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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, August 09, 2004
    There is virtue in idleness
     
    There is virtue in idleness, writes Tom Hodgkinson (author of How to Be Idle) in an article from the weekend's Guardian. It is not an interview, nor a review, just a book extract, which strikes me as being fittingly lazy journalism. It is one of the most affirming articles I have read for quite some time.

    For like Hodgkinson I feel quite positive about idleness. This despite being locked into a belief system which has for centuries tyrannised people into leading guilt-ridden lives of dismal overwork, utilising Proverbs, chapter 6, which says

    Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
    Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
    Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.


    To which Hodgkinson retorts: "I would question the sanity of a religion that holds up the ant as an example of how to live. The ant system is an exploitative aristocracy based on the unthinking toil of millions of workers and the complete inactivity of a single queen and a handful of drones."

    He rightly points out that in Genesis, work is a curse, and affirms EP Thompson's suggestion in The Making of the English Working Class that the creation of the job is a relatively recent phenomenon, born out of the Industrial Revolution.

    "Before the advent of steam-powered machines and factories in the mid-18th century, work was a much more haphazard affair. People worked, yes, they did 'jobs', but the idea of being yoked to one particular employer to the exclusion of all other money-making activity was unknown. ...

    "Thompson writes: 'The work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness.' A weaver, for example, might weave eight or nine yards on a rainy day. On other days, a contemporary diary tells us, he might weave just two yards before he did 'sundry jobs about the lathe and in the yard & wrote a letter in the evening'. Or he might go cherry-picking, work on a community dam, calve the cow, cut down trees or go to watch a public hanging. Thompson adds as an aside: 'The pattern persists among some self-employed - artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also with students [idlers, all] - today, and provokes the question of whether it is not a 'natural' human work-rhythm.'"

    Very, very good question. Which I want to consider because it's hard getting out of bed these stifling summer mornings. Because I suspect there's a lot in what Hodgkinson says about 'idle' time being actually very helpful thinking time, essential creative time. And because it takes me back to something I wrote the other day, that (despite the stress and torment of unemployment) my Margaret Thatcher-induced periods of extended leisure in the 1980s turned out to be enlightening times, agreeing with Niall Griffiths that "The dole is the unofficial sponsor of the arts."

    It was at that time that I decided to try to offest my shrunken income by taking a course in freelance journalism, which did indeed eventually get some extra cash flowing my way courtesy of stuff in various footy magazines, Greenbelt's late lamented Strait magazine and (most lucratively) that series of photo-stories for Jackie.

    It was then that I went off to Bootle Tech one day a week and got myself two A-levels - heady achievement for me, that, back then; did a freebie Photography for the Unemployed course at the Open Eye; wrote lots of poems.

    And it was in those afternoons (after a yawning 11.30 brunch) that I'd take off to town to discover the city's cultural delights (free to dole-ites) such as The Walker Art Gallery with its vast collection of paintings, I think the largest outside London, each of which could engross the idle viewer for quite some time.

    One I gazed at fondly back then (and did so again last weekend) was The Promise by Henry Scott Tuke. A study in young love tempered by the look in the lad's eyes - is it anxiety? some sort of hidden sorrow? second-thoughts? self-doubt?

    One of the best things about The Promise, as any devotee of eighties Liverpool art knows well, is that members of Echo and the Bunnymen also spent time gazing at it in the Walker, and adopted it as the sleeve design for their single The Back of Love, one of the finest pieces of music to come out of this city in modern times. As is another surely Tuke-influenced song of theirs, A Promise:

    You said something will change
    We were all dressed up
    Somewhere to go
    No sign of rain
    But something will change
    You promised


    Just think; if the Bunnymen hadn't had so much time on their hands back then, how much poorer all our lives would have been...