Outdoors In

Originally published in New Escapologist Issue Eight.

Fresh air is overrated. If it’s not carbon monoxide, my city-slicker lungs refuse to breathe it. A born urbanite, I prefer the human-made and the artificial to the natural. I’m perfectly happy for the natural world to continue unspoiled: I’d just prefer not to be in it.

People say that our built environment will be the death of us–the asbestos, the chemicals, the GM food and all that–but do you think nature wouldn’t kill us unthinkingly as soon as we give it chance? There are mountains that would collapse upon us without a moment’s consideration; oceans that would engulf us; tiny insects that would crawl up our piss pipes and lay their thousands of tiny eggs in the unnamed cavity within. All for no reason whatsoever!

There’s a book of mawkish animal photography called With Nature and a Camera. You know what I call it? With Nietzsche and a Camera. The natural world–the sublime, as artists call it–is as bleakly nihilistic as it gets. Nietzsche said “when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.” Not in my experience. Looking out at the the sea, to me, is like looking into the unseeing glass eye of a taxidermied stoat.

Give me the indoors. Give me the city. Give me a bong and a box set of The Wire and fuck off with your natural world.

My experience of it is minimal. The last time I slept in a tent was at a music festival festival (as far from civilisation as I’m ever willing to stray) at which a fourteen-year-old twatofaboob started a barbecue mere inches from my head and almost kebabbed me in my sleep.

I once went “munro bagging” with some ignoramus colleagues. Far from being an attempt to seduce a waitress from a 1950s theme diner like I thought, it was actually a testosterone-fuelled clamber up a Scottish mountain high enough to have snow on the bastarding top. Needless to say, none of the things I brought with me were of any help whatsoever. It’s the last place on Earth you’d need to be wearing a New York Yankees costume. The headlines the morning after twelve librarians were airlifted from a mountain are not worth looking up.

And yet, Harmony With Nature is all too often cited as a key to the good life, a way to reconnect with our primal selves or something. Personally, I tend to reconnect with my primal self whenever I take a day off from work: I let my beard grow and roam around bellowing in my pants. But Tom Hodgkinson and his friends would have us “till the soil” and he seems happy. Journalist Richard Touv points out that a lack of nature in one’s life can lead to attention deficit disorder, depression, and obesity; and I’m living proof of that. So here’s a number of ways in which urbanite slackers such as myself might be able to merge safely with nature without it unthinkingly killing you in the process.

1. A fish tank

Short of a pet rock, an aquarium fish must be the least inspiring house animal of all time. They’re less of a domesticated friend than an aquatic prisoner. They don’t know who you are, don’t know how to relate to you, and I’ not even sure they’re aware of being in a tank. Fuck. They’re the Big Brother contestants of the natural world, forgetfully re-exploring the eight literal corners of their world, occasionally interacting with each other in the most perfunctory of ways, and living for the moment that the lid opens and they can suck up their tetra flakes, pinched onto the meniscus as if by the hand of God.

The great thing about a fish tank though, is that a whole ecosystem can be represented there: as well as fish, you can have plant life, algae, filth-gobbling snails. It’s a perfectly safe cuboid of nature in your own home. I like their long stringy turds too. Beats watching golf.

2. Cabinet of curiosities

If you’re a seasoned traveller or have friends who are seasoned travellers or have access to eBay, a cabinet of curiosities is a great way of allowing a sample of the outside in. River-polished stones; prehistoric fossils; paper-light small animal skulls; dried leaves and flowers; snake skins; anthropological pilferings: all objects you could add to your Victorian case of scavenged talking points. Not much of a joke is it, this one? I rather like the idea.

3. Pet Man

I used to have a pet man. He didn’t know he was my pet man, but the fish didn’t know they were my pet fish either. A glance out of my living room window afforded me a view through the curtainless bay window of one of nature’s most wretched specimens: a bachelor. He would sit, watching television, in his pants all day long. Around midnight, he’d fold his couch out into a bed, upon which he would sleep from midnight to noon. The effect from my perspective was of having a pet man, his one-room home a kind of human-being-itarium. “How’s your pet man?” people would ask me on the phone. A quick look out the window would qualify me to say, “He’s watching the television.” “Great!” they’d say.

4. Snow globe

The snow globe is nature safely contained in a glass blister. Terry Pratchett, in one of his books, calls them City Eggs, the idea being that a snow globe is the ovoid state of a living city: the landmarks of Paris or London or Cairo surrounded by glittery albumen. I love this idea. In the event that you ever have to go out into real nature, away from civilised society, take one of these City Eggs along with you as an emergency measure. Gawp into it and pine for home, remember the romantic smells of kebab shops and the sound of teenagers puking in the streets. When at home, as everyone in their right mind will be, give the snow globe a shake and imagine what it might be like to be in some weather.

5. One of those framed pictures of a woodland grove complete with trickling waterfall that you sometimes get in Indian restaurants

To complete the illusion of being in a woodland grove, why not buy one of those magic tree air fresheners from a car accessories store and waft it under your nose? Ah, fresh pine.

8. Christmas Tree

If you want to be able to smell real fresh pine, why not get yourself a Christmas tree? The best time to get one is when everyone else has thrown theirs unceremoniously out of the window on New Year’s Day. If your house is big enough, you could bring an entire discarded post-yuletide pine forest indoors and pretend you’re Tom Bombadil from Lord of the Rings. When somebody rings your doorbell, peek at them through the letterbox and, crouching in your indoor forest, quote from Tolkien’s best ever writing: “Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo! Ring a dong! hop along! fal lal the willow! Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo!”

7. A vivarium

Entombing living creatures in a glass menagerie? Why stop at fish? Spiders, stick insects, small amphibians, chipmunks, gerbils, mice, rats, earwigs, the unwittingly cloned homunculi of your human enemies. A whole world of small animals are eagerly waiting to be incarcerated in one of your artificially-regulated dioramas.

8. Bonsai

Even safer than a brick of fish is a miniature forest on your own desktop. To the Western agoraphobe, the Japanese art of bonsai might be the most interesting natural microcosm of them all. A stunted tree is a great way to observe nature in miniature. You won’t be expected to climb the tree–wheezing fatly and scuffing up your converse–nor will it burst a root through your living room floor in a hundred years time. Best of all, there’s probably a Japanese Hikikomori type out there somewhere, admiring a miniature English oak from the comfort of their closet. In a way, the two of you are married.

9. Yoghurt

The oldest empire on the Earth. Bacteria! Open a Yakult and look at it for a while. Ask it a question. You are at one with microscopic nature.

10. A David Attenborough DVD

Ah, safety. Watching a David Attenborough DVD is like a return the womb. Except that you’re probably not surrounded by amniotic fluid. If you find that you’re surrounded by amniotic fluid, you should probably see someone about that, as you may unknowingly be some kind of really awful serial killer. Aside from that fact, watching a David Attenborough DVD is like a return to the womb. If the womb was anything like a living room with a DVD player in it. Which it’s not. Womb.

11. Your own self-confirming prejudices

Unless you really want to go outside, why not take a stroll through the primitive Holodeck of your own imagination? Slap on an eye mask, and take a walk in the exotic wilderness of your brain. Try and imagine what nature might look like, feel like, smell like. Don’t worry if it’s too smelly: you can imagine up a thermostat-like dial and turn the pong down. If you find yourself involuntarily fantasising yourself crushed by an avalanche or impregnated by a parasitoid wasp whose larvae devour you from the inside out, you should probably either see a psychiatrist or simply not use your imagination again. Board up the windows and place an advert in the Exchange & Mart and be done with it.

Nature. It’s what’s for dinner.


If you enjoyed this story, (a) shame on you, and (b) please consider buying my books A Loose Egg and Stern Plastic Owl for countless other flights of fancy.

Categorised as Features

The Nap: modern man’s final refuge

Originally published at Playboy.

When I was a kid I found it hilarious when my dad took a nap in the middle of the day. If I caught him in the act my response would be to strut about the room crowing at the top of my lungs, “DAD’S ASLEEP! WHAT A LAZYBONES!”

If he’s written me out of his will, I’ll deserve it.

Only now, at 31, do I fully understand the need for the nap. With pressures from every quarter, what refuge is left for the modern man? Gone is the time when dragging home an animal carcass once a month could constitute a job. A 50-hour work week is normal now, on top of which you’re expected to keep fit, look good, be up to date on international affairs and know where the good restaurants are. No wonder my father stole so many naps.

Naps are always stolen, of course, never given to you. Not since the heady days of kindergarten have we been encouraged to nap. Perhaps the unions could sort this out and instate a naptime in the workplace. I like to imagine a manager going around the desks saying, “Nap time, everyone. Put down that Blackberry, Kevin, it’s time for your snooze.” Cubicles would get quiet as employees would lean back in their swivel chairs and catch 40 winks en masse.

Spain and Greece provide a precedent with their notion of the siesta. Is there any finer achievement of civilization than this socially sanctioned noontime nap? After all, the whole point of civilization is to make life more bearable, more enjoyable. So instead of scheduling lunchtime meetings, let us schedule lunchtime naps.

I’ve tried several times to build a nap into my working day and failed. I once worked in a building that backed onto a public park. It seemed like the ideal opportunity to steal a lunchtime nap.

On my first stealth nap attempt I couldn’t get to sleep because a hobo was eyeing my shoes quite avariciously, which made me uneasy. The second time I scurried out for a park nap, I managed to drift off but woke up 20 minutes later to find a squirrel had stolen my sandwich. The last time I tried it, I awoke in a cold sweat to see my boss watching me from a second-floor window.

I could never relax again after that.

Today I work from home, so I can nap whenever I like. True, time is money, and an overlong nap can cost me anything up to $200, but it’s a sacrifice I’m prepared to make. If having a surreptitious snooze while my empire crumbles to dust is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Napping is forgiven on a plane or a train, but the sleeping experience could hardly be described as fun. The most delicious nap is the forbidden nap, taken when you’re supposed to be doing something else. If you can find a way of napping when fate has sentenced you to work, you’re destined for the finest nap of all and I salute you. Accidentally nodding off in a meeting does not count! To take your place in the higher echelons of nappers, you’ve got to nap deliberately and with intention to shirk responsibility, preferably in a stationery cupboard jammed shut with a box of copier paper or beneath your desk, like George Costanza.

An added benefit of taking a nap in the afternoon is that you can stay awake later into the night. When you don’t collapse from exhaustion at 10 P.M., you can have the social life they talk about in magazines. You can be James Bond or Noël Coward, schmoozing the ladies with an elaborate cocktail. Or you could just stay at home reading Playboy into the night.

Fight for your right to doze. Take your naps where you can get them.

Categorised as Features

The Joy of Sickness

Originally published as ‘The Anatomy of the Man Cold’ in Playboy.

I recently spent four days in bed with the ‘flu. I say ‘flu but I have no idea what it was. It may have been a dodgy breakfast. It may have been some kind of voodoo inflicted by one of my enemies. I’m not sure. But something made me spend four days in bed, and it wasn’t such a bad deal.

On the evening of the first day of my man cold, my girlfriend’s brother came over. He was wearing a tuxedo, on his way to an awards ceremony. I answered the door in my pajamas and dressing gown, eyes rolling around in my head from the ibuprofen. “I’m jealous,” he said, “I’ve not been ill for ages.”

I’ll say this from the get-go: I don’t like being ill. I prefer to be in control, to feel healthy, and for my biology to remain silently functioning without bothering my conscious mind whatsoever. There are things to be getting on with. Plus, I’m frightened of pain and death. But my girlfriend’s brother raises a good point. There’s a silver lining in illness.

To start with, there’s pleasure to be found in complaining. When life is otherwise good, it can be fun to adopt the role of a moaner when you get ill. “Oh, my poor head!” “Oh, my ovaries!” “Oh, my self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot!” Damn you, world!

You also have an honest-to-goodness Get Out of Jail Free card. For once, you don’t need to fabricate an excuse to get out of parties or baptisms or pagan volcano ceremonies. You can’t come to Eleanor’s long-anticipated shoe swap because you’re tucked into bed with a touch of the plague. Sorry, Eleanor.

As has so frequently been documented (William S. Burroughs, Keith Richards, others) drugs can be fun. Take some cough syrup and watch your consciousness stretch out and distort like the title sequence of The Outer Limits. Smear some VapoRub beneath your nostrils and pretend you’re “Menthol Chaplin.” When I was little, my parents were into homeopathic medicine; given that homeopathic tablets are mostly sugar, they’re actually rather tasty and very pleasing to crunch between your milk teeth.

There’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about an unproductive day when you’re sick. Maybe you’ve spent the whole day reading Sherlock Holmes stories in bed. But so what? You’re unable to do anything else. You owe nobody anything. You’re ill. Relax into it.

Your most coldhearted friends and relatives are duty-bound to be sympathetic when you’re ill. It’s the law. If they don’t bring their kind words, homemade soup and bunches of grapes to your bedside, you’re legally permitted to give them an Indian burn the moment you get well.

A good rattly cough is a wonderful thing. As are the sensations of picking at a scab, hocking up oysters of intriguingly colored phlegm, doing farts that smell like airplane fuel. And then there’s the finest of all malady sensations: post-puke euphoria.

The main silver lining of illness, however, is that it acts as a contrast to health. How wonderful it is to be healthy. To run without wheezing, to breathe without coughing, to be able to concentrate, to feel uneczematous, uncongested, laryngeally lubricated and generally able to soldier on without ailment, discomfort or psychological distraction. Santé!

Categorised as Features

Trainee Millionaire

Originally published in New Escapologist Issue 9. Artwork by Kelly Tindall.


Between the ages of seven and ten, I loved to collect things. I collected postage stamps and cigarette cards like many children do, but some of my tastes verged on the absurd. I had, for example, a thing for ceramic owls and must have collected at least fifty different ones.

I collected jokey car decals. I’d fix them to the window, my bedroom becoming a shade gloomier with every trip to Kwik Fit. A particular decal pictured neat stacks of pound coins and the words, “Trainee Millionaire”.

From the psychic signals picked up from adults, I knew that money was important. The way my dad would try to preserve it and the way my mum tried to get rid of it as quickly as possible. Money never struck me as an end in itself but it was clearly a key to living well. You needed money to buy food and bicycles and cabinets for your ceramic owls.

Perhaps it was the signals from adult society or perhaps it was my existing tendency towards eccentric levels of accumulation, but the concept of a trainee millionaire was appealing to me. I understood that the decal should belong to a driver who was cynical about his financial prospects, but it was also totemic to this young man in his owl-crammed bedroom. I liked the idea of striving toward a million pounds.

If it were easy to extract a pound coin from someone (simply by asking “may I have a pound?”) then all you’d have to do to become a millionaire is to repeat the action one million times. The solution was purely mechanical. To become a millionaire, you must first become a kinetic sculpture capable of performing the same rotation one million times.

So I set out to become a child millionaire.

“Do you think we’ve ever had a million pounds?” I asked my mother one morning as she was cutting the battlements into my toast, a carbohydrate I’d apparently only eat if it were trimmed into the shape of castles.

“No,” she said, “I do not think we have.”

“Even if you count every penny that our family has ever seen? Even if we include all of our school lunch money and spare change inside the sofa and all those ten-pees we wasted in the machines on Blackpool pier?”

“No,” she said, “A million pounds is a lot of money.”

“Have you ever met anyone who had a million pounds?”

“Oh yes,” she said, “Barney was a millionaire”.

Barney was my mother’s boyfriend from before she met and married my dad and gave birth to an eccentric son and a cootie-infested daughter.

“How did he become a millionaire?”

“His father had a factory, which was worth a lot of money and he left it to Barney when he died. Barney runs the factory now and it continues to make him rich.”

This didn’t sound good to me. My dad was a part-time tour guide at the Black Country Living Museum. If he died, would I have to show tourists around the Newcomen steam engine every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday? This didn’t sound like a fast way to millions. I’d never be able to fill a skyscraper with coins and swim around in it like Scrooge McDuck.

“Barney was also very frugal,” said mum.

This was true. Dad once told me that Barney had extracted a two-pence piece from a nightclub urinal. He willingly soiled his fingertips with the wee of drunk men so that he could add two pennies to his piggy bank, which must have been the size of Westminster Abbey. I loved this story partly because it was grotesque but also because it confirmed my idea that riches could be achieved through repetitive accumulation.

It was around this time that I saw the movie version of Richie Rich in which Macaulay Culkin plays the top-hat-wearing boy libertarian. In the movie, Richie had his own branch of McDonald’s in his garden. He was its only customer. This struck me as profoundly alienating and wasteful. It seemed that my brand of speculation had been established. I learned that I was more like Barney than Richie Rich. I was a pint-sized Puritan.

“Can I have a pound?” I asked my dad, who was in the mid-stages of building a scale model of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the original of which had been designed and constructed by his boyfriend Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

“What for?” he asked.

I told him my plan. He sighed and told me it was time for a chat about how money worked.

Kablingy had, in his opinion, to be worked for. Just like Isambard Kingdom Brunel might work hard to build a bridge or a tunnel or even an aqueduct. An aqueduct was a bridge that carried water, and they didn’t just fall out of the clear blue sky without hard work.

I wasn’t entirely averse to work, I told him. The problem, however, was that I was eight and had no marketable skill that was worth even one pound let alone a million. I also had an addiction to acquiring decals and first-day covers and ceramic owls, which potentially left me in the hole. My first pound would almost certainly be squandered in celebratory owl acquisition.

“Hmm,” he said, “I see the problem. You know, Isambard Kingdom Brunel began by working for his father. Why don’t you work for me and I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you a pound today if you sweep the driveway.”

Elated, I ran downstairs, took a sweeping brush from the garden shed and started work.

It didn’t take long for my sister to appear to ask just what the sweet shit I was doing.

“I’m flying a helicopter!” I said with glee. This was the standard answer in our family when confronted with the question “what are you doing?”.

“No you’re not,” said Katy, “You’re sweeping the driveway and I want to know why.”

“It’s so I can save up for helicopter lessons,” I said, prancing elegantly in the minefield twixt sarcasm and fact.

“NO IT ISN’T,” she screamed in caps-lock. “TELL ME WHY YOU’RE DOING IT OR I’LL GET THE CHICKEN POO.”

The chicken poo was a hard black rubber ball that lived with the other toys in the garden shed.

It was different to the other balls — cricket balls, footballs — and as such garnered our scorn. I think it was probably an industrial thing salvaged by my dad from the inside of a water tank or an x-ray machine. It didn’t bounce very well and you couldn’t do much with it. It, a ball, was our enemy. Katy and I were also enemies but I now realise that only she had worked out that one’s enemy’s enemy can be one’s friend. Damn.

“Oh all right,” I said crumpling in the face of the chicken poo threat, “Dad’s paying me a pound to sweep the drive.”

“A pound!”


“Do you think he’d pay me a pound if I also swept the drive?”

“Probably,” I shrugged, and before long she too had retrieved a broom from the shed and started sweeping.

Job done, we reported for our wages. “You got your little sister to help?” said Dad, “That is very enterprising”.

He pressed fifty pence into each of our outstretched palms.

“What’s this?” I raged. It was half of what I’d been promised and I was furious. He explained that I’d have to pay my employees. I protested. I was angry. I didn’t want to learn lessons. I wanted the first pound in my trainee millionaire project.

In protest, I gave my sister my share of the day’s wages. “Katy might as well have a whole pound,” I said, “Fifty pence is worth flip all to either of us.”

I stomped out.

This didn’t end the trainee millionaire project. There were several more frustrating incidents in which I was taught a lesson about money. One day, for example, I read in an encyclopaedia that the average human being lives for just 25,000 days. You’d have to convince forty people to part with a pound each day if you were to win your millionth pound upon your deathbed.

I wasn’t sure I had that kind of patience.

If you wanted to be a millionaire at fifty, you’d have to convince fifty-five people a day to give you a pound. If you wanted to retire at twenty-five, you’d need to convince 110 people. You’d also have expenses. You’d have to double that number of people if you wanted to eat. And then my dad told me about the 40% tax bracket for high earners, so I’d have to almost double that figure yet again. We’re up to 183 conversations a day now. You’d be better off showing people around a Newcomen steam engine at the Black Country Living Museum three days a week.

As with so many piano lessons, I went off the idea in the end.


If you enjoyed this story, (a) shame on you, and (b) please consider buying my books A Loose Egg and Stern Plastic Owl for other get rich quick schemes.

Categorised as Features

Earth smells of doodie, let’s move to Mars

Originally published in New Escapologist


marsIt may look like a cataract in the sky, but if you investigate a little further you’ll see that Mars is a completely misunderstood celestial body. And if you like it from here, why not live there? The climate will freeze the blood in your veins and there’s no such thing as ‘air’ but you’ll fall in love with that unpretentious Martian ambience quicker than you can turn inside out.*

The largely undeveloped Red Planet™ is great for business!

• Ever wanted to be the richest man in the world? As no banking corporation currently exists on Mars, why not invent your own meaningless currency and roll around naked in the banknotes, singing “I’m the richest man in the world”? If dressed, fill your hat and trousers with it.

• Be the first to set up a hotel and leisure complex. Sell expensive tickets to the famous ‘Face on Mars’ rock formation in the exciting Cydonia region and tell the tourists that it’s the only remains of an extinct alien civilisation. The fools will buy your limited edition souvenir snow globes and classy porcelain dioramas faster than you can make them.

In addition to these remarkable business opportunities, Mars has a whole host of social and fringe benefits waiting to jump into the naked, quivering hands of the pioneering space developer:

• You’ll be far more sprightly than with your old-fashioned “Earth weight”.

• Ziggy Stardust lied. There are no spiders on Mars. You’ll never have to do that glass-and-paper thing again.

• Bacteria-based neighbours. Keeping up with the Proto-Joneses is easy.

• Generate zero carbon footprint. All hail the silicon master race.

• No McDonalds or Starbucks restaurants in sight and all the nourishing dust you can eat.

• Progressive crater-orientated housing scheme with right to buy.

• Be a prolific lover, football superstar or weight-lifter in Zero Gravity.

• Huge tax breaks from the mildew government.

• Advertise your company for free in the Martian ‘Red Pages’.

• Never see or hear from James Blunt or your Aunt Jemima again. Ever.

• Since we’re starting a new civilisation, why not make it a crime for good-looking people to wear clothes?

• Get in early and claim Godhood. Don’t leave it to the crazies to invent religion. Cash in!

• Reinvent the wheel. In Red.

For more information on how to buy cheap Martian real estate, please send a big fat cheque to: “Mars”, PO BOX 42, Hull.**

* Turning inside out may be of genuine concern.
**Actual travel to Planet Mars may not be possible until after the fall of man.

Categorised as Features

Fight the Trite

Originally published in New Escapologist

Happy Birthday to you, Thunk!
Happy Birthday to you, Thunk!
Happy Birthday dear Laaaaauraaaaaa, Thunk! Thunk!

I am in pain. It’s partially self-inflicted from bashing my head against the function room wall (balloons tacked into each corner, some hilariously arranged to resemble a cock and balls) and partly as a result of third-party cliché abuse.

Happy Birthday to yooooou.


You will never hear me sing the happy birthday song. No price is high enough.

Yes, I have a problem. I have a mental illness that nobody seems to understand. If I explain that it’s a bit like Tourette’s Syndrome, we’re getting close.

What’s the problem exactly? I am adverse to the trite: to doing what’s ‘expected’ or ‘required’ or to ‘go along with things’ – especially when doing so is supposed to be ‘fun’.

Don’t misread that I position myself as an angry rebel-to-the-core. I can conform when I have to. Then again, I’d probably betray us all to the storm troopers if we were hiding in the attic and some dickhole said, “Shhh”.

Like I say, it’s a syndrome.

Whenever I’m required to ‘join in’ – to clap along or to dance to music or to play some sort of game where a requirement is to work with other people – I am filled with a near-insatiable urge to do something weird: to strike a funny pose, to kick off an inappropriate conversation, to remove one of my shoes and begin to eat it, to aggressively overturn a table or to shout “Titfuck!” at the top of my lungs.

I just can’t help it. I sometimes stand backwards at gigs. I sometimes shout the words “Ha Ha Ha” at trite comedians. I’ve cleared chess boards when I’ve been expected to lose graciously. To use the language of the cliché bore, I’m a stick in the mud.

“Anything popular is wrong,” said Oscar Wilde. I’ve been spouting this little micro-quote for a long time now. The irony, of course, is that quoting Oscar Wilde is in itself pretty trite. As I hear myself quoting him, a little bit of vomit pools in the back of my mouth.

Slightly more palatable is the mirrored maxim, “Anything different is good.” Thus spake Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, when he’s finally released from the time loop: an endless cliché of his own making.

When you make small talk or confess to a ‘guilty pleasure’ or are moved to announce that you enjoy Family Guy (doesn’t everyone?) or decide to buy one of those brilliant Mr. Men t-shirts that everyone else is wearing or to strike up a conversation about how good the latest Bond movie was, you are effectively saying, “I am operating on default settings. I am Times New Roman in size 12.”

Fuck that.

Don’t think you can escape triteness by buying into an existing subculture either. If I see you wearing white make-up and a dog collar tomorrow, my friend, I will kick your ass.


Let’s declare war on the trite. When you see a singer on Jools Holland doing an impression of Chris Martin, please don’t reward him by going out and buying his CD, whether The Guardian likes it or not. Punish him! Don’t even let the TV people count your digital signal as a Nielson Rating: switch over to News24 or something instead. Hell, switch over to a channel that isn’t even broadcasting. Musak trumps music sometimes.


When someone uses a popular anachronism (“yeah, you and whose army?”), pull their trousers off. When their trousers are clumped around their ankles and they’re giving you a bemused “WTF?” expression, explain that you have Cliché Tourette’s. If you’re too much of a pacifist for that, just shout the word “HolocaustFuckCancerJar!” and carry on with the conversation as if nothing unusual had happened.

Neologisms are chief in our arsenal.


When someone speaks against non-sequitur or uses the phrase in the pejorative, give yourself a good, hard slap in the face. That’ll show ’em.

Categorised as Features

An Invitation to New Escapology

Originally published at New Escapologist

“If [the populous] were not mentally deficient, they would of their own accord have swept away this silly system [of work, money and status] long ago.”

– Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

“Run Away! Run Away!”

– Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“See Istanbul, Port Said, Nairobi, Budapest. Write a book. Smoke too many cigarettes. Fall off a cliff but get caught in a tree halfway down. Get shot a few times in a dark alley on a Moroccan Midnight. Love a beautiful woman.”

– Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine.

During the 1900s, Ehrich Weisz – better known as Harry Houdini – made popular the art of escapology. By 1904 he had become something of a sensation, performing his astonishing routines on the Vaudeville circuits of Europe and America. He could defy handcuffs, explode from the beery guts of wooden barrels, flee locked jailhouses and escape unscathed the maddening Chinese water torture cell. He was the David Blaine of his time, except for the fact that Houdini was adored by women and that he was seldom if ever accused of being an irritant or a wanker.

It was surely no coincidence that Houdini’s popularity as an escape artist came about during a time of technological and political revolution. It was during the 1900s that Ransom Eli Olds implemented the first mass production of marketable cars; Thomas Edison’s phonograph made a commodity out of music; and the colonial expansion of Europe and America prompted the birth of the somewhat unpleasant political period known now as New Imperialism. Technologies and movements initially plugged as being liberating would soon be discovered by thinkin’ types to be nasty, horrible traps designed only to placate, segment and enfeeble. When people become dependent upon companies or governments to entertain them, to transport them, to plan their days and to import their goods, they forget what it is to be free, alive and autonomous. It must have been around this time that the concept of a person being owned by his or her property rather than the other way around was coined and the nostalgia for simpler times kicked in along with the desires to backpeddle or to escape this new world of consumption, gimmicks and psychological detritus. The work of Houdini and his contemporaries escaped the province of curiosity – that of conjuring and ventriloquism – and into the universe of metaphor.

This is not to say that progress should be resisted, nor is it to suggest that there was ever a time of perfect psychological or technological harmony. Philosophy writer, A. C. Grayling reminds us that looking to the past in order to find inspiration on how to live today can be fallacious:

“’Things have got worse’, people say, clucking their tongues; ‘crime is up, the quality of life down, the world in a mess’ … Such sentiments are misleading because they premise a belief that somewhere or sometime the world had something which has since been lost – a cosy, chintzy, afternoon-teatime era when there was neither danger without nor unease within.”

Nonetheless, while this cosy, chintzy, afternoon-teatime era undoubtedly never existed it does provide an ideal – something to aspire to and to consider when sitting in an open-plan office, doing pointless work to pay off your pointless debts or to secure your pointless place in a pointless city.

We are told to shut up and to knuckle down and to get on with it; to pay into the pension pot; to pay money to various forms of government; to pay off the mortgage or else suffer the humiliation of hunger and squalor or be accused of being awkward or crazy or radical. But what if there were another way? What if it were possible to actually ‘do a Houdini’ and escape this nonsense permanently, ethically and rewardingly? This is what New Escapologist is founded to discuss. Rule #1 of leading an interesting, enriching life is to recognize your escape routes. Rule #2, of course, is to know when to take them.

Two Churches of Escapology

When one begins to think about the various ways in which people try to escape reality, two major types of escape route emerge. The first involves the temporary retreat into simple escapist pleasures – going to the pub, reading novels or consuming vast quantities of hallucinogenic drugs as though they were jaffa cakes. The second is the attempt at permanent resettlement – by moving to a countryside ecovillage, by escaping to a lottery-funded villa on the seashore, or giving up and becoming a tramp – and involves working toward a self-sufficient lifestyle and the marvelous feeling of ‘sticking it to the man’.

From this, we can establish the two churches of escapology: the passive (watching DVDs every night) and the active (running away and starting a commune). Both allow for escape from reality but the two approaches are worlds apart.

The former is done every day by every one of us: it is cigarette break at the office; it is the ‘me time’ in the evenings; it is a cheap vacation in Prague or Blackpool. The latter is undeniably a path for the hardcore escapologist: breaking out of the prison invented by managers and conventional discourse once and for all into a self-controlled world of one’s own arrangement. But this is frowned upon by the powers-that-be: try getting planning permission for a tiny woodland shack or see what the waiting list is like for a humble city allotment. The bureaucrats don’t do much to help freewheeling escapologists.

Paradoxically, the second route – the hardcore church – is in many ways the easier of the two. Despite the bureaucratic problems involved and the being branded eccentric, it is comparatively easier to be hardcore than softcore. The ‘simple pleasures’ model involves a lifetime of dedicated scheduling and the constant seizing of spare time and stolen moments, not to mention the continuing struggle of actually attending your unfulfilling job or checking bank balances or shopping in supermarkets. The hardcore church, on the other hand, involves submitting to one simple direction: walk away.

You can walk away. If there’s one thing to learn from Jean-Paul Sartre it’s that all human beings are essentially free: there are no physical shackles keeping us in these awful places. You can get away from the stinking cities, the traffic, the stress, the boredom, the tabloid witch hunts and the carcinogenic food at the drop of a decision. This is the one doctrine of the church of hardcore escapology. Remember that song from the mid-nineties by a band called Cast? One of the verses went something like this:

If you’ve played all the games they play
You played them yesterday
Walk away, walk away
If you’ve been, where they want to go
Seen all they got to show
Just walk away, walk away, walk away

Fed up of work? Finally discovered the truth that the house always wins? Realized that TV fails to entertain you on any given night? Walk Away.

In the church of simple pleasures and temporary retreats, we can see that there is very little walking away involved. In fact, the central doctrine of this church is to continue plodding through the tough, prescribed life of work and government but to make the most out of those oases of me-time. It is the ‘fight’ to the hardcore church’s ‘flight’. The trouble is, however, that it’s a losing battle. Our grandparents (and some of our parents) all fought in at least one Great War on behalf of their government and all they have to show for it in the winters of their lives is a beat up old Volvo and a home on a council estate in which they live in fear of “asylum seekers” or “ASBO kids” or crooked salespeople – all anxiety-producing fictions generated by the Daily Mail and The Sun.

Nonetheless, the church of simple pleasures is healthy in moderation. Even if I were to escape properly and were to live on an arable farm in the middle of nowhere with my best friends and some playboy bunnies and a solar panel, I would probably want to take The Simpsons and Babylon 5 along with me. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater now. But it is important to remember that this church, while acting as a balm to sooth the modern ailment, is temporary and in the long run only goes to further feed the systems of oppression. These escape routes have, after all, been provided by the system to act as distractions from the ideas of anarchy or more permanent channels of escape. The doctrines of this church, while being immediately liberating are ultimately fallacious and should ideally be employed as a stepping stone path toward the hardcore church.

The hardcore church is about anarchy and self-sustainability. It is about the rejection of government, the rejection of big corporations and the rejection of dependency at large. It about liberation and self-empowerment. Once a full-paid member of this church, one will not need anything from anyone else other than good company. The comedian, Simon Munnery, once opined that the only way to get out of the rat race is to refuse to be a rat. This sounds logical enough and this is what the hardcore church preaches. If you can grow your own veggies and milk your own cow, you don’t need Tesco anymore. If you can recycle your own poo and filter your own water you will never again need to tangle with those goobers at the council. If you have a solar panel and/or a small wind turbine, you can forget the meaning of electricity bills. You will at last be able to say that you have escaped the rat race.


In 1929, the gay poet-come-journalist, Brian Christian de Claiborne Howard wrote a sort-of manifesto of Bohemianism. He divided a page into two halves labelled J’Accuse and J’Adore and listed within the two halves the things of which he approved and disapproved and by extension what should and should not be tolerated or aspired to when enjoying a Bohemian lifestyle. It was a bit like a MySpace profile but ninety-odd years prior to their invention and 200% less ugly. Among his J’Adores were love, food, freedom and art and among his J’Accuses were missionaries, bureaucrats and other self-righteous party-poopers. It is with Howard’s model in mind (for the Bohemian tendency to be free and to rebel is at the heart of Escapology) that something akin to an Escapologist’s Manifesto can be drawn.

New Escapologist

This is where New Escapologist comes in. At New Escapologist we posit that the retreat into fantasy and consumption and vice is a valid element of everyday life and is a result of uniquely contemporary boredom, strife and pointless toil. At the same time, we take the stance that these retreats are temporary at best and that there are a multitude of ways in which one can discover, as the graffiti says, that another world is possible.

Categorised as Features

English Bastard

Originally published at Meat magazine

Being an Englishman in Scotland and being perversely fond of the fact is probably the UK’s answer to America’s ‘wiggas’. Whenever I accidentally utter a Scottish colloquialism (“Och, Aye”) in my Brummie accent I can’t help but think of decrepit, benign Hans Moleman on The Simpsons wheezing, “Cowabunga, dudes”. It’s tragic. It’s sad. It’s Neil Kinnock dancing to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. It’s Richard Madeley dressing up as Ali G. “Is it ‘cos I is black?”

Despite the fact that I left England because its climate, people, diet, politics, history and scenery make me want to be sick into a big bag, the only way to avoid becoming the aforementioned monstrosity is to become more English. Sincerity is everything. So against all expectation, I have moved my accent half a degree south of its natural tendency and have taken up drinking copious amounts of tea. I have even started following Midlands football for the first time in my life: Up, may I venture, the baggies.

At the recent parliamentary elections, I voted for the Scottish National Party. It felt like a peculiar betrayal – peculiar in that I quite frequently masturbate, laughing, to the idea of England being hit by a massive asteroid and everything in it being reduced to dust and ash.

Back in Birmingham, I never identified with England. I was, like my hero Kurt Vonnegut, a man without a country. Perhaps I was too close to England and unable to see it without warts and all (by warts I refer mainly to ASBOs, skinheads, rotweillers, tabloid witch hunts and Johnny Vaughn). From here in Scotland it looks like a silly little BBC wonderland. I’m quite fond of it now. Through my binoculars, it’s is about David Attenburgh and Dressing Gowns and Doctor Who.

It’s a truism to say that you have to remain an outsider in order to properly understand a given place or society. I recently interviewed Judith Levine, author of the acclaimed book Not Buying It. I had asked her about the anthropological approach she adopts in order to study her own America; she said that she often felt divorced from her culture because of this approach but that it was necessary in order to act as critic.

I can’t help but feel something of a fish [and chips] out of water myself but at least it allows me to put some thought into my own never-before-bothered-about nationality. Whenever Stephen Fry and Rowan Atkinson appear in American movies, they are sold as being quintessentially English; while on British screens they assuredly come across as cultured, witty gentlemen but not necessarily grounded to any particular nation.

You can’t help but be an ambassador for your country when you visit another one, hence the recent media reaction to the yobbish behaviour of some English tourists in Spain. I didn’t even know I was English until I stepped off the plane at Glasgow Prestwick and got called an ‘English Bastard’ by a passing drunk.

When going abroad, you can’t help but take a bit of your atmosphere with you in a bucket. People are fascinated with diversity even in this modern globalized world of ours: they want to know about where you’re from, whether the stereotypes are true, what the difference is. When Scottish friends ask me how different England is to here; I tell them that it’s about the same as Scotland except that you can’t get proper haggis or decent medical facilities.

England, of course, is a complete myth. The only red telephone box I think I’ve ever seen is actually in the grounds of Glasgow University. In American movies, you can usually see Big Ben from the window of any British house, yet I only walked past it two or three times even when I lived for a spell in London. Tea, by the way, comes from China. Fish and Chips, if anything, are Scottish since the cheap fish required by the working-class dish comes from the North Sea where shoals of cod were abundant in the nineteenth century. Even the Queen is German. The only actual English thing I can think of is the humble faggot – a foodstuff which mysteriously never did well in America. Perhaps I’m being a tad glib – England gave us the World Wide Web. And Tarmac.

In spite of my ‘become more English’ strategy, I’ve actually taken up Scotts Gaelic lessons: surely a skill so Scottish that it would impress even the most hardened Scottish nationalist. In my first lesson, I was to be taught to say, “Hello. My name is Robert. I am from England”. But instead, I persuaded my teacher to change this to “Hello. My name is Robert. I am from Nowhere”. Since the concept of ‘zero’ didn’t hit the Scottish islands until the twentieth century, the Gaelic lingo has difficulty with negative words such ‘nothing’ or ‘nowhere’. So the best we can do is “Tha à Sasainn, ach chan eil ‘n àite sam bith“, which roughly means, “I am from England but not that England”.

Categorised as Features

Bored with a Capital ‘I’

Originally published in New Escapologist

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes become so utterly sick of being myself that I would do anything to escape if only for a moment the curse of being ‘Me’. I imagine this is why some people watch soap operas: they enable you to vicariously experience other people’s domestic crises and spicy liaisons and to take you away, for twenty-eight minutes a day, from your own.

I don’t just mean to talk about being tired of one’s life – the trappings and commitments, discomforts and barriers involved in being yourself – but rather the idea that it’s possible, even easy, to tire of having the same sorts of ideas all the time or of hearing the same inner voice echoing around the walls of the same old skull.

I’ve occupied this particular skull for twenty-five years now. It’s nice. I think I’ve finally got the décor right but it can sometimes get a bit claustrophobic in here. Oh, to sneak out and visit the mind of a neighbour – perhaps for tea and toast.

Jean-Paul Sartre in his play, Huis Clos famously suggests that “hell is other people” but can you imagine how uncomfortable it must be to be locked away for all eternity with only yourself for company? Maddening to say the least. Sure, it would be fun comparing identical birthmarks and blemishes to begin with but you’d be at each other’s sanctimonious throats in less time than it takes to read an emergency exit sign.

It might be interesting to be able to change who you are occasionally; to somehow undergo the experience of being someone else for a little while. Alas, until scientists develop a magic portal akin to the one from Being John Malkovich, there is very little you can do about this. You’re stuck with your own personality and completely unable to leave that head of yours from now until the day you die. Doesn’t that freak you out just a little bit? No wonder some people go nuts, wake up one morning and decide that they’re Jesus.

The idea of ‘the self’ didn’t even exist properly until Sigmund Freud invented it in the 1920s. I don’t mean to be deliberately facetious in the same way that dull people quip that Isaac Newton invented gravity: gravity is clearly a universal force which existed prior to its being written about by Newton but the self is a comparatively new manmade concept akin to romantic love, sexual taboos or belief in an afterlife. It’s almost impossible to imagine life without some of these things now but the three aforementioned examples have clearly been challenged respectively by swingers, bohemians and atheists. Today the new escapologist can take on the idea of abandoning the self in pursuit of true psychological freedom.

Perhaps the best thing to do first in order to escape your boring old self is to identify exactly what this boring old self consists of. You might want to spend some time in dark cupboard to do this or in a sensory deprivation tank so that you can enjoy a good long period of summing yourself up akin to the guy in Haruki Maurakami’s The Windup Bird Chronicle who spends days on end sitting at the bottom of a dry well formulating ideas about himself.

Subverting the norm

Alternatively, you might want to take a personality-orientated psychometric test such as the ‘Myers Briggs [Personality] Type Indicator’ (MBTI). Check it out on the Internet. As a left-winger armed with a psychology degree, I must disclaim that I have never been a fan of this sort of thing. I dislike the idea of the existence of any standardised test which is capable of tagging people and making their inner secrets a matter of quantified communicative interest. I find it extremely tacky. But bear with me: while I’m recommending giving MBTI (or other similar system) a shot, I’m about to tell you how to grossly pervert it in the name of psychological freedom. Oh yes.

In order to explain further the borderline rightwing ‘ickiness’ of psychometric tests, I’d like to alert you to the case of Arthur Jenson whose controversial use of the IQ system ‘proved’ that black Americans were subservient to white Americans. Nice, huh? This kind of analysis is just a way of using science to label, dissect and ultimately govern, control and placate the masses. I feel for Freud: like how Nietzsche’s writings about ‘supermen’ were interpreted by Hitler as “kill all the Jews”, I doubt Freud anticipated how his ideas would be used.

Once we’re all analysed to the full extent of psychometrics and our details recorded, we become what Michel Foucault called ‘The Calculable Man’: the human being who can be represented by a few lines of text or shorthand code and governed with the corresponding measures invented to control ‘that sort of person’. It’s a great way of splitting society into chunks and dealing with them accordingly. It’s how Derren Brown figures out what people are thinking but where he uses it to entertain, governments can use it to render powerless their peoples. Rather than the conventional, more common-sense idea of government being able to unite society into one national easily-governed force, Freud’s ideas and those of Myers-Briggs or IQ-style psychometric tests show us that individuality should be encouraged by governments and companies (“Because you’re worth it” / “Just Do It”) in order to divide society into a number of groups because individuality only goes so far.

Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays (left), is often seen as being the father of modern Public Relations (PR). He employed his uncle’s ideas to come up with a new concept of PR and person-focussed marketing: to sell products that appeal to individuals and can help foster in them an off-the-shelf construction of individuality. An iPod, for example, will appeal to Type A while record players will appeal to Type B: each shall be marketed accordingly. He arranged for 1929’s ‘torches of liberty contingent’ (as documented in John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s brilliant expose of PR history Toxic Sludge is good for you and in Adam Curtis’ eye-opening documentary, The Century of the Self): a women’s liberation movement in which hundreds of women would march down New York’s streets brandishing cigarettes. Until then, there was a perception in America that women shouldn’t smoke and so this was a hugely equalising movement.

Equalising? Sure. Women became liberated. As a result, cigarette sales doubled, a lot of tobacco companies got rich and from then on every family soon had two cars and every house doubled in price. With women in the game, companies had doubled their markets for almost every expensive product. Eventually men would undergo a modernisation process too so that sales of cosmetics might go up and homosexual couples would be able to buy a product called ‘marriage’ and become as miserable and taxable as everybody else.

Go get your MBTI letters. Do a quick test on the Internet or track down a qualified MBTI tester. You will find your ‘self’ represented by four letters. You’ll be represented by something along the lines of “INFJ” with each letter referring to a particular element of your ‘personality’ – in this example you’re an introverted person who uses intuition rather than facts, feels rather than thinks and plans carefully rather than acts spontaneously. They’ve got your number now, or rather, your letters. You’ll now be able to read a pre-packaged profile of yourself (one of twenty-eight types of person) and it will be so eerily similar to the sort of person you believe yourself to be that you’ll want to run screaming for the hills.

Yeah, it is spooky. But on the plus side, you have now identified precisely the ‘self’ you must seek to escape if you’re going to enjoy a holiday away from your own head.

Next, have a look at the complete matrix of MBTI personality types and seek to think and behave in ways utterly the opposite of the way you’re supposed to. If you find that you normally behave in an introverted, gentle way, join a fight club or something. If you find that you normally behave in an extroverted, aggressive way, join a chess club. Of course joining a chess club might not be ‘you’ but that’s the whole point. Experience how the other half lives.

I’d like to see some sort of Wife Swap-style reality TV show produced for Channel 4 which forces people to do things that go against their personal nature. It would be scary but hugely invigorating for the people involved and we’d all learn a lesson from watching it.

Role some bones

Why not try a ‘Dice Man’ approach to intellectual freedom?

In 1971, Luke Rhinehart wrote a kick-ass novel about a man who casts dice to make decisions. Sometimes they might be fairly trivial decisions such as what he should have for breakfast (but usually containing one or two undesirable options, introducing an element of Russian roulette into the game) or completely life-changing decisions such as whether he should leave his job or cheat on his wife that day.

The intellectual element is largely removed from the decision-making process so he gives himself over to chance and ceases to be ‘himself’. Instead he invents an all-new fractured, random self. You may not want to go this far but I recommend reading the book and its sequels any day of the week: again, it’s a hugely liberating model of living.

In The Dice Man, Rhinehart’s character (unsurprisingly a Freudian psychoanalyst) experiments with ‘dice therapy’: encouraging his troubled patients to live by the dice. If you’re looking for a flight from your own pedantic, predicable self it’s worth a shot.

Whichever approach you take to finding psychological sovereignty, the is one important thing to remember. The dandy/artist Sebastian Horsley probably put it most succinctly:

“Freedom is an internal achievement rather than an external adjustment.”

Categorised as Features

The Cons of Pros

Originally published at The Idler

Working as an office functionary a few summers ago for a local university, I was handed a report by my supervisor as part of a performance review. According to the report, my work in the office had been ‘first class’ with the wider implication that I was performing as a respectable member of society at last. Dad would be so chuffed. There was however, one caveat:

“Rob’s laidback, accessible attitude has allowed him to gel well with his colleagues and to fit into the system. He should be advised, however, that in some institutes, his laidback approach to work may be considered unprofessional.”

Unprofessional? But I had never claimed to be a professional. I held no professional qualification, nor was I a member of any professional body. I’d not even held down a job that could be considered a professional one. I was just some kid.

What the hell is professionalism anyway? What is this vague thing that’s supposed to determine all workplace behaviour? It is surely important to understand how the professional mechanism works, given that it permeates every aspect of work culture from staffroom to sales floor. But surprisingly, the disciplines of organisational psychology, sociology and business management have very little to say about it.

The anarchist philosopher, Bob Black writes: “[All ideologies, left- or right-wing] will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself.” Indeed it seems to be assumed that professionalism is an intrinsically good thing (or else one without a conceptualised alternative) and so hardly anyone seems to have cast a critical eye over the topic.

In order to try to find some half-decent definition of the nebulous thing that dictates our workplace etiquette, I decided to look to the philosophers. While many of these guys lived and died before the modern incarnation of the word ‘professional’ was even invented, their work provides an underlying matrix to the way that organisation works.

Bob Black points out that to define work (“Compulsory Production”) is to despise it and I discovered something similar when I sought to define professionalism. When one gains a clearer image of where professionalism comes from and what its function is, it is quite difficult not to hate it. It is a manipulative, pretentious and individualising technology, incapable of avoiding social segregation. No wonder so many people die from work-related stress disorders.

David Brent, the managerial boob portrayed by Ricky Gervais on The Office, preaches in one episode of the sitcom that “Professionalism is… and that’s what I want.” He reveals that he has not even the vaguest idea of what professionalism is, which is probably why he spends most of his time playing around with ‘Big Mouth Billy Bass’. Brent is an accidental anarchist and champion of unprofessionalism. But maybe his “Professionalism is…” sentence can be completed after a little rumination.

Professionalism is…


A panopticon is the name given to the architectural design of a prison building conceived of by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. It consists of a cylindrical or circular building like an amphitheatre with a single watchtower in the centre, occupied by one guard. The inward-facing windows of the main building are tinted so that the guard can see into each cell but so the prisoners cannot see out to the guard: the blackened windows become symbolic of the guard’s supervision and the inmates must assume that they are constantly being watched: it is a near-perfect system of government in which the one can govern the many.

In his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, the postmodern thinker, Michel Foucault uses the panopticon as a metaphor for how society is self-regulatory, how a culture of fear has been engineered and how the privileged few are in control of the oppressed many. Professionalism, too, I believe, is a technology not entirely unlike Bentham’s panopticon.

One of the key aspects of panopticism is that it individualises its subjects. Bentham, in his 1843 plans of the panopticon prison system explains that the inmates are supervised “by a sequestered and observed solitude”. And of the cells Foucault writes: “They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible” and that “the major effect of the panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”

When this is applied to the workplace, and we replace the idea of inmates with workers, then, as Foucault writes, “there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents.”

Professionalism in the form of job descriptions, wage scale and level of training is the workplace version of panopticonic technology. In an automobile factory, if there is a problem with the windscreen wipers of the final product, then the one guy who makes the windscreen wipers can be isolated and blamed. So everyone must focus upon their own part of the task out of the threat that they will be caught out as being a fraud or a slacker.

If the guard were to take a prolonged bathroom break or decide not to come into work one day, the prisoners would still maintain obedience. In professionalism, though the architect of the system is long dead, the majority of people continue to observe his authority and so the system of self-regulation goes on and on.

While working at the same university I mentioned at the beginning of the article, it was explained to me that the institute goes through an annual quiet spell: during the summer, the majority of students have little to study for and so there is less demand upon the staff. So finding jobs for every member of the ‘team’ would be a difficult task for the supervisors to implement. There was an unspoken understanding between the supervisors and the staff that we must not work too hard or too quickly, since there were only so many jobs to go around and it wouldn’t ‘look good’ in the eyes of the deceased architect to have people sitting idle.

And this, perhaps, is one of my key arguments against professionalism. When we understand that the architect is dead and that we perform only to memories of memories of his surveillance – to his out-of-time and no-longer-manned sentinels – we must give up the ghost or continue to suffer the consequences.


Professionalism is employed as an untrue aesthetic and calls upon us to falsify personalities. It essentially invents what Thomas Hobbes called ‘artificial’ or ‘feigned’ people. Hobbes notes in his famous 1651 publication, Leviathan, that the word ‘person’ derives from the Latin persona: a character portrayed on stage by an actor. And just as an actor acts, so do people in the professional context. Hobbes writes: “Of Persons Artificiall, some have their words and actions owned by those whom they represent. And then the person is the Actor; and he that owneth [the actor’s] words and actions, is the Author: In which case the actor acteth by Authority.”

He goes on to say that the only people who act under authority without their own sense of reason are “Children, Fooles and Mad-men”. Which are you, boy?

This problem is illustrated beautifully by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 doorstop of a book, Being and Nothingness. He describes a waiter whose behaviour in the café is purely theatrical: “his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise” and “his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer” So what is up with this guy? Sartre explains: “He is playing at being a waiter in a café.”

When he leaves the café after his shift, he ceases to be a waiter and returns to what Hobbes would call his ‘natural self’. So why the need for professional falsehood? Sartre explains it as a battle between facticity and transcendence: the professional ‘waiter’ part of the man competing with his ‘free’ and human side.

The real individual behind the persona is not the person required for the café job, for the true person required for the job can only be the waiter’s employer: the employer after all is the one who wants to get food on the tables and to put money in the till. But the employer is lazy or otherwise engaged and so the employee must act as an agent and perform the master’s deeds in his absence. The waiter does not want to wait; he simply has to be there in order to earn his wages with which to buy food and drink and precious sex jelly. So he is running the errands of the managers: acting out the pre-prepared script just as the employer desires and just as the actor does on stage. Moreover, by acting and not truly entering the spirit of things, he is removing himself from any consequences of his actions: he is, as the old war criminals say, only obeying orders.

How long can this madness go on? How long can a whole society go on pretending to be people they aren’t just so that they can go on paying the rent. Kurt Vonnegut, a true philosopher if ever there was one, writes in his novel, Mother Night that “We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” And he’s absolutely right. People can surely not live on pretence alone and when we’re not actually engaged in work and cowering behind our professional personas, we are recovering from them or preparing to put them on.

Instrumental in creating social rifts

The assumption that social rifts are categorically bad derives from the ‘Five Steps to Tyranny’ idea proposed in the 1990s by the psychologist, Stanley Milgram. ‘Tyranny’ refers to a the path to an all-out final war and the end of civilisation; the first step on which is the forming of social rifts caused by a hatred or fear of ‘difference’ as opposed to the celebration of ‘diversity’. It is happening all around us already in the arenas of race, sexuality, gender and religion and professionalism isn’t helping things either.

From looking at the panopticonic nature of professionalism alone, we can see that social rifts are unavoidable in that the ultimate shattering of a collective takes place as a result of individualising measures.

Rifts occur due to the identification (or invention) of in-groups and out-groups. In professional organisations, there is an undeniable rift between managers and staff where staff consider the various levels of management to be the stuff of out-groups and vice-versa. Even this article has positioned managers and employers as being the bad guys in that managers are the ones who serve as guards in the panopticon without much in the way of a quibble and employers the ones who bring about the problem of agency or pretence.

But neither managers nor staff are inhuman out-groups: outside of the workplace both mangers and staff are unranked, unprofessionalised humans. It is only within the organisation that humans are divided into masters and slaves. Management/Staff or Masters/Slaves is the most obvious example of segregation caused by professionalism. Professional underlings are sick and tied of managers riding their backs: they are oversupervised, underpaid and not given the credit or respect they have been promised by the universally naïve understanding of professionalism. Managers, on the other hand, are fed up with underlings not working to their full potential, stealing from stock, grumbling about their workloads and questioning authority. Hence the rift. But the rift is only a product of professionalism, for it is seen to be professional for a company to have a hierarchy of managers and staff.

A thorn in the side of both work and play

Anarchist philosopher, Bob Black is quite insistent that work is bad for your health: “Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world,” he writes, “Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.”

Such buoyancy is difficult to argue with, isn’t it? But where Black’s famous 1985 essay, The Abolition of Work explains how work is the cause of any social ill you care to name, I’d argue that it’s not ‘work’ per se but professionalism that causes the misery and suffering.

Black subscribes to what he calls a Ludic conviviality: the idea that play is more productive and satisfying and worthy of human attention that work. He writes that “Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want to act”.

Play, Black argues, is not without consequence. It’s just that the consequence does not happen at the end of the process as with work and mostly in the grubby hands of someone else, but rather along the way. He write that in a Ludic Utopia, “life will become a game, or rather many games, but not – as it is now – a zero/sum game. An optimal sexual encounter is the paradigm of productive play, The participants potentiate each other’s pleasures, nobody keeps score, and everybody wins. The more you give, the more you get. In the ludic life, the best of sex will diffuse into the better part of daily life.”

But imagine a professional variation of play. Imagine play confined to specified etiquette and with hierarchies where the microphysics of power are conducted just as they are in the workplace. It would suck. It would essentially be work given that the outcome would not be gratuitous. So it is not necessarily ‘work’ that is bad, for one can assuredly enjoy many modes of work. Work can be rewarding: it can provide direction in life; can help to support worthy organisations; or can allow you to appreciate the good things in life which would be more trivial without the contrasting hardship. In the sex example, one body can ‘work’ to stimulate the erogenous zones of the other and that will most likely be fun: it is work as its own reward. This can only occur after the removal of the professional dimension.

I’m confident when I say that an elimination of professionalism and a promotion of work-as-play will allow individuals to exist as genuine human people rather than as Hobbesian parodies. As a result we can lead happier, more fulfilled and possibly even – mercy me – more productive lives. By extension, I’m certain that an initiative programme of ‘deprofessionalisation’ would allow organisations to prosper and grow. Modern companies were invented by Professionalism and fashioned to be strange machines existing between people rather than as people.

The alternative to professionalism is, I think, ‘collegiality’: a structure of peers in which people can work with other people towards common goals without questionable authority, persona or pretence. When the error of professionalism has been recognised and amended, things can begin to improve.

Categorised as Features

The New Satire

Originally published at TMCQ

September 11th 2001. American Airlines Flight 11 smashes into the World Trade Centre’s north tower and thousands of horrified New Yorkers are smothered by layer upon layer of toxic dust. As burning rubble falls and TV news crews clamber through gory debris in instinctual attempts to interview, the world watches on in slack-jawed incredulity.

A thousand questions spill from Western mouths: “Who could have organised an atrocity on such a scale?”; “Why wasn’t America prepared?”; and “Would it be inappropriate to still go to Jongleurs tonight? It’s just that I’ve got tickets for that Mitch Benn and I hear he’s quite good”.

It would have been a strange evening to be in a comedy club; to have bathed in the primordial soup that would become the awkward clowning epoch of post-9/11 comedy. Simon Munnery once said that people shouldn’t worry about being modern as that’s “surely the one thing you can’t avoid”. Is the same true of post-9/11 comedy? Is simply existing in the wake of a terrorist attack enough licence to fly that flag or does one have to absorb a certain amount of the zeitgeist in order to qualify? Political climate has always had a knock-on effect on comedy: the 70s brought the satire boom, the 80s gave us alternative comedy and the 90s secreted ‘the new rock and roll’. The 00s, it seems, ushers in the post-9/11 wave: the wave of the new satire.

Among the doomed passengers of Flight 11 was David Angell, co-creator of feel-good television sitcoms, Cheers and Frasier. It was almost as though his presence had been arranged by some higher force in order to provide a symbolic passing of flames in comedy history. The comfortable, moralising sitcom would no longer suffice in a West where death could strike so spontaneously and on such a devastating scale: the world had been shocked and it would take more than Seinfeld’s stories of missing jackets and “goofy-looking” Pez dispensers to get under America’s skin again.

Getting under people’s skin is what good comedy does: even the most inoffensive comedian or conservative sitcom will point out the absurdities of an ideology, tradition or policy. The Hopi Indian clowns (mentioned sometimes by Stewart Lee who, tired of the comedy circuit, went in search of the clowns so that he might experience the primal roots of his craft) are perfect embodiments of comedy’s subversive nature. It is their job as quasi-shamanic community figureheads to attend serious events such as weddings or funerals and to parody them in playfully vulgar ways in order to remind all in attendance not to take things so seriously. The anthropologist, Emory Sekaquaptewa reports an instance in which a troupe of Hopi clowns serving the mourners at a funeral went so far as to throw the corpse from the roof of a nearby building. He writes that “It took the people by surprise. But then everybody laughed”.

In order to survive after the heart of Western civilisation had been attacked so brutally and to continue to function in a suddenly radically politicised world, would comedy stick to its popguns and continue to take leaves from the Hopi? Should it lob the mangled corpses of 9/11 victims from the rooftops? Or perhaps it should just pay its respects and address nice things for a change?

It opted for the latter. For almost three weeks.

The American comedian, Gilbert Gottfried was probably the first person to publicly tackle 9/11 and prick the balloon of America’s mourning. At a televised event hosted by Hugh Hefner, Gottfried cracked a bad taste joke about wanting to catch a direct flight to Los Angeles but having to stop off at the Empire State Building first. “Too Soon!” shouted someone from the audience but it didn’t stop Billy Crystal from laughing hard enough to shoot a meteor of snot into his champagne.

Ever since, we have been looking at a new wave of vulgar but intelligent and knowing comedy. Is this the comedic backlash of 9/11? Partly. Such comedy was around long before the morning that the planes fell out of the sky. But conversely, there is a greater demand now for edgy and unnerving comedy in the mainstream. Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy is seen to be the post-9/11 counterpart to The Simpsons even though it existed in 1999. His American Dad! takes further advantage of this and presents a disturbingly politicised version of the traditional sitcom household complete with a torture chamber in the car-hold and homeland security fridge magnets in the kitchen.

On the other hand, the influx of jokes with sharp teeth has ironically stimulated a market for a brand of ultra-conservative comedy: My Family has enjoyed enduring popularity over the last three or four years as an antidote, welcomed by many, to asinine BBC3 edginess. Similarly, The Catherine Tate Show is so unprogressive in its laughter-track-and-catch-phrase approach to comedy that it feels like an artifact from the previous century. One can only assume that her popularity is the product of a confusing social climate. So perhaps the 9/11 backlash is one of polarised extremes: the ultra-shocking and the ultra-nostalgic.

Almost every comedian on the circuit will have referred to 9/11 at some point in his or her career by now. But why wouldn’t they? The news has always been the number one comedy resource in that it’s a thing that binds us all. It is not the job of the comedian, one might argue, to ‘manufacture’ jokes but to ‘channel’ them from a bubbling comedy stew existing all around us and turn this substance into something with comedic verbal poise: the joke exists already, the comedian merely voices it.

As a former comedy duo who are now performing solo stand-up, Richard Herring and Stewart Lee sometimes unknowingly cover similar ground in their solo stand-up sets. They both like to talk about how 9/11 should be renamed 11/9 in order to correspond to the British form of representing dates. Herring says: “Even if a sobbing woman said to me ‘my husband died in 9/11′ I’d say ‘no, he didn’t’.” Meanwhile, Stewart Lee shouts, “reclaim the calendar! We invented those dates!” and refers to the day as the Ninth of November. Such pedantic commentary superbly makes light of the West’s perception of 9/11 as an important and devastating event.

Perhaps the best thing to clamber out of the wreckage at Ground Zero is Larry David’s cinema-verite-style Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like Family Guy, the seeds of this naturalistic sitcom were sewn before 9/11 but didn’t really come to popular fruition until more recently. While not an inherently political piece (though David often strays into the political arena through his inability to navigate what he perceives to be an unjust labyrinth of political correctness), the show panders to post-9/11 ideals and strikes a cord with even the most casual viewer. There’s an episode (‘The Terrorist Attack’) in which Larry receives a discrete tip-off regarding a pending terrorist attack in downtown Los Angeles. Despite being told to keep this a secret he manages to spread enough mass panic and to stimulate an atmosphere of such paranoia that he’s basically done the imaginary terrorists’ jobs for them. It’s art reflecting reality, kids. It’s clever.

In his televised interview with Ricky Gervais, Larry David motions that his adlibbed situations on Curb Your Enthusiasm derive from his own ‘bad thoughts’. He explains that these bad thoughts normally go unexpressed out of a fear of social faux-pas. In Curb, however, he inverts this. It’s a like a second take on real-world events: fantastic moments of what Larry would have liked to have done in given situations, superego be damned. One might suppose that since 9/11, in our politicised cities, there is a greater number of bad thoughts going around: the censored aspect of ‘should I say this?’ or ‘is that too sensitive a joke now?’. With the attacks on New York and the resulting political shockwaves there came new taboos and the revival of older ones. Larry David, by voicing these things, has enjoyed major success. It’s an old idea of course, beautifully handled in the 90s by Peter Baynham – his ‘mad thought’ variation would usually result in strange nightmare sketches in which middleclass men are forced to wrestle pigs or to pimp disabled relatives. There is probably a seed of ‘bad thought / mad thought’ in the Hopi clowns’ celebrated line-crossing but in the current climate, such humour feels suddenly pertinent.

The political dimension, the ‘under-your-skin’ factor, the clever vulgarity and the monkeying around with topical taboos are all aspects of the post-9/11 comedy repertoire. These comedy tools have existed for a long time but now seem clearer and more relevant. So where should comedy go next? It’s important for comedy to continue to push the limits and to challenge givens, which is no mean feat in the wake of the alternative and post-alternative comedy waves of the 80s and 90s. The main thing it has to do however is to continue to channel the zeitgeist and to remain sensitive to the neuroses currently in vogue.

The Post-9/11 style may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s important for the disinterested viewer to remember one thing when watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, American Dad! or The Thick of It: no matter how uncomfortable it makes you, at least it’s not Catherine Tate.

Categorised as Features

A Manifesto for a New United Kingdom

Originally published at TMCQ

“Revolution is the festival of the oppressed” – Germaine Greer

Glastonbury Festival 2005. Music lovers from all walks of life are gathered at midnight to watch Coldplay perform and I am amongst their number. You don’t have to be a fan of the headlining band to be in awe of the collegiality in the atmosphere: a hundred thousand people united by new found common ground. There had been a massive downpour the previous night (which the front page of The Daily Mail had described as ‘The Monsoon of Glastonbury’ – a fact which subsequently sheds some light on why my Mum had been texting fretful checkups almost every hour) and the waterlogged ground had been churned into a twelve-inch-deep shit pie by a million Wellington boots.

Silver linings all round though, for the meteorological ill fortune had managed to bring everyone a little bit closer: because of the mud there was no aggressive pushing to the front, any shoving or stage-diving. After Chris Martin’s encore charade (they did a Kylie cover as a salute to absent friends, but it’s questionable whether I can’t get you out of my head is an appropriate dedication to a cancer patient) the crowd parted and we began the wade to our next gigs. Upon pulling my leg free from a particularly syrupy well of sludge, I lost my balance and went to fall spectacularly arse over tit. Miraculously, at the last possible second and with a startling speed, a stranger seized my wrist and I was able to steady myself. Heart pumping, and still not a hundred percent sure why I wasn’t face down in the slurry, I exchanged glances with my saviour. It was a chav. A menacing male chav in a baseball cap who, on the outside world, I would have crossed the street to avoid out of the prejudiced fear that he might chavishly deride my long hair, moisturised skin and love of jazz. But here at Glastonbury, united by muck and melody, we had a spiritual connection.

And so based upon a midnight experience in the mud with a pikey, a manifesto for a new Great Britain was born. The unique combination of music and filth had brought together two of natures polar opposites. Only at a festival like this could Holmes and Moriarty share a doobie. Perhaps if such a situation could be replicated in the real world, people from other opposing social groups and creeds would unite: perhaps if the vibes and the squalor were distributed evenly throughout the country, sectarianism could be avoided, fear of otherness could be thrown out of the window and who knew what else would be achieved by the cooperative efforts of the new system?

The first step toward reaching this utopia is the destruction of all major cities. I know it sounds radical but it’s the only way that the human race is ever going to be saved from boredom and segregation. Reduce the skyscrapers to rubble. London and Glasgow and Manchester may be our homes, but lets face it: they stink. The ecological footprint of London alone challenges that of the whole of Kenya. Our cities are the haemorrhoids on the planet’s backside and the time has come to apply the Preparation H – albeit in the forms of dynamite and the demolition ball. Reintroduction of grass and trees will blur the boundary between town and country: yesterday’s Walthamstow is tomorrow’s countryside. In place of the old office blocks, we will have massive tents and stages. Yes. In the place of each old city there will be a giant, constantly active, self-supporting festival.

You might think it impractical or wasteful to replace sturdy, secure buildings with temporary tents but that’s because of your competitive, capitalist mindset, you fool. Buddhists, for example, rejoice in the temporary, momentary nature of things. If our new structures need to be constantly replaced, we can make them more and more aesthetically exciting or conceptually challenging each time. In Festival Britain, seldom will there be an architect out of a job.

Given that there will be ten to twenty festivals constantly going on, we will need a far greater influx of musicians, comedians and acrobats. The focus of schools and businesses will be on the arts. In Festival Utopia, accountants and lawyers will hang up their bowlers and calculators and pick up their drumsticks and semaphones. No longer will school teach algebra or business studies. No longer will we produce scientists or mathematicians: only clowns and cellists interest your new government. Apollo moves over for Dionysus. Where information management once reigned, opera and the magic show now reside.

The travel industry will be changed dramatically. Since acts will travel from festival to festival, there will be little need for individuals to move around so much. As less fuel is being consumed by cars and heavy industry (there is no heavy industry now – obviously), the high value of oil will plummet and war will be a thing of the past.

By replacing our cities with festivals, work would be abolished and a ludic emphasis would be put upon play. Humanity would, for the first time in history, be united, experimental and free. I bet girls would be more likely to get their tits out for the lads as well.

Categorised as Features