People relaxing - or not - in the Jubilee Gardens on London's Southbank. Photograph: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images.
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)