They say, “Better on your arse than on your feet” – but living a life of leisure is hard work

I don’t want to be completely idle but just as William of Ockham advised us not to multiply variables, I do not want to add unnecessarily to my burdens.

I have come over all exhausted by the talk in the Budget – and before and after – about “hard-working families”. “Darlings,” I feel like telling the Tory party, “tell me about it.” Every second of my day is filled with the most frenetic and exhausting activity, from the moment I wake up at 10.30am to the moment I go back to bed with a cup of tea ten minutes later. The mid-morning dreams are the most tiring: in a horrible recent one, I was racing Toby Young on a motorbike whose handlebars had fallen off.

It is the demonisation of those who would rather not work so hard that is particularly distressing. I was raised on Andy Capp cartoons, which were about a layabout who would only ever leave his sofa for the pub or the betting shop. Musing, one day, that he might consider a job as a cartoonist, his wife, Flo, acidly commented that this would happen only if he could find a pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. Since then, my life has been a long, hard struggle against work. The idea is not necessarily to shirk but to save one’s batteries in case one day one really needs to get cracking. As it turned out, in 2012 I had to write a book in 17 days, which I did – a rate that placed me, if only for 17 days, among the Simenons and Balzacs of the world – but that kind of tired me out so I’m waiting for my mojo to return.

The idea is, in the vaguest possible sense (perhaps to the point where I am committing an insult on the original concept), Zen-like. I want to enter a state of the most delicate, attenuated being possible and I would rather do this by spending my days in meditation than working myself to the bone. This is one of the reasons why lunch today was a packet of Smith’s scampi-flavoured fries and half a bag of Tangfastics (more like three-quarters of a bag, actually). I am refining myself out of existence.

I don’t want to be completely idle but just as William of Ockham advised us not to multiply variables, I do not want to add unnecessarily to my burdens. The Beloved startled me by telling me that she recently acquired a desk with a button on it that you can push so the whole thing raises itself so high that you have to stand up to work at it. They are called, unimaginatively, standing desks and as the Latvian website of one of the companies that produces these vile things claims: “. . . mes atrodamies sedus poza daudz ilgak, ka to jebkad ir darijusi musu senci vel pat ne tik sena pagatne.”

Put like that, I can see their appeal, but really? Are we sitting down more than our ancestors ever did? And do standing desks increase productivity by 10 per cent, as their makers and proselytes claim? I dare say being whipped while a drum beats out time in the stern helped the longboats go that little bit faster but surely a captain wants a happy ship as well as a nippy ship?

I explain to the B that one of the reasons I became a writer was that I could minimise the time and distance spent getting from bed to workplace; but even sitting down all day could get tiring, and with the invention of the laptop I discovered that I did not even need to leave bed. To quote Beckett’s translation of Chamfort’s maxim: “Better on your arse than on your feet, flat on your back than either, dead than the lot.”

But there you go: there are people whose dreams are a mystery to us, even if we love them with all our hearts. And how even those whose dreams we share can turn out strangely; my old friend Tom Hodgkinson, who resurrected the Idler and reminded a generation of Bertrand Russell’s superb essay “In Praise of Idleness”, now complains in his newsletters about “liberal lefties” and works like a dog. There are hundreds of thousands – millions – of people who want to work and a lot of them are being kept out of it by people insulting and badgering those who just want a quiet life: a sofa to lie on and a pencil long enough to reach the ceiling. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.