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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.