The Pursuit of Idleness

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What a delectable notion is the concept of idleness. The very word conjures up a wealth of richly imaginative language, in which to indulge one’s dreams of doing nothing: lazing, loafing, lounging, lackadaisical, otioseness, pottering, torpidity. These are not to be confused with a further abundance of phraseology more suited to the recognised, and more often dependent, idle – shiftless, lazy, malingerers, sluggards, shirkers, slackers and laggards. No, the idleness of which we speak here is  the sort that is a pleasure to be savoured when one can, it is not a permanent state. As such, its true appreciation is dependent on being busy or, at least otherwise engaged for most of the time. Can we assume that this can only apply to to those in the kind of established routines that allow little, if any, time for leisure and pleasure.

The esteemed inspiration for this magazine, Jerome K Jerome (1859 -1927), an English writer and humourist said, in probably his best known quote, that “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do”. Jerome harboured aspirations of becoming a man of letters, or of going into politics. He attended St. Marylebone Grammar School in Westminster (an interesting and eclectic alumni includes the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, thriller writer Len Deighton, footballer John Barnes, and pop/punk singer Adam Ant) Jerome K Jeromeuntil he was forced to abandon his studies, aged 14, following the death of his parents. Given the times – the 1870s – the Victorian work ethic and the ideology of self-help were well instilled in people keen to avoid the social distinction, as laid out by the creators of the Poor Laws,  of “the deserving and the undeserving poor”. Jerome, therefore, expected to have to find employment and experienced a varied working life – the railways, the theatre, teaching, packing, a solicitor’s clerk. At the same time he was writing short stories, essays and satires – most of which were rejected. But his enthusiasm for new experiences and ideas seems not to have wavered.

In 1888 Jerome married – he took his new wife to honeymoon on the River Thames in a small boat. One cannot help but wonder if this provided the inspiration for ‘Three Men in a Boat’ invoking, as it does, blissful thoughts of meandering idly along a peaceful river and far removed from the workplace and one’s responsibilities. The popularity of the book helped to rekindle ideas of leisure and pleasure. Boat hire on the Thames increased by 50% and Jerome’s attempts to incorporate something of a travel guide into his fictional idleness engendered new interest in the river as a focal point for such pursuits.

“There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do,” he said. How true!  A perpetual state of idleness completely eradicates the pleasure of taking a break and perhaps indulging in an afternoon siesta,, an in-depth conversation, thoughtful reflection or just sipping that glass of a good malt whisky. For what is there to take a break from? And how are such simple pleasures to be valued if they are a constant rather than an interlude?

Idleness (in its benign sense) may be hard to find in today’s working world. A frenetic whirlpool of hyperproductivity, meetings, deadlines and career competitiveness, all in an effort to be perceived successful, can all too easily detach the concept of leisure time from the pysche. The most important perception of being idle is that one should not feel guilt, otherwise its benefits are lost. This is a therapeutic pastime – in terms of both body and mind. I defer, again, to St Jerome in this matter, “Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen”.

How To Be Idle

Jerome’s preoccupation with thoughts of idleness had already produced ‘Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow’ in 1886, and ‘Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow’ in 1898, although these never caught as much public captivation as had ‘Three Men in a Boat’. In the late 1890s the appreciation of idleness was manifested in the production of a monthly magazine entitled, fittingly, ‘The Idler’ – an illustrated satirical publication catering to such gentlemen of like belief. Jerome was chosen, over Rudyard Kipling, to be the editor, although his financial problems and a libel suit meant that his editorship was short-lived.

It is easy to say that, in retrospect, Jerome was a highly intelligent man who not only appreciated the finer things, but was also wise enough to know that such pleasures needed to be balanced with a more disciplined and conformist approach to life. Perhaps it is debatable to consider whether the circumstances of his age contributed to this or whether he really was ahead of his time.

I can imagine, all too easily, that if Jerome was here today, he might well be working on articles for something like Private Eye, combining his love of letters, politics and satire. And allowing time, of course, to search out those elusive moments of salubrious idleness.

Keener readers may be interested to know there is a Jerome K Jerome Society. Not, it should be noted, devoted to all things idle, but rather more productive in their appreciation of the fellow – than, perhaps even, the fellow himself. More can be found at www.jeromekjerome.com. If, of course, you’re so inclined.

Further inspiration can be found in the contemporary version of The Idler.

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