His 2016 book Escape Everything! was a spin-off from the New Escapologist, a lifestyle magazine he edited and published 2007-2017 and which continues as a series of online essays. New Escapologist describes itself as “the journal of the art of getting out of things” and suggests that “work has too central a position in Western life”.
Escape Everything! was successful enough to be translated into German and released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland as Ich Bin Raus and then, in 2018, in South Korea as [책] 탈출하라. No doubt to further confuse readers, it was also republished in the UK in 2021 in English as I’m Out: How To Make an Exit.
He had also written a regular column 2016-2020 in The Idler, a magazine whose declared aim is to “return dignity to the art of loafing” and had written for a variety of other esteemed outlets including Meat, The Skinny, the British Comedy Guide, Playboy etc etc etc.
Obviously, I had to have a chat with Robert.
It would have been churlish not to.
He lives in Glasgow and Montreal (his partner is Canadian), so we talked via FaceTime.
JOHN: You have said: “The highest form of human activity is the shenanigan”…
ROBERT: It makes sense, right? What could be better than a mischievous, spontaneous act?
JOHN: ARE you a mischievous, spontaneous act?
ROBERT: That’s what I aspire to.
JOHN: You describe yourself ‘a humorist’.
ROBERT: There’s a thing on Wikipedia at the moment about the definition of ‘humorist’ which says it’s “an intellectual who uses comedy to get his or her point across”. And that nails it for me. I don’t want to think of myself as an intellectual, but I do like the idea that I’m trying to communicate a ‘point’ packaged nicely with humour, so you can get inside somebody. It’s the sugar pill, right?
JOHN: Why is your latest book called Stern Plastic Owl?
ROBERT: That’s a theme. My previous similar miscellany book was called A Loose Egg because I got hung up on that phase “a loose egg”. It came about by accident, because there was a loose egg in our fridge back in Canada.
Stern Plastic Owl is a random phrase too. Like all comedians and writers, I have a notebook nearby at all times, including by my bed. There is an idea that sleeping should be when your fertile ideas come up although, really, what I write down in the night is gibberish. But it feels like it’s a resource I should use and one of the phrases that stood out was Stern Plastic Owl. I didn’t know what it meant.
So there is a story in the book where I try to work out what it means. It’s kind of a detective story in the middle of the book.
JOHN: So did you find out what it means?
ROBERT: Not exactly. But I think it’s to do with anti-pigeon, do you know what I mean?
ROBERT: An anti-pigeon device. You’ve got an owl and you put it up on your roof to scare pigeons away. There’s one nearby and I think I must have seen that and it came back to me in a dream. So I tried my best to write a piece around one of those stern plastic anti-pigeon owls.
JOHN: I’ve never heard of this before. Are you telling me, if I come up to Glasgow there are fake owls on window sills and roofs all over the place.
ROBERT: They’re everywhere.
JOHN: You were a stand-up comic.
ROBERT: One of the very brief things from my very brief stand-up period was my come-back to hecklers: “Sir, you cannot count the number of cylinders I’m firing on”. I’m still happy with that. I never got to use it, but it was just there on standby. I never got a horrible heckle ever.
JOHN: You were too loveable?
ROBERT: Probably too young. A lot of audiences are just polite if you look very young.
JOHN: Why did you give up stand-up?
ROBERT: My favourite thing was writing the jokes and fine-tuning them. The hardest part was making it sound good, sound spontaneous. I didn’t enjoy the late nights or the Green Room badinage. I have met a lot of wonderful comedians in Green Rooms but I never felt I was holding my own in those conversations.
JOHN: You wrote that one great climb-down of your life was “pointing your imagination in the direction of writing rather than performance”.
ROBERT: Well, that’s not really true. That’s just what I put in the book. It didn’t really feel like a climb-down. I just didn’t want to tell the story in the other direction which was I was travelling in a favourable direction to the thing I wanted to do. I didn’t think there was any comedy in saying that.
JOHN: Is it a book full of lies? Like comedy routines?
ROBERT: Oh completely. The idea of what is true is something that is always on my mind a lot. For example, my real name is not Wringham. My actual passport name is Westwood. Robert Westwood.
I wanted to change my name and be a persona. So, when I’m on the page or on the stage, it’s a separate thing.
JOHN: Why Wringham?
ROBERT: I was always entertained by people like The Human Anagram (aka Agraman aka John Marshall) in the 1980s, but I wanted to do something else. I like horror novels and there’s one called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
It’s of the age of Frankenstein, but it’s Scottish and I think that’s why no-one has given a shit about it and it’s unjustifiably obscure. The villain in that is called Robert Wringham.
So, when I moved to Scotland, I thought: I’m taking that name! It’s sort of similar to mine and the thing about that book is it’s about doppelgängers. So I thought: My persona is going to be my evil twin. He’s going to do the stuff that I don’t do in real life.
(… CONTINUED HERE … )