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.

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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.

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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.

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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–it 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.

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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.

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