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 DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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