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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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.