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

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496