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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle