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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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.