Outdoors In

This was originally written for and published pseudonymously in New Escapologist Issue Eight. A finessed version also appears in A Loose Egg.

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.

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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.

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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!

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Trainee Millionaire

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

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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!”

“Yes.”

“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 liked this story, please consider buying my book A Loose Egg in which you’ll find other stories of my childhood, bachelor days and married life Alternatively, please consider contributing a pound to my patreon project — an entrepreneurial idea that bears a striking resemblence to the one concocted by the ten-year-old me!

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Earth smells of doodie, let’s move to Mars

Originally published in New Escapologist

ADVERTORIAL

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.

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