It is August and I am living temporarily in an apartment with huge windows overlooking the Thames at Wapping, where I find myself staring at the river far too often and for far too long. I don’t consider it to be a profitable or educative activity; in fact, my conscience tells me, it’s not really an activity at all, unless you were to categorise it as a displacement activity, i.e. one which substitutes for properly profitable or educative ones. I am, in fact, doing nothing and this does not sit well with the Anglo-Saxon Protestant Work Ethic I acquired (despite having had a French mother and a Roman Catholic education) possibly from my father’s genes.
Perhaps it has something to do with August and the feeling that it’s holiday time, a time when ‘to do nothing’ is acceptable. People say that nothing happens in August anyway because everyone is away on holiday; but this is a myth perpetuated by the physical absence of our political leaders and a large proportion of the media and news-reporting establishment, who have assiduously set up euphemistic ‘out of office’ notices to fend off incoming email. The myth surely loses credibility in the face of events: the famine in the Horn of Africa, the rioting and looting in the streets of English cities, the crisis of confidence in the Euro currency and the general collapse of the global trading economy. These things are sent to try us; even in August.
Furthermore, given that the concept of holidays is predicated on the existence of workdays, it follows that such a concept is an irrelevance to the millions who are unemployed. And for another significant body of the population, the self-employed, the distinction between work-time and leisure-time has become so blurred that, for them, August may not be a special month either.
Falling as I do into one or the other of these two categories, the arrival of August is not a plausible explanation or justification for my inactivity. I must look elsewhere, for I am reluctant to concede that I may be simply running out of steam, or that life is no longer a source of wonder to me. Discussion of the subject with intimates usually concludes with statements such as “we all need down-time” or “you need to recharge your batteries” but these have the unsatisfactory ring of the cliché and my faux Anglo-Saxon conscience remains un-salved.
Delving around, however, I have unearthed some strands of tradition which acknowledge my dilemma and which undermine the “use it or lose it” school of thought. I have it on good authority, for example, that Italians are comfortable with the whole ethos, having coined the phrase dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. But then, they are not especially troubled by the Anglo-Saxon Protestant Work Ethic. I found a website called donothingfor2minutes.com which positively encourages inactivity; but even I can manage two minutes without angst and, anyway, the site falls disappointingly short when it comes to propounding a theory. Then, at the other end of the scale, we have Buddhist monks devoting their whole lives to understanding and perfecting the art of doing nothing – which is a little excessive in my context.
Perhaps I should look closer to home where I recall an old saying which I once dismissed as quaintly foolish but now appreciate contains a kernel of comforting wisdom. It works best when spoken with a West Country burr, thus: ‘Sometimes I just sits and thinks. Other times I just sits’. I think I’ll just learn to live with that.