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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.