Chronic boredom is like the dull itch of a pair of Seventies school trousers

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I have been suffering lately from something very like boredom. “Only boring people are bored,” runs the tiresome mantra, delivered by those tiresome people who consider life to be a glorious cycle of song and a medley of extemporanea. (For those who are unfamiliar with the lines, from Dorothy Parker, they continue: “And love is a thing that can never go wrong;/And I am Marie of Romania.” I do not quote these lines in the main body of my piece because, for once, love for me is not going wrong, touch wood.)

It is the kind of boredom that is actually more like the flu, in that it seems to be caused not by anything visible, but everything you do becomes imbued by suffering. I remember Vyvyan the punk in The Young Ones staggering around, smashing himself in the head with his own cricket bat in an attempt to relieve the tedium.

“Bored, bored, BORED,” Vyvyan would say, in time to the clouts to his own brains. It felt like that – everything was boring. Eating toast was boring. Being on a train was boring. Or perhaps not so much boring as mildly unpleasant, like wearing an itchy suit. (Note to younger readers: it was, until around the late Seventies, the rule for formal wear of whatever kind – whether it was a business, dinner, or school suit – to be made of a material that afforded the wearer the continual sensation of active discomfort, especially about the legs. To feel mildly pleased, or even neutral, about putting on a pair of trousers was considered to be unmanly, disgraceful and effete.)

Things on the horizon weren’t looking any better because the Beloved was going off to see her sister in Durham and I was to be left alone for a few days. Cohabitation has proved to be a delight, with the really rather counterintuitive side effect that the longer we stay together at a stretch, the more affectionate we are with each other, which is hell for other people – but nuts to them. Left to my own devices, though, I rediscover the fundamental meaninglessness of the universe, and plumping up the pillows as I retire to bed on my own becomes a terrifyingly lonely act, like the mysteriously ageing astronaut eating his solitary meals in silence towards the end of 2001.

How strange it is that men are in two horribly conflicted states of mind when it comes to this kind of thing! Those friends of mine who are married and parents would love to come out for a drink but find themselves prisoners in their own home. Do they like it, deep down, or do they chafe, as if wearing vintage trousers? The other day Martin Rowson, the rather wonderful cartoonist, discovered that all his immediate family members had scattered to various corners of the globe, and rather than potter around his house on his own, he came down to the Hovel, bearing gifts.

That was fun and he declared the Beloved THE BEST PERSON EVER (his caps) because she told him how she had been rude to Toby Young without even knowing who he was. (It was a conversation about musical education and he really should have thought twice before engaging with the B on the subject. But then these days poor Toby should think twice before saying anything. I wonder, sometimes, if he has had some kind of accident, which would account in some way for his increasing nuttiness.)

In the end, I found the perfect cure for my boredom: a game of cricket. Playing, not watching. It seems that Vyvyan was on the right lines all along. I have not done this for a couple of years and feared great rustiness, which would lead to some kind of terrible accident with the ball. It’s jolly hard, you know, and some of those people can really whack it. But the whole business of playing, the state of mild alertness you have to maintain on the field, the banter of one’s teammates, the play of the summer sun on the clouds, the trees, and even the picturesque sheep in the next field, put one in a state of something approaching bliss.

It was heaven and even the visiting American, who admittedly spent half the afternoon asleep, declared himself charmed, if baffled. (But not as baffled as the elderly Englishwoman a few feet away. “Why are they moving?” she would ask. “Is he the only one allowed to wear a hat?”) So that was all fine, until I got back and foolishly decided, for reasons that escape me, to check my bank balance. Any emotion I had vanished and was replaced by fear. That was bad. I don’t like the fear. I prefer the boredom.

Dorothy Parker (left) famously wrote that "only boring people are bored". Photo: Getty

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 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder