. If all we wanted was food, rent and heating we’d not have to work very much, perhaps getting along on two or three days per week.

In 1930, Bohemian economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a 15-hour week would be in place by 2030. “How silly!” today’s pundits say. But Keynes was “wrong” only in that he hadn’t foreseen the insatiability we’d develop. If we lived more like our grandparents did, without smartphones and coffee pod machines and other debt-generating gewgaws, the 15-hour week might be here by now. We could finally get back to the inexpensive things we really want to do, like reading, strolling, creating, dancing, making love and playing tiddlywinks.

We should stop chuckling smugly about Keynes being wrong and start living more modestly and in line with his prophecy. The essay in which he made this prediction was called Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. Let’s adopt Keynes as our honorary grandad, and consume less to work less.

“Consume less” need not be a tyrannical rule. If you want to, say, smoke, because smoking gives you pleasure, then you should go ahead and smoke. But know of the toil required to pay for the activity. At least then it’ll be a deliberate decision–a wholehearted commitment to pleasure–instead of an unthinking act of inertia. There are many well-known and celebrated ways to consume less.

Thrift. Where consumerism encourages buying solutions to solve problems, thrift suggests we be resourceful and imaginative. We can “make do and mend,” build, brew, cook, stitch or improvise our own things. Instead of condemning a half-finished item to landfill, let us apply a little patchwork and make a threadbare product into a trusted friend. Instead of trying to keep up with fashion, let’s learn to be stylish and timeless.

Minimalism. Where thrift is a matter of “waste not, want not,” minimalism goes further and says “want not, want not”. Learn to love empty space, quietness and a lack of clutter, and we’ll find ourselves wanting very little. It’s not a matter of resisting temptation to the siren song of consumerism as cultivating a haughty disdain for it.

Epicureanism. If we can find a fondness, philosopher Epicurus said, for something so simple as water or a sunset or the observation of garden insects, we’ll no longer be seduced by the promise of bigger, faster, louder, more violent offered by consumerism. Instead of shopping for leisure, we can look the other way and find myriad delights.

Appreciation. Psychologist Daniel Haybron says there are consumers in the world and appreciators. Consumers are the type to turn up at a lakeside retreat, blast around ostentatiously in a speedboat and spend the rest of the weekend complaining that there’s nothing to do. This mindset is encouraged by consumerism, making us constantly hungry for what comes next. Appreciation meanwhile is the skill to know when your surroundings are interesting and plenty.

Bohemia. Perhaps the ultimate in turning one’s back on consumerism, the Bohemians (such as Keynes’ own Bloomsbury Group) developed a distaste for the obvious and the mainstream and found pleasure in arts, crafts, parties and love. A Bohemian would rather live a threadbare existence doing what she loves than submit to financially-rewarding but soul-destroying toil: an outlook meaning, of course, turning one’s back on consumerism and finding rewards elsewhere.

When you start to see work and consumption as two side of the same coin, you begin to see what a scam the consumer society actually is. Here’s a terrible secret to help bring this home. To economists, work and consumption are the same thing. A country’s GDP can be calculated by adding up total production or total consumption. Both totals are the same. This is because one person’s work is another’s consumption and vice-versa. This will be mind-blowing information if you’re among the millions who work full-time in a hated job while trying to reclaim dignity on the weekend by going shopping.

If you’re amused by this because you’re part of the punk counterculture and not a shopaholic, you might want to keep in mind that the same law of economics means you can’t smash capitalism simply by not shopping. You must also reduce the amount of work you do, work and consumption being the same process, looked at from different directions. The idler-escapee is uniquely qualified to strike a direct blow to capitalism.

If we want to escape the daily grind and punch capitalism in the face as a pleasing consequence, let us go back to basics. Let’s make our outgoings wholly predictable and quit the full-time job once and for all.

🐌

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.

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Ill Communication

Originally published in Idler 66.

The occasional bout of illness can be a friend to the idle because it means we can stay in bed all day, responsibilities waived, surfing colourful cough-syrup dreams.

Fun though this can be, I’m forced to admit that there’s no substitute for good health. Not sort of health that comes from being a carb-dodging, 10k-running übermensch, I hasten to add, but at least the sort of healthfulness that means you can walk to the library without collapsing into a rubbery, wheezing heap. It’s also nice to go about your days without a Vicks Vapo-Stick hanging out of your nose. Besides, the proud idler needs no excuse to spend a day in bed. It is our god-given right and perhaps even a duty. I’m doing it right now, as it happens. And I’m wearing a fez.

It occurs to me that I haven’t been ill for ages, touch wood. The only explanation I can think of for this period of fine health is that I no longer go to work. Quit your job, fellow idlers, on health grounds. A job is like a gym class: a waste of effort, escaped with a note.

If the tyranny of what they call “practicality” means you’re unable to quit your job, perhaps you can still enjoy the health benefits enjoyed by quitters without actually requesting a P45. After all, you can benefit from the Mediterranean diet without moving to Florence. So let’s do it. Here’s my basic health programme for idlers, even those who have been cattle-prodded into work.

Take lunch. Taking an actual, proper lunch break affords you some privacy, a change of pace, a stretch, vital nutrition, and an hour away from the fluorescent lights, flickering screens and hot-desk bickering. Lunch is in decline, of course, today’s workers either too slavish or too frightened to take the full hour, even to leave the building and risk being late back to the desk. Idlers must reverse this trend. No more sad al desko sandwiches while gawping at social media (or, worse, continuing to work). Instead, go out for a stroll, eat good food, take the air, and reconnect with nature in small way by taking time to observe the antics of birds and ants. Short of feeding your head into a threshing machine, wilfully opting out of your enshrined-in-law daily lunch break is about the worst thing you can do for your health.

Walk to work. The sedentary nature of office work is perhaps the clearest way that it affects your health. Office managers are beginning to wake up to this and now offer “varidesks” (desks that can be adjusted to standing height) and “walking meetings” that serve to make everyone feel silly and unable to take notes. It’s too little too late and merely admits to the fact that office life is killing us. Workers need to seize opportunities to move, and a good way to do this is by walking to and from work. It’s a good way to escape the tedious Hell of a conventional commute (see this column in Idler 65) too. Walking to work can’t really count as flaneurism because the pre-planned destination deprives you of the dérive, but it’s the next best thing when you’re a time-starved drudge. It reconnects you with the streets and provides basic stretching of the leggies.

Say no to instant coffee. I’ve often felt that making coffee so readily available to a workforce resembles something from Aldous Huxley or a dystopian science fiction film. You can imagine a machine that vends little green hockey pucks of “phood,” which contain a productivity-enhancing drug and is welcomed by the workers as a cost-free perk despite it’s being an obvious measure to keep you down and toiling. Same thing, innit? There’s no way so much instant coffee can be good for you. Anything that purports to metamorphose into a consumable beverage from the state of industrial powder is almost certainly going to give you cancer. How can it not? It’s as far from nature as a CGI anvil.

Say no to office snacks. When I worked in an office, there were sugary snacks at every corner, which felt like compensation at the time but ultimately contributed to my depression and my pot belly. People would bring them in: souvenirs from Wage Slaves’ holidays, radially-sliced chocolate birthday cake, tubs of M&S rocky road, cookies and cupcakes from charitable bake sales. My theory is that workers bring snacks in such abundance as an inarticulate offer of friendship. Professionalism prevents you from saying “I love you,” which is also bad for your health.

Wear a micro-filter mask. When you pack a hundred white-collar workers, each from a different neighbourhood and each with their own families (who in turn work in other places or attend different schools), you’ve got yourself a mixing palette for GERMS. Some offices even add circular a air conditioning system to further guarantee that everyone breathes and re-breathes everyone else’s air. If you can’t work from home to escape such a plague pit, I suggest wearing a mask like a paranoid Howard Hughes type. Even if it doesn’t actually work as a pestilence barrier, it will serve as a visual protest to unhealthy office culture. It could be one of those dainty white surgical masks that Japanese tourists wear when visiting polluted Britain, or perhaps a full-head respirator thing like Darth Vader. Such a device would allow you to shut out some of the stressful office noise as well.

Oh, it’s hopeless isn’t it? Forget it. You can’t have good health if you work in an office. The anxiety, the sedentariness, the spine-contorting ergonomic swivel chairs, the viruses rattling through the ducts, the noise, the sugar, the screentime, the separation from anything that matters. It’s impossible. The open-plan office was clearly designed by an android ignorant of human biological needs, or else quite deliberately as a machine to wipe out a few of us. Just quit your job, I say! Idling is the only known cure.

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.

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Escape Housework

Originally published in Idler 59.

If, like me, you’re not overly fond of lifting fingers and – even worse – wrapping them around the handle of a mop, you’ll have considered hiring a cleaner. I’ve never made good on this idea but it crosses my mind whenever I have have to clean the toilet (yes, every single year). Goodness knows I’ve tried to find pleasure in vanquishing the residual cack from beneath the rim, but it’s just not something I’m into.

I’ve long suspected, however, that hiring a cleaner is one of those throw-some-money-at-it solutions that’s more trouble than it’s worth and best avoided by the truly idle. Not only would you have to pay this person with money just as easily spent on beer, but you’d have to organise their tasks in some way, check that they’ve been completed satisfactorily and, of course, remember when the cleaner is due to come over. Anticipating that visit would be a source of constant anxiety to me: the bandwidth of remembering the appointment would either take over my life or I’d simply forget. Routinely, I fear, our cleaner would walk in on a horizontal Wringham, collapsed on the chaise in nothing but a fez, dozing stomach littered with pistachio shells.

Aside from these practical doubts, the moral idler wants to reduce the amount of grunt work in the world and hiring a cleaner is the antithesis of this. If you want to escape undignified toil, you probably shouldn’t generate it for others. Imagine the shame of your cleaner grassing you up in a future volume of Crap Jobs!

No, the net dignity and idle benefits of doing your own housework are perhaps greater than paying someone else to do it. Besides, how hard can it possibly be? I think I might have cracked it, so here are my solutions to escaping the ardours of house work without appointing a scrubber.

Small is beautiful. We’ve discussed the glory of minimalism before, notably in Idler 55, but it’s relevant in reducing housework. The less you own, the less you’ll have to dust or tidy or wash or otherwise maintain. Simplicity wins every time. Likewise, the smaller your home, the less space you’re responsible for. Instead of living like a bankrupt aristo — rattling around, alone, in an unmanageable stately home — live like Major Tom in a capsule, neat as a pin.

Don’t bother. Quentin Crisp lived in a small, rented apartment even after making his millions from The Naked Civil Servant. He also, reputedly, never troubled himself with housework. “After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse,” he famously wrote. It’s a matter of having courage enough to stare down the advancing dust without giving in. Crisp, apparently, would jump into his trousers “to avoid their trailing in the dust.”

Know that most housework doesn’t need doing at all. Even if you don’t go for “the full Quentin,” there’s all manner of shortcut to take. Your parents’ military standards need not be yours. A low-maintenance dandy, I’ve not ironed a shirt in about six years: if you hang a good-quality shirt immediately after washing, the wrinkles fall out on their own. I’ve not polished a shoe for a long time either; just wipe away any visible dirt with spit and a tissue. I’ve certainly not done anything as arduous as flipping a mattress recently, as you can easily buy one these days designed not to be flipped. The idea that bed linen should be washed weekly is absurd and washing trousers or jeans after just one wear is rather silly. While it’s nice to have a relatively tidy life, there’s no point inventing work for the sake of it.

Use housework to get out of other, worse things. If you need an incentive to clean just a little, you can at least trade it off against something even worse. “Sorry, I can’t come to your dreadful poetry night,” you can say, “only I’ve got a pile of laundry the size of the Matterhorn.” Personally, I use it as a reason to never, ever, go to the gym: if you use old-fashioned methods instead of technological ones (a brush instead of a vacuum cleaner) it’s tantamount to exercise anyway. I realise this isn’t strictly an “escape from housework”, but you can at least reduce strife elsewhere — like carbon offsetting.

Find someone who really likes cleaning. Everything is sexy to someone. Why not advertise in The Amorist or some kinky newspaper for an unpaid cleaner? You can sit back and bark commands through a megaphone while this poor, grateful, doubtlessly bald fellow scrubs your tiles. A helpful expression in this circumstance is “I want to see my face in it — not yours.” You might need to mop up one small stain at the end of all this yourself, unless you also happen to find someone who’s into that and before you know it you’ve got a fully-automated, housekeeping machine fuelled by deviancy.

Invite the kids do it. If you’re rueing your vain decision to help perpetuate the species, there might be a silver lining after all. Tom Hodgkinson writes in The Idle Parent, that it’s not difficult to enlist offspring in housekeeping efforts. Doing so will teach them responsibility while you rediscover Sambuca.

Don’t be messy. Instead of allowing the horror of housework to accumulate into the kind of super-chore necessitating a hazmat suit, it’s wiser to tidy as you go, or simply not generate dirt or untidiness to begin with. I realise this sounds a bit Mother Hennish but it’s the way to go. If you spill some sauce while cooking, wipe it up straight away. I haven’t “cleaned the kitchen” for years, I just keep it clean in this incremental, barely-noticeable way. If you couple this system with minimalism (having little to clean in the first place) and the rejection of less-purposeful cleaning tasks (giving bourgeois standards the cold shoulder) then it’s even easier. Take the garbage out when you’re on your way out to the pub. When you come back, hang your coat on its hook instead of tossing it on the bed. Put books back in the bookcase instead of leaving them lying around. There’s no need to hire a cleaner to do these things or even take off your fez.

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.

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Impatience

I just closed a browser tab containing a Radio 3 interview with composer Janet Beat.

I’d been at concert that involved some of her work on the weekend and thought “I’d like to learn more about her, how interesting!”

But today, when opening my laptop to do a bit of writing, I callously swiped it away as if dramatically clearing a table of clutter to make sweet lurve on it, sending cutlery clattering to the tiles and apples bouncing away down the lane.

“It is Wednesday,” I thought, “the weekend was ages ago. Snap out of it, buster.”

This is something I’ve noticed about getting a little bit older. Impatience. I’ve found myself thinking “come on, come on, come on” while waiting for train doors to open.

Closing that tab today was an act of slightly manic prioritising. Prioritising used to be about doing my best now and later. Now, it comes from a sense of low-level background terror that maybe there really isn’t enough time left to do everything.

Christ, I’m only 39!