- I wonder if that hard-working American rationalist and
agent of industry Benjamin Franklin knew how much misery he would cause
in the world when, back in 1757, high on puritanical zeal, he popularised
and promoted the trite and patently untrue aphorism "early to bed
and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise"?
- It is a sad fact that from early childhood we are tyrannised
by the moral myth that it is right, proper and good to leap out of bed
the moment we wake in order to set about some useful work as quickly and
cheerfully as possible. Parents begin the brainwashing process and then
school works yet harder to indoctrinate its charges with the necessity
of early rising. My own personal guilt about feeling physically incapable
of rising early in the morning continued well into my 20s.
- As a student, I developed complex alarm systems. I bought
a timer plug and set it to turn on my coffee maker and also the record
player, on which I had placed my loudest record, It's Alive by the Ramones.
7.50am was the allotted time. Being a live recording, the first track was
prefaced by crowd noise. The cheering and whooping would wake me, and I'd
know I had only a few seconds to leap out of bed and turn down the volume
before Dee Dee Ramone would grunt "One - two - three - four"
and my housemates and I would be assaulted by the opening chords of Rockaway
Beach, turned up to 11. The idea was that I would then drink the coffee
and jolt my body into wakefulness. It half worked. When I heard the crowd
noise, I would leap out of bed and totter for a moment. But what happened
then, of course, was that I would turn the volume right down, ignore the
coffee and climb back to the snuggly, warm embrace of my duvet. Then I'd
slowly come to my senses at around 10.30am, doze until noon, and finally
stagger to my feet in a fit of self-loathing.
- For all modern society's promises of leisure, liberty
and doing what you want, most of us are still slaves to a schedule we did
not choose. Why have things come to such a pass? Well, the forces of the
anti-idle have been at work since the fall of man. The propaganda against
oversleeping goes back a very long way, more than 2,000 years, to the Bible.
Here is Proverbs, chapter 6, on the subject:
- Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and
be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat
in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
- (I would question the sanity of a religion that holds
up the ant as an example of how to live. The ant system is an exploitative
aristocracy based on the unthinking toil of millions of workers and the
complete inactivity of a single queen and a handful of drones.)
- Christianity has promoted bed-guilt ever since. This
passage from the Bible is used as a bludgeon by moralists, capitalists
and bureaucrats in order to impose upon the people the notion that God
hates it when you get up late. It suits the lust for order that characterises
- In mid-18th-century London, Dr Johnson, who had nothing
to be ashamed of as far as literary output goes, is to be found lacerating
himself for his sluggardly habits. "O Lord, enable me ... in redeeming
the time I have spent in Sloth," he wrote in his journals at the age
of 29. Twenty years later, things haven't improved, and he resolves "to
rise early. Not later than six if I can." The following year, having
failed to rise at six, he adapts his resolution: "I purpose to rise
at eight because though I shall not yet rise early it will be much earlier
than I now rise, for I often lye till two."
- The Methodist John Wesley, who himself rose every morning
at 4am, wrote a sermon called The Duty And Advantage of Early Rising (1786),
in which he claimed that lying in bed was physically unhealthy, and used
comically quasi-scientific terms to drive home his argument: "By soaking
so long between warm sheets, the flesh is as it were parboiled, and becomes
soft and flabby. The nerves, in the meantime, are quite unstrung."
- The bestselling Victorian author Samuel Smiles's books
were titled Self-Help (1859), Thrift (1875) and Duty (1880), and were packed
with homilies. If we think we are free of this sort of thing today, then
look at our magazines and the "sort your life out" features that
proliferate. Patronising self-help books regale us with various bullet-pointed
strategies to becoming more productive, less drunk and more hard-working.
Many involve spending a lot of money.
- I would argue not only that early rising is totally unnatural
but also that lying in bed half awake - sleep researchers call this state
"hypnagogic" - is positively beneficial to health and happiness.
A good morning doze of half an hour or more can, for example, help you
to prepare mentally for the problems and tasks ahead.
- As to how on earth going early to bed could automatically
guarantee riches and happiness, I suppose nothing can be proved, but I'm
with Dr Johnson who confidently asserted: "Whoever thinks of going
to bed before 12 o'clock is a scoundrel."
- Greatness and late rising are natural bedfellows. Late
rising is for the independent of mind, the individual who refuses to become
a slave to work, money, ambition. In his youth, the great poet of loafing,
Walt Whitman, would arrive at the offices of the newspaper where he worked
at around 11.30am, and leave at 12.30 for a two-hour lunch break. Another
hour's work after lunch and then it was time to hit the town.
- The English historian EP Thompson, in his classic book
The Making Of The English Working Class (1963), argues that the creation
of the job is a relatively recent phenomenon, born out of the Industrial
Revolution. Before the advent of steam-powered machines and factories in
the mid-18th century, work was a much more haphazard affair. People worked,
yes, they did "jobs", but the idea of being yoked to one particular
employer to the exclusion of all other money-making activity was unknown.
- Take the weavers. Before the invention in 1764 of the
spinning jenny by the weaver and carpenter James Hargreaves, and of the
steam engine in the same year by James Watt, weavers were generally self-employed
and worked as and when they chose. The young Friedrich Engels noted that
they had control over their own time: "So it was that the weaver was
usually in a position to lay by something, and rent a little piece of land,
that he cultivated in his leisure hours, of which he had as many as he
chose to take, since he could weave whenever and as long as he pleased,"
he wrote in his 1845 study The Condition Of The Working Class In England.
"They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to
do, and yet earned what they needed."
- Thompson writes: "The work pattern was one of alternate
bouts of intense labour and of idleness." A weaver, for example, might
weave eight or nine yards on a rainy day. On other days, a contemporary
diary tells us, he might weave just two yards before he did "sundry
jobs about the lathe and in the yard & wrote a letter in the evening".
Or he might go cherry-picking, work on a community dam, calve the cow,
cut down trees or go to watch a public hanging. Thompson adds as an aside:
"The pattern persists among some self-employed - artists, writers,
small farmers, and perhaps also with students [idlers, all] - today, and
provokes the question of whether it is not a 'natural' human work-rhythm."
- England, then, before the invention of the dark satanic
mills, was a nation of idlers. But in time the new Protestant work ethic
was successful. The Industrial Revolution, above all, was a battle between
hard work and laziness, and hard work won.
- The thundering polemicist Thomas Carlyle did much damage
in the 19th century by promoting the notion of the dignity or even the
romance of hard graft. "Man was created to work, not to speculate,
or feel, or dream," he wrote, adding, "Every idle moment is treason."
It is your patriotic duty to work hard - another myth, particularly convenient
to the rich who, as Bertrand Russell said, "preach the dignity of
labour, while taking care themselves to remain undignified in this respect".
Or as the late, great British writer Jeffrey Bernard put it: "As if
there was something romantic and glamorous about hard work ... if there
was something romantic about it, the Duke of Westminster would be digging
his own fucking garden, wouldn't he?"
- If you want religious justification for your refractory
habits, then remember there are parts of the Bible - unlike those so often
quoted by pro-work propagandists - that argue against toil. Work is a curse,
caused not by God but by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He led Adam
and Eve to fall from the work-free state of paradise by awakening material
desire in them, thereby condemning them to toil and pain. If you want nothing,
you don't need to work.
- God himself set a good example, argues Paul Lafargue,
the socialist campaigner and son-in-law of Karl Marx, in The Right To Be
Lazy: after working for six days, he rests for all eternity.
- The lie-in - by which I mean lying in bed awake - is
not a selfish indulgence but an essential tool for any student of the art
of living. As Sherlock Holmes knew. Lolling around in his smoking jacket,
puffing his pipe, Holmes would sit and ponder for hours on a tricky case.
In one superb story, the opium-drenched The Man With The Twisted Lip, Holmes
solves yet another case with ease. An incredulous Mr Plod character muses:
"I wish I knew how you reach your results," to which Holmes replies:
"I reached this one by sitting upon five pillows and consuming an
ounce of shag."
- RenÈ Descartes, in the 17th century, was similarly
addicted to inactivity. Indeed, it was absolutely at the centre of his
philosophy. When young and studying with the Jesuits, he was unable to
get up in the morning. They would throw buckets of cold water over him
and he would turn over and go back to sleep. Then, because of his obvious
genius, he was granted the special privilege of getting up late. This was
his modus operandi because, of course, when he was lying in bed he was
thinking. It is easy to see how someone so inactive should conclude that
the body and the mind are separate entities. Laziness produced Cartesian
duality. For him, lying in bed and thinking was the very essence of being
human: Cogito, ergo sum, or, in other words, I lie in bed thinking, therefore
- Idleness as a waste of time is a damaging notion put
about by its spiritually vacant enemies. Introspection could lead to that
terrible thing: a vision of the truth, a clear image of the horror of our
fractured, dissonant world. The writer Will Self, arguing that long periods
of motorway driving can be a method of recapturing lost idling time, puts
it like this: "This cultural taboo against thinking ... exists in
England because of the Protestant work ethic which demands that people
shouldn't be idle - ergo they shouldn't think."
- This prejudice is well established in the western world.
Governments do not like the idle. The idle worry them. They do not manufacture
useless objects nor consume the useless products of labour. They cannot
be monitored. They are out of control.
- That being ill can be a delightful way to recapture lost
idling time is a fact well known to all young children. On schooldays,
the independent child soon learns that if he is ill, then he can lie in
bed all day, avoid work and be looked after. What a different world from
the everyday one of punishments, recriminations and duties. Suddenly everyone
is very nice to you.
- Being ill - nothing life-threatening, of course - should
be welcomed as a pleasure in adult life, too, as a holiday from responsibility
and burden. Indeed, it may be one of the few legitimate ways left to be
idle. When ill, you can avoid those irksome tasks that make living such
hard work.Dressing, for instance. You can pad around the house in your
dressing gown like Sherlock Holmes, NoÎl Coward or our friend, that
hero of laziness, Oblomov. When ill, you are the master. You do what you
like. You can play your old Clash albums. Stare out of the window. Laugh
inwardly at the sufferings of your co-workers. Looking a little deeper
at the benefits of being ill, we may argue that the physical pain can lead
to positive character development, that bodily suffering can improve the
mind. "That which does not kill me makes me stronger," said Nietzsche.
- The intellectual benefits of being ill are demonstrated
and reflected upon at length by Marcel Proust. Famously chronically ill
and frequently bed-bound, he had plenty of time to theorise on being ill:
"Infirmity alone makes us notice and learn, and enables us to analyse
processes which we would otherwise know nothing about. A man who falls
straight into bed every night, and ceases to live until the moment when
he wakes and rises, will surely never dream of making, not necessarily
great discoveries, but even minor observations about sleep."
- Proust was accused by contemporaries of being a hypochondriac,
which may have been true. But how else would he have found the time to
write the hundreds of thousands of words that make up ¿ la Recherche
du temps perdu? And how else would we find the time to read it, were we
not sometimes ill? If Proust had been a healthy, upstanding member of society,
then he might have suffered a successful career in the upper reaches of
the civil service, and the world of letters would have been a good deal
- In the far-off days before painkillers and tranquillisers,
illness and trauma were not to be swept under the carpet and ignored. They
were to be respected, listened to and given time to work themselves out.
When Samuel Pepys had an immensely painful operation to remove a kidney
stone, he did not rush back into the office 36 hours later. No. He had
the right to a full 40 days' recovery period during which time he was not
allowed to do anything.
- "Convalescing" is a word one doesn't hear much
these days. It's as if we have banished the notion that time is a healer.
What happened, I wonder, to the doctors of the turn of the century, who
used to recommend long periods of inactivity on the South Coast for minor
ailments? When the sickly velvet-coated dandy Robert Louis Stevenson fell
ill in 1873, aged 23, the diagnosis was "nervous exhaustion with a
threatening of phthisis" and the prescription was a winter on the
Riviera, "in complete freedom from anxiety or worry". Once upon
a time, we knew how to be ill. Now we have lost the art. Everyone, everywhere,
disapproves of being ill.
- To demonstrate how our attitudes to illness have grown
dramatically less idler-friendly in recent years, we need only look at
the recent history of Lemsip's marketing. When I was a child, a mug of
Lemsip mixed with honey was one of the pleasures of lying in bed with a
heavy cold. It went with being wrapped in a dressing gown and watching
Crown Court. It was all part of the fun. Your mother might bring you a
steaming cup of the soothing nectar in bed. You would sip it, cough weakly
and luxuriate in its fumes. It had some positive effect on the physical
symptoms of the illness, to be sure, but it was also a pleasure in itself.
Lemsip was part of the delicious and much-needed slow-down that illness
can bring into our life.
- Not any more. Lemsip has reinvented itself as a "hard-working
medicine". It has changed from a friend of the idler to his worst
enemy. The implication now is that rather than enjoying your illness and
waiting a few days till it has gone away, you should manfully repress the
symptoms and carry on as normal, competing, working, consuming. Most appalling
of all was their recent ad line, "Stop Snivelling and Get Back to
- "Staying in is the new going out" was a joke
I made at a meeting once. Though daft and glib, there remains some truth
in it. Going out all the time can be oppressive. It's hard work. Trying
to keep up with the latest bar, club, movie, gallery, show or band is a
full-time occupation, and one always feels as if there is something better
going on somewhere else. On a simple level, of course, staying in is the
idler's dream, because of the low physical effort involved. It avoids the
tedious and costly business of getting ready, leaving the house, travelling
somewhere else, attending the function and then enduring the still more
tedious and costly business of getting home at the end of it all. In any
case, planned schemes of merriment, as Dr Johnson rightly pointed out,
rarely turn into the best evenings.
- The greatest piece of staying-in literature ever composed
is ¿ Rebours by JK Huysmans, published in 1884. Huysmans was a decadent
fin de siËcle writer with a bourgeois day job - he was a clerk at
the Ministry of Interior for 30 years. But at night he allowed his literary
imagination to roam free and created some of the most fascinating works
of the period. ¿ Rebours, which translates as Against Nature, is
a study of a wealthy dandy called Des Esseintes. Having exhausted the pleasures
of town and failed to find the meaning of life in weird sex and late nights,
he decides to retreat to a hillside mansion and create his own artificial
reality, a peculiar paradise of colour, smell and beauty, controlled by
ingenious mechanical devices. He is motivated by an idleness of the body
and a snobbishness of the mind. He doesn't want to exert himself; he doesn't
want to consort with his fellow human beings, whom he regards as irredeemably
vulgar. Bothering itself, to Des Esseintes, is vulgar. With inner resources
and books, there is no need to move about, to travel.
- So, Husymans sets about creating his indoor wonderland.
Helped by a couple of bemused servants, he uses his considerable wealth
and imagination to build an absurdly extravagant reality. His first act
is to sleep during the day and come alive at night. Perhaps the best known
of Des Esseintes's innovations is the golden tortoise. He has a fancy that
it would be amusing to have in his sitting room an ornament that moved
around, so orders a tortoise to be plated with gold and encrusted with
jewels. Another caprice is an invention he calls the "mouth organ",
a complex machine that delivers drops of various different liqueurs from
an array of stops, the idea being to mix them up on the palate and create
a symphony of flavour. He also orders the most fragile, delicate and overbred
hothouse flowers to festoon his house. There is a nice vein of dark humour
that undercuts the earnest descriptions of Des Esseintes's experiments:
the tortoise, he notices one evening, has died, and after a lengthy description
of the mouth organ, Des Esseintes finds that he can't be bothered to go
through the whole palaver and simply helps himself to a shot of whisky
before sitting down. Needless to say, the flowers all die, too.
- Eventually, Des Esseintes is defeated by the botherers.
His style of living makes him ill, and he is told by various doctors that
he must move back to Paris and get out there, have fun and talk to people.
Otherwise, "insanity quickly followed by tuberculosis" will be
his fate. Des Esseintes gives in to their advice with bad grace. His project
may have been a failure, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't take inspiration
from his heroic attempt to elevate his soul via interior furnishings.
- I have been inspired to create a pub in my own home.
For me, the pleasures of staying in revolve around drinking and talking.
So I took the unprepossessing scullery in our rented Devon farmhouse and
installed a dartboard and two old dining-room chairs, which cost £7
each in a local bric-a-brac place. I've also added a print of dogs playing
pool, fairy lights, a piece of driftwood, a shove-ha'penny board, beer
mats, Hogarth prints, an old scythe which I found on a rubbish tip and
postcards of Cornish men eating giant pasties. All these items were either
found lying around or were donated by friends. The pub is called The Green
Man and my friend Pete Loveday has painted the sign. Through the battered
casement windows you can see the sun set over the sea, and without stirring
abroad I can know the whole world.
- I have moved my old Dansette record player into my home-pub
and we play NoÎl Coward and The Ink Spots on sunny afternoons. I
find that sort of music accompanies ale and cigarettes rather well.
- According to the actor David Garrick, when Dr Johnson
was asked what were the greatest pleasures in life, he "answered fucking
and the second was drinking. And therefore he wondered why there were not
more drunkards, for all could drink tho' all could not fuck."
- From Burns to Byron and from Bohemians to hippies, the
history of riotous, easy living and the quest for liberty has been bound
up with the pursuit of sexual freedoms. And the pleasures of sex have long
been attacked by the prudes and bureaucrats who tend to run countries and
large institutions. Solo pleasuring has been a particular victim. In common
with other forms of non-reproductive sex such as homosexuality or bestiality,
the 19th century saw a widespread and concerted attack on masturbation
from priests, schoolteachers, doctors and scientists.
- You can imagine the burden everyone must have been carrying
around with them as a result. Here is an extract from the guilt-torn diary
of a certain Victorian do-gooder, written in 1850:
- March 15: God has delivered me from the greatest offence
and the constant murder of all my thoughts.
- March 21: Undisturbed by my great enemy.
- June 7: But this long moral death, this failure of all
attempts to cure. I think I have never been so bad as this last week.
- June 17: After a sleepless night physically and morally
ill and broken down, a slave - glad to leave Athens. I have no wish on
earth but sleep.
- June 18: I had no wish, no enemy, I longed but for sleep.
My enemy is too strong for me, everything has been tried. All, all is vain.
- June 21: My enemy let me go and I was free.
- June 24: Here too I was free.
- June 29: Four long days of absolute slavery.
- June 30: I cannot write a letter, can do nothing.
- July 1: I lay in bed and called on God to save me.
- (You may be surprised to learn the owner of this towering
libido was none other than Florence Nightingale.)
- In the modern west we like to congratulate ourselves
on having a more open-minded attitude to sex. But sex, like so many other
pleasures, has been caught up in the striving ethic. It has become hard
work; something we have to "perform" at; a competitive sport.
The journalist Suzanne Moore made this point in the Idler in 1995. She
recalled her schoolfriend Janice, who taught the young Suzanne various
sexual tricks: "What Janice tried to impress on me was that sex was
an activity that you had to work at, practise, evolve techniques for: one
vast exercise in self-improvement. I had never liked sports of any description.
I was lazy. I couldn't be bothered ..." This vast effort is all wrong.
Sex becomes something we have to learn. The magazines give us homework.
And if we get it wrong, if we get low marks, then we feel guilty and useless.
Fitness-freak pop stars such as Geri Halliwell contribute to this sor t
of suffering, as does Madonna, who, as Moore says, "is of course living
proof that you can try too hard. She has made sex as sexy as aerobics and,
like step classes, something that has to be slotted into an already tight
- It seems to me the situation is critical in the US, where
sex has been elevated into a cross between a religion and a sport. And
spare us, please, the humourless tantric-sex workouts of Sting. But the
question remains: what is idle sex? With what shall we substitute the modern
ideal of athletic power-shagging? Well, Suzanne has one answer: "To
be frank, I have never understood what was so wrong with lying back and
thinking of England ... when sex becomes such major toil, a labour of love,
let me tell you that it is your revolutionary duty to phone in sick."
- Oh, to lie back and be used and abused! This is surely
the secret wish of the sexual slacker. Sex for idlers should be messy,
drunken, bawdy, lazy. It should be wicked, wanton and lewd, dirty to the
point where it is embarrassing to look at one another in the morning. And
idle sex should be languid. Men are characterised as wanting to get straight
to the point when it comes to intercourse, and women complain that all
men want to do is thrust it in. But in my own case, I find I have a slight
sense of disappointment when the messing around comes to an end and the
final act begins. It means the mechanical element has taken over, the useful
bit, the part that actually makes babies. A part of me would like simply
to toy with my mistress for days on end under the lotus tree or on an enormous
pile of velvet cushions, while smoking, drinking and laughing.
- People criticise drunken sex but in my experience it
tends to be better than sober sex. Drink and drugs improve sex by removing
all the performance anxiety and guilt and concern about having a crap body,
as well as certain, ahem, inhibitions.
- Dreams and idleness go together and are dismissed as
"the children of an idle brain", as the sensible and grounded
Mercutio says to the starry-eyed Romeo in Romeo And Juliet. Dreamers are
"away with the fairies". They are told to start living in the
"the real world". The trick, indeed the duty, of every serious
idler is to harmonise dreamworld and dayworld.
- Dreams make the world go round. Our dreams at night fill
our subconscious with strange reflections of the day. In our dreams, our
spirit roams free; we can fly, we can sing, we are good at things (I have
dreams where I am brilliant at skateboarding, for example), we have erotic
encounters with celebrities.
- For surrealist filmmaker Luis BuÒuel, dreams were
the highlight of his life: "If someone were to tell me I had 20 years
left, and ask me how I'd like to spend them, I'd reply: 'Give me two hours
a day of activity, and I'll take the other 22 in dreams ... provided I
can remember them.' I love dreams, even when they're nightmares, which
is usually the case."
- The two hours a day, presumably, were when BuÒuel
would fashion some sort of art from his visions.
- There are many examples of the creative power of dreams:
Kubla Khan came to Coleridge in a dream, as did the tune for Yesterday
to Paul McCartney. The idea for Frankenstein revealed itself to the young
Mary Shelley in a waking dream; Einstein said that a breakthrough in his
theory of relativity had come to him in a dream; Descartes had a dream
that set him on the path towards his whole philosophical system (he said
it was "the most important affair" of his life). JK Rowling was
staring out of the window on a train when the idea, plot and characters
for Harry Potter came to her.
- The art of living is the art of bringing dreams and reality
together. I have a dream. It is called love, anarchy, freedom. It is called
- © Tom Hodgkinson, 2004.