In the lazy month of August, London feels hollow, drained of the crazed energy of city life

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

The countercyclical lifestyle has a lot going for it: stay at home when everyone else is on holiday; go away when the working world is at its most ostentatiously urgent and self-important.
 
I’ve been indulging in a favourite (and cheap) high-summer luxury – loafing around the quiet streets and deserted parks of central London. There is room to spread out with the papers in the usually frantic cafés; it’s a deliciously selfish kind of urban sprawl. No one knocks into you on the pavement because they are reading an email. Shop assistants keep up the conversation out of boredom and amusement, rather than in the hope of engineering a sale. Restaurants welcome speculative, last-minute diners. A parking space in Westminster recently went on sale for £300,000 and yet, this month, there are more spaces than cars.
 
The corporate world, meanwhile, loses its bluff, confident sheen in August. The titans of high finance are on holiday. Their colleagues who have been left behind look slightly lost, all dressed up but with nowhere to go, unsure what to do with the double-edged knowledge that their time, for once, might be their own. Even if they choose to stay in the office all day and all night, the crucial people are unlikely to notice. How much harder it is to run an unobserved race.
 
Play, too, echoes the sleepiness of the working world. There is no stampede of yuppie mothers rushing their toddlers from one play-date to another. The parks are populated by ambling tourists, rather than aggressively urgent power-walkers. People on the Tube are more likely to be deciphering the map than shaking their smartphones, hoping for signal during the stretches of shallow track.
 
The city, for once, has more capacity than it has demand. An economist would bemoan the lack of optimisation, the visible slack in the system. But the bohemian in me delights in the temporary collective suspension of professional and social ambition. When no one else is watching, there is only one logical conclusion: do exactly what you want to do. It is not always like this. In the frantic early weeks of autumn, when the city swells and the apparatus of economic and social competitiveness goes into full swing, it feels as though the city were dragging you along on a tide of careerist busyness. For those of us outside the professional bubble, it is harder to quell the lethally anti-creative voice of doubt: “Shouldn’t I be doing something?”
 
For the vast majority, working hard is an inescapable means to a necessary end. Yet among the more fortunate, the theatre of busyness is partly a confidence trick, about style as much as substance.
 
You can often tell when a colleague in the office is closing in on a promotion because they begin scuttling along corridors as if an important meeting were perpetually awaiting their imminent and essential arrival. A busy manner leads to new responsibilities at least as often as new responsibilities lead to a busier manner.
 
No wonder a new form of social greeting is creeping into everyday conversation. Instead of “How are you?” I’m increasingly asked, “Keeping busy?” Perhaps the question has evolved because so many people answer, “Really busy, thank you!” when asked how they are. From now on, I’ve now resolved to reply, “Very well – as idle as possible, thank you.”
 
For much of the year, the cult of professional busyness informs the mood of central London: I am rushing, ergo I am important. In August, when few have the energy to pretend, the mask slips. It is like Christmas Day every day. The flâneur has the run of the place. The tempo of the city settles to his pace, rather than making him feel pressed to keep up with the commuters. The question, for once, is “What’s the rush?” instead of “Why are you dawdling?”. August in London helps me to resist the false conflation of activity with progress. It also reaffirms my determination never to see life in terms of the infamous “work-life balance”. What a bleak formulation, conceding so much ground to joyless self-sacrifice, as though work were one form of experience and life entirely another, with the iPhone diary acting as the hinge of the scale. What does it say about work if it must be ring-fenced, separated and quarantined from life?
 
The work-life balance takes the pleasure out of work while turning leisure into work. Keeping up with what’s in is almost a fulltime job. Hot restaurants and fashionable holiday spots offer experiences overwhelmingly similar to those available for vastly less effort. Yet it is often only the scarcity of a commodity that fools us into thinking it is precious. In August, when demand is slack and space abundant, the truth creeps out. The doors of society are guarded so fiercely because nothing lies behind them.
 
It would be hypocritical of me, as a former professional sportsman, to criticise natural human competitiveness. However, the danger in being dragged along by the crazed energy of city life is that it offers so many ways of satiating unfulfilling forms of competitiveness. A short journey, to buy something you don’t need, executed with maximum efficiency; a scramble to secure a social pleasure that many seek but about which you are indifferent. These are ways of indefinitely avoiding the question: what do you really want to do when your time is your own?
 
There is a view that frantic and competitive busyness leads to efficient productivity. My experience is the opposite. It is doing things all the time that prevents us from achieving much. I do less in August than in any other month and often accidentally get more done.
 
By my own logic, I should steel myself for the ultimate act of self-discipline: to live as though it were August all the year round.l Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune”, published in paperback by Bloomsbury (£8.99) 
People relaxing - or not - in the Jubilee Gardens on London's Southbank. Photograph: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.