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22 November 1999

Formula fun – Relaxation? Such hard work!

The nineties - Recreation has never been so complicated, or leisure so carefully scheduled,

By Stephen Bayley

I booted up the Satnav and punched in the waypoints and the destination’s co-ordinates, checked the signal on the GSM carphone, selected the XtracTM torque-sensing traction-controlled four-wheel-drive propulsion module and, avoiding a nasty bit of leftover Saturday night biohazard on London’s South Circular Road, eased out into the traffic for a routine Sunday morning visit to the gym. You never know: the suburbs can be hazardous. In the Forest Hill drizzle the “system engaged” diode flashed on the console: grip was marginal and I was in danger of losing steering authority, although the conditions didn’t seem to be bothering the bus in front.

Anyway, in this weather I was pleased I’d chosen to wear my new spoorTexr synthetic warm-up suit (with reflective patches) and the FeetFirstc trainers with oleo-pneumatic soles which have an intelligent sensor and a digital read-out. I chugged from the can of isotonic sports drink in the car’s neoprene-free refrigerated cupholder and wondered about my work-out programme. Should I start on the treadmill or the StairMaster? Ten minutes or 20? Which cycle? Random? Hill? Or perhaps it should be the rowing machine, or the exercise bike? Free weights? Nautilus? Press-ups? Reps? Abs? Lengths? Stamina or power? Just thinking about it brought on an anxious rush that was a cardio-vascular workout all on its own.

“Control your breathing,” I told myself as I slid into the car park. There was already a light sweat underneath my eyelids and I was becoming anaerobic. And God! I only had 40 minutes before I had to pick up Damien from the Heathrow skatepark, where he was having advanced tuition in mute 540s from a Californian Islamic latino who listed his vital enthusiasms as sushi, Evel Knievel, Jesus Christ and high-performance needle roller bearings. And then there was little India, too. She was completing her course of GoBimba! lessons in top spin at the tennis club and then needed to be taken abseiling before her mother got home from her tantric gardening course.

Today, leisure is an extreme sport. Since we emerged from the primal ooze, hosed ourselves down, started standing up straight and began the journey that took us past subsistence farming to mobile telephony and e-commerce, our achievements can be calibrated in how we spend our leisure time. Work and play. Are they in Manichean opposition, the one a compensation for the other, or are they really part of the same thing? It strikes me that as work gets easier (in that few of us nowadays encounter industrial swarf and coalfaces on a regular basis), leisure gets harder.

Freud believed that the human capacity for anxiety is a constant, and as soon as one neurotic threat (death, taxes and so on) is calmed, then another (should I have a haircut?) replaces it. Our current taste for exhausting leisure seems to suggest that our appetite for effortful work is constant. The more time we spend getting RSI-Lite on our keyboards and in our sensitively lit consultancies in our knowledge economy, the more likely we are to want to have the ragged arse torn out of it at weekends.

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People want to be rich so that they can lead simple lives. The suffocating paradox of the nineties is that absolutely anybody can lead a very, very complicated life. A nice cup of tea has been replaced by a double-decaf-skinny-mocha-latte-with-an-extra-shot . . . and the universe of intellectual, social, gastronomic and cultural options such a complicated taste entails. Just take a look at Who’s Who to assess how leisure has changed. An arbitrary trawl of the senior generation reveals the following activities as typical “recreations”: collecting manuscripts, walking, cricket, choral singing, family, heraldry, genealogy and lepidoptery. There is a fine and haunting account of an old and fading culture.

Just as tea has ceded to the surreal complexities and lofty refinements of luxury coffee as conceived in the northwestern United States, so mere cooking has become arduously sophisticated social competition. Equally, what used to be a simple stroll is now more likely to be a technological exercise using high-specification mountain bikes and requiring survival clothing and levels of physical fitness closer to those familiar at Nasa than in a cycling club. But to savour most completely the characteristic differences between old leisure and new, consider the rich semantic dissonance between the estate car of yesterday and the MPV of today.

The very name “estate car” evokes a gauzy, but vividly romantic, Merchant Ivory spectre of a lost world of famous heather and grouse. Americans called this type of car, with its sort of parasitical architectural extension out back, “station-wagons”, because that’s what they used to do with them: go to pick up people from successfully completed railroad journeys. But the same vehicle type over here was put to very different uses: it was a type of car intended for country duties, or for those suburbanites who had unwholesome fantasies about them. The trademark half-timbering motif of the old estate car fortified the associations with the country house, shooting parties, hampers, dogs, mist and social exclusion refined to the status and perfection of art.

The MPV, in purely functional terms, plays the same part in life’s comedy as the old estate car (it’s good for moving people and stuff), but is altogether different when it comes to the expression of consumer aspirations. Take the name, for a start – that class-free abbreviation is telling. A multi-purpose vehicle explicitly denies categorisation (or, at least, intends to). Whisper: classless. Convenient for the third row of seats, there are two 12v ports to plug in laptops so you can work or surf while on the move. That most of them have been styled to look organically globular in the fashion of a Chamonix or Meribel bubble lift is an externalisation of the one single truth that unites all MPV users: fully 100 per cent of them go on regular and exhaustingly competitive ski holidays. And, in design terms, the old estate car used an iconography that bore some sort of relationship to, say, Compton Wynyates or Castle Howard, whereas an MPV is styled so that, socially speaking, you cannot tell whether it is coming or going (though with seven seats there is plenty of room for fellow travellers).

The MPV speaks of a world where returning videos and hauling/unpacking the supermarket shop have replaced the concept of “going for a drive” as the primary uses of utilitarian cars. Let’s look at the typical contents.

The old estate car would have contained: one of the elegantly archaic Shell County Guides, with an introduction to Suffolk hammer-beam roofs by John Betjeman and atmospheric watercolours by John Piper. A tin of travel humbugs. Two yellow dusters, driving gloves (stringback and lightly perforated pigskin), a tartan rug, an AA book and a toolkit neatly rolled in oilcloth in mute, but eloquent, expectation of frequent roadside attention. The chrome-fasciaed push-button radio was always tuned to the Light Programme.

The MPV’s catalogue of chattels is rather different. The Radio Data System tuner has 32 pre-set channels and there is a 20-stack of CDs in the boot-mounted autochanger. The navigation system is always switched on, as is the carphone. On-board reading matter includes a current Gault Millau and a Lonely Planet guide to Morocco. The detritus within includes Evian bottles, cappuccino relics, Le Shuttle boarding cards, an eclectic mixture of running shoes, high-pressure bicycle pumps, two tubes of Slazenger tennis balls, two squash racquets (Dunlop), four tennis racquets (two Prince, two Wilson), a sports bag full of coffee beans, three London A-Zs, a full set of hypo-allergenic make-up, a bag of logs, a full-suspension mountain bike, a spare mobile phone, a laptop computer, a Michelin atlas of France, and membership cards for various tennis, health and sports clubs. I speak only from personal experience.

And yet I wonder if the estate car, with its courtly world of country-house manners, and the Blairite MPV are not much more similar than they are different. The one is only an extension of the other. Equally, our frenzied and athletic requirements to fill our leisure with strenuous physical activities are no more than the very last sweaty gasp of a culture that has more in common with egg and cress sandwiches in a Humber Super Snipe than it does with what is promised for the imminent electronic future of leisure. So far, we have at least been talking activity-based activities. The future may be different; we have to consider the end of activity-based activities as recreation. Virtual sex and virtual travel promise leisure that is entirely cerebral. Warm clothing and air miles will soon seem as archaic as bark drawings or thumbscrews.

Instead, you can strap on your virtual reality headset and glove and have e-sex with a distant friend (or even a stranger) who has downloaded smells, textures, colours and sounds to a database. Implants may even give you an orgasm in the head to save all that mess with body fluids. Travel and sex have always been related – and soon it may appear ridiculously quaint to seek leisure by belting into a pressurised aluminium tube, burning a few hundred tons of JR4 avgas and arriving somewhere foreign.

Instead, transducer and feedback technologies will give you the sights and odours of that Maghreb souk, and e-commerce connections will have a styrofoam tray of chicken with preserved lemons and tabbouleh delivered to your door before you can say Thorstein Veblen.

We will look back at the leisure of the nineties with a nostalgic longing. “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of respectability to the gentleman of leisure,” Veblen wrote in his 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class. He was right. And conspicuous exhaustion is still the preferred leisure of the theory class. I was thinking this in the office the other day, when I thought what a pity it is one can’t make two calls at once . . .

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