The bishop and his daring suggestion
06 June 2007
Under the deceptively calm leadership of Dr Rowan Williams, the Church of England is going through one of its proactive phases. Whenever some new survey causes a fuss about the way society is going, there will be a bishop, one of God’s marketing team, on hand to add that all-important spiritual element.
Messages from the church tend to be an exercise in stating the obvious, and so it was a surprise to read that the Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading, has come up with a startling and original idea. The answer to many of our personal problems is apparently not, as the gurus of the self-help industry proclaim, to face up to them and to take action, but the very opposite. In his book Do Nothing to Change Your Life, the bishop is suggesting that creative idleness can be wonderful, life-enhancing thing.
It is a more daring proposal than might appear. It is generally accepted that we are all in too much of a hurry, sacrificing the enjoyment of today while fretfully working towards a golden tomorrow that somehow never arrives. Yet, for all the platitudes about the need to simplify and de-clutter, the headlong rush towards insecurity and dissatisfaction continues to accelerate. Working hours are longer. Breaks are fewer. An atmosphere of manic competitiveness obtains in most offices. Even away from work, there is an assumption that the most fulfilled private lives involve the achievement of leisure goals, the acquisition of a full portfolio of interesting hobbies.
Not long ago, the cliché was that computers would herald a new age of leisure. As it has turned out, they have added incomparably to the pressure of life, ensuring that work can continue to follow us wherever we happen to be. Professional success has never been worshipped more ardently, invariably being seen as more important than the raising and enjoyment of children. Even leisure is stressed. TV programmes offering advice on how to improve your garden, your kitchen, your dress sense, your marriage are invariably, perhaps as a result of the producers’ own deadlines, set against the clock. It is not enough to achieve; you need to have cheated time as well.
Those moments when we stop working are riven with guilt. Holidays can be a sort of agony. When Gordon Brown takes his first break as Prime Minister this summer, he will inevitably be snapped relaxing in a deckchair and his moment of rest will be the subject of disapproval and jokes.
As puritanical in our way as the Victorians, we have lost the art of doing nothing, and as a result, as the Bishop of Reading is implying, we have become more spiritually shallow. Someone forever in a hurry is not only likely to be less happy than a person who appreciates life but will also be stupider, less thoughtful.
The idea of overnight success, of instant happiness, has been the great con of recent years. A government delighted to see millions sucked into gambling has contributed to it, as have the television schedules, peddling get-rich-quick fantasies about property or business ideas. Silly makeover programmes concentrate on the end result of self-improvement, which is always magically fast, when the truth is that more satisfaction is to be found on the journey than reaching the destination.
Unfortunately, the Bishop of Reading marketed his guide to inaction by handing out egg-timers to commuters, inviting them to enjoy three minutes of leisure every day. Even relaxation, it seems, has to be against the clock.
Fancy that: Geldof goes respectable
“To be respectable,” VS Pritchett once wrote, “is one of the pinnacles of universal human desire.” The sight this week of Bob Geldof has confirmed that these wise words are as true today as they were 35 years ago. Attending a gala, the former Boomtown Rat, left, sported white tie and tails, his chest adorned with baubles, medals and ribbons in the manner of a Chelsea Pensioner. It would be easy, but unfair, to mock someone so keen to show off his honours. Less easy to forgive is Geldof’s pathetic claim that his entire get-up, with precisely the right medals, was bought in a fancy- dress shop. Cool or respectable: it is a straight choice. To borrow a title from Pritchett’s near-contemporary Kingsley Amis, you can’t do both.
* The train from London to Norwich was, we were told, delayed – nothing unusual there. But, as we sat in an immobile train at Liverpool Street, the announcer explained the reason for the hold-up. There had been a fatality on the track on the outskirts of London, he explained.
As the train eventually made its slow progress east, the announcer helpfully – eagerly – kept passengers up to date on the news of the fatality. He informed us as we passed the site of the fatality. Gaining speed beyond Colchester, he told us how the fatality had been lying across the tracks. Fatality, fatality, fatality, the repeated announcements became soporific, like the rhythm of the train. Perhaps one should not be surprised by this new hunger for dramatising everyday life. In today’s Crimewatch culture, the tragedy of strangers is something in which everyone can be, and perhaps should be, involved. We are all, even train announcers, acting in our own little soap opera.