Friday, November 03, 2006

An Idyll on the Idle Ideal, or, Not Striving to Meet the Unchallenges of Tomorrow

There's a lot of folks out there at the moment who are arguing that art should be challenging and provocative. I give them this:
To Autumn - John Keats

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, -
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Now that is about as far from challenging as you'd hope to get.

There's some people, of course, who would argue that Keats wrote it in order to strike a blow against the puritan work ethic, or to 'challenge' the 19th century moralists who distrusted pleasure. That's just stupid; why would you take something so fundamentally unchallenging as this and turn it into a challenge? When you take a poem so pleasurable as this, and turn it as a weapon against the puritans and moralists - why, then that pathological obsession of yours would just take all the pleasure out of the poem. You'd become as bad as the puritans, or whoever you wanted to argue against.

Interestingly, I've just finished reading a book that comes very close to doing the same thing. It's called 'How To Be Idle', and it's by Tom Hodgkinson.

The title is a mistake. If you have to be told how to be idle, then you will end up missing the point. The book quotes Oscar Wilde approvingly ('Doing nothing is hard work', says Wilde); but the only trouble is, being idle is not about doing nothing - it's about doing what you want. It's not about avoiding duty - it's about seeking pleasure. It's not about bludging, loafing, shirking, procrastinating, or avoiding work - it's about fun, fun, and more fun. That's the problem; if you try too hard to avoid the work ethic, then you end up being the worst example of the work ethic. Hodgkinson realises this - he's too smart not to - and in the final chapter of the book, where he fields readers questions, we get an answer - of sorts:
Q: You say you're an idler but you must have put a lot of work into this book.

A: Well, I only worked for three or four hours a day on it. So it wasn't really like doing eight hours in a call centre. Also, I was working at home, so when you cut out the commuting hours, too, I calculate that I was doing six hours less work a day than the average job-worker.
And it was something I had chosen to do, a hobby, really, it did not feel like work.
So if you do a job that you like, then it doesn't feel like work. Well, duh.

It's impossible not to like Hodgkinson. He's a whinging pom, sure, but it's so easy to share the pleasure he takes in the simplest things. He writes about smoking:
I must say I would recommend the pipe to the student of idleness. If you can withstand the ridicule and admonishments of loved ones, then taking up the pipe can be a way of flying back to a lost age of gentlemanly reflection. Pipes require time and leisure. I occasionally smoke one. My girlfriend, Victoria, hates it. When I asked her why - perhaps she did not like the smell? - she replied: 'No. It's the attitude.' I suppose she can't stand to see me idle. She has said I am allowed to smoke it as long as she never has to see me doing it and as long as I don't send any photographs of me smoking it into the public domain. This is a great shame, as I would have liked to have been smoking a pipe in my author photograph.
Or about having lunch:
The midday meal was an occasion to be deliberated over, shared with friends and colleagues, savoured, taken over two or three hours. It was a time for gossip, laughter, booze. It was a dreamy oasis of pleasure which took the edge off the dreary afternoon and was to be looked forward to during the busy morning. It might even involve a stroll around town ...
It all sounds so nice and English, doesn't it?

When he talks about people going to work, of course, he puts away all these leisurely adjectives and nouns ('Oasis', 'Occasionally', 'Stroll', 'Shared'). Instead, we get a whole new set of words pulled out: 'Trudge', 'Tedious', 'Bore', 'Sigh'. That's pretty much the Hodgkinson technique in a nutshell, actually - make some things appear better or worse than they are by the liberal application of adjectives and nouns. It's all very precise and careful, though he is equally precise and careful in making sure that it doesn't appear to be that way. His words are deliberate, his metaphors are firm, his paragraphs are rigorous, and his chapters are decisive.

Putting on my editors hat, I'd like to suggest a few changes to the book. We could start with the title. Instead of:

How to be Idle

We could try:

Be Idle.

The end.


Caz said...

I think you were right the first time: anyone needing a self help book on how to be idle is already a lost cause.

But then so is the author, for providing said help book.

Merely the act of taking lessons in how to be idle is to counter the attitude.

The entire exercise is sort of a meta-oxymoron, isn't it.

He must have found it impossible to repress a robust snirtle before forging ahead with the book, and collect the royalties.

TimT said...

This Hodgkinson is a strange character - bit of a self-styled eccentric. Apparently he had a punk band in the 70s - in one weird passage, he says the punks were the dandies of the 1970s. (I mean, Beau Brummel=Sid Vicious. How could we missed that? ) He has a bee in his bonnet about the puritan work ethic, and has a vague anarcho-socialist view of history where apparently the working classes were enslaved by the aristocracy through technology.

He's also editor of a magazine called The Idler - I think it's at

It's not really a self-help book, just a set of essays about various pleasures (walking, conversation, smoking, drinking, partying, making love, fishing) that apparently make up the idlers lifestyle. Set out in the form of a one-day journal - so it starts at eight am and proceeds through to seven am the next day. Very well written, but some bizarre arguments.

Caz said...

Ah, but it is still "How to ..." no matter the structure, no matter how erudite!

So if Sid was a dandy, what was Nancy, I wonder.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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