.............................. ...................commentary

.................................(from October 28th 2004)

         ...............WHAT MAKES A LOAFER? 



Some of you reading this might think I consider myself a writer, if only a part-timer and an amateur - a pretty substandard one too, no doubt. But I don't. And that's because I'm principally a loafer. Nor do I merely consider myself a loafer, slacker, waster, or whatever term describes someone who does nothing much that's useful to the 'big machine' - which most people seem to spend their lives serving - but I truly am a loafer, a dedicated aspirer to the purposeful art of loafing. The fact that I write now-and-then means nothing. You may as well regard someone who walks occasionally as a walker, or who talks as a talker. Most people do both quite a lot, in addition to being a solicitor, a shop assistant or an electronics engineer - or indeed a loafer. Perhaps I do write more than some people, but I write a lot less than others. Besides, writing is just silent talking. And by writing, one is recording what one says, or thinks - as best one can with what literary skills one has.

Now loafing wasn't merely a distinction I'd hoped to achieve since the age of about 5. Nor was it an aspiration that I consciously nurtured. And I didn't drift into it because I'm work-shy. No. In no way am I work-shy. Two years ago I redecorated my house. The whole place, every room, and outside too: windows, eaves… everything. And it's not a terraced house either, but detached, which means more work. Not only that, but I completely refurbished the bathroom and kitchen - all entirely myself. I fitted an electric shower - plumbed it and fixed up the electricity supply. I tiled and painted and wallpapered and carpeted everywhere myself, and put in worktops and so forth. You name it, I did it. Not a single piece of outside help did I have. What's more, at one of the seven houses I've lived at, in St Albans, I installed an entire central heating system, gas boiler the lot - which (amazingly) worked first time. I had to shut it all off pretty quickly to fix a leak under the landing. But that was soon put right: blow-lamp and solder. Soon after, I cut an archway between the lounge and dining room, and by careful plastering gave it a nice curved look that impressed those who saw it. Of course, I fitted a lintel before removing that section of wall. Sometime later I heard that someone in Shepherds Bush had knocked out a dividing wall in their cellar and the whole house had collapsed. It's a matter of common sense.

I'm not boasting here; I'm not proud of what I've done any more than I'd be proud at making a loaf of bread - of which more elsewhere, and a more appropriate activity, you might expect , for someone who regards themselves as 'a loafer'. Many people do most of these things for themselves, often more than me; while others prefer to work overtime in their day-job and pay someone else to do it. For that first serious attempt at DIY - the central heating - I was more than a bit apprehensive. On that first morning standing there, hacksaw in hand, surrounded by radiators and pipes and what have you, it felt like poising on the edge of a high diving board, uncertain whether to risk the plunge - and then, in a kind of bluster of defiance, I launched into it. It was tough work, but easy to get right.

I've done the diving board stunt too. Always at least once I would leap headfirst from the top board whenever I went to a swimming pool. Not to show off, really! But to confirm to myself that I still had the nerve. I must have been around 35 the last time, because it's more than 20-years since I've been in a swimming pool. What I miss most is bouncing on the middle-high springboard, arms spread, flying out like an eagle - a few seconds of weightless thrill. The chlorine got the better of me though; it duffed up my nasal passages so I'd suffer afterwards for several weeks. Ever since I only swim in the sea - and can dive there too in places.

Two years ago I swam out to the harbour arm at Hastings and climbed the long vertical iron ladder up the side. Nothing clever about that; but was it high? I felt like I was on top of St Paul's. The place was solid with kids, diving and leaping obliviously off this imposing concrete structure, all pitted and sea-worn, then climbing back up, over and over. And suddenly, terrified to hell, I decided to take a run and dive too, and wheeee I'd done it. Easy. But it was too scary and I swam back to shore - I was 53 after all! Those kids have no concept of death. No concept of anything going wrong. That's obvious from just watching them… wheeee, they twist and roll and land in the water all ways. I see them at it every year, while nowadays I just swim in the docile old-guy manner nearby - or more often down at the eastern extremity of the town where it's all big cliffs as it might have looked millions of years ago (except the channel wasn't there then), and one can dive off the last groyne when the tide's in.

A few weeks ago a couple of kids on the harbour arm climbed up the 7- or 8-metre gantry at the far end. On top of this gantry is a red light that flashes at night - run from a battery which charges during the day from a little array of photocells. One kid held the other's hand for balance while he stood on the very highest strut. And then he dived - the tide was only half-out too. What a nerve, I thought. But how tremendous it must have felt. Oh, to be a kid again, fearless, supple and vividly ALIVE - though so involved in Living to be scarcely aware of it.

Only in retrospect can I fully appreciate these things. But I can still gain some vicarious exhilaration just watching - and then going on down past the harbour in the glorious hot August days when one can walk along drenched in sea water wearing only swimming trunks and trainers - and not needing a towel to dry.

There's a guy I sometimes meet along the sea front who's 75. He wears shorts and sandals in summer, has a big mop of white hair, and a white moustache. He strolls along like a General, and could talk the pants off anyone who lacks the assertiveness of a politician. But there I go - isn't that what you're saying? There I go mentioning the word 'politician', preparing my soapbox. But just because I mention the word doesn't necessarily mean I'm about to launch into some abysmal diatribe - as, I confess, I'm inclined to do. I wonder how many people I've turned off like that? Loads probably. But never mind. This is my website - they can get their own and write what they like. And if they do I hope they'll let me know so I can read what they have to say. I'm always interested in what people have to say, especially if I find myself in disagreement - which I usually do (except for znet and suchlike). Nearly always I find myself siding with the maverick.

One day - I say this full of naïve hope - the word 'politics' will be redundant, so will the word 'punishment' and 'money' and 'credit' and a few other problematic terms that stem from the big list of perennial human foibles - chiefly the result of the lack of trust we have for one another, and that worst of all vices: greed. As the world, driven mainly as it appears to be these days by greed (western greed), hurtles towards what could turn out to be WW3, I remain an incurable optimist. Am I mad? On this count, I wonder myself sometimes. I'm open to be proved wrong. An exception to this is the atmosphere. In a hundred years from now people could be going about with air bottles on their backs in order to breathe. What numbskulls we are allowing this to happen. If you trace the causes, it's all down to the incessant clamour for ever-greater profit that grips our unreflecting primitive egos; in other words: greed.

But I think this irrational optimism of mine is the result of outstanding good luck. I don't connect luck with having money here - to do so would be a mistake. I concede that lack of money might be connected with bad luck, but good luck has nothing to do with money - except, well, why I'm lucky is simply because I don't care about money. For some lucky reason I attach no importance to it beyond subsistence. I wouldn't be so blasé as to turn it down. But there's no way I'd put myself out for it either. Take it or leave it, is how I feel. I'd rather scrape by on a pittance any day than go through what it usually takes to secure a decent steady income.

Once when I was crossing London on my way from Walton-on-Thames to Lowestoft, I took the tube from Waterloo to Bank. It was about 09.00 when I arrived at Waterloo, and turning a corner to enter the long wide tunnel going down to that solitary line, I immediately joined a solid wall of people, all taking the same route as me. I could hardly believe such a mass of people were queuing like that for anything. It was only about a 20-minute walk to Bank - though admittedly, in those days, the route would take you past Smithfields - the stench from which was to be avoided at all costs. And so we waited. After about five minutes the sound of a distant train echoed up the tunnel, and soon the screeching of wheels. Then suddenly the queue shuffled forwards about fifty metres and stopped again. And I heard the now less distant sound of closing doors and a train departing. And so we waited again. I looked back; the tunnel was as solid with people behind as it was in front, all patiently and silently waiting, all staring obliviously ahead (the lights were too dim to read by). All these people were smart and neat, wearing ostentatiously sober attire, and carrying briefcases, umbrellas, newspapers; men in suits, women in women's suits, all black or grey, or otherwise dark and sombre; hair neat and formal, all standing there looking blank and more or less uniform. I turned to a woman beside me and said: 'Is it like this every day?' 'Yes,' she replied, nodding, 'every day the same.' 'How do they tolerate it,' I asked, 'everyone looks well-off, and I don't suppose they're stupid.' She grinned, 'One just has to switch off,' she said, 'and accept it. That's what I do; but as soon as I've finished my Articles I'm getting out.' 'A wise decision,' I said. Then the sound of another train echoed up the tunnel, and I said, 'Will we get this one do you think?' 'Probably not.' she answered, 'It'll be the one after, but it won't take long.' She was right. The next shift forward brought us onto the platform just as a packed-out train accelerated away.

I reflected on my own situation driving to TVC on the early shift, sitting in traffic jams, negotiating obscure routes, weaving around this and that obstacle - to be there by 08.00. These people could at least switch off, I thought.

I was almost 40 before I became aware of being in a position to easily loaf. I could have begun years earlier had I not been 'asleep' to my situation and what was happening to me. Then one day I woke up to how valuable our little span of time is, and I began to regret the time I'd sold - or rather, undersold. I thought: 40 years, all gone, and what have I done? Not that there was anything I felt I should have done (though perhaps there was), but most of it had been wasted doing what someone else wanted me to do in order to earn a living. True, I had a comfortable, appealing job at the time, fine social contacts, nice detached house in a nice quiet road near the Thames, good neighbours, decent car... How easy to just change nothing, to stick with the little pleasure-bubble I lived in which I called 'my life', and of which I had little to complain. I'd surrendered a whole decade to it, a decade that whistled past like a supercharged roadrunner. If a whole decade had virtually eluded me, why not two more? I thought, if I don't intervene here I'll suddenly wake up at 60, wondering: what happened? I see that period as my synthetic decade. Before then things had been more dynamic, if sometimes less comfortable, but never the same for more than two or three years, usually less. Each change a new start, a new awakening. During that decade I'd fallen 'asleep' and was just dozing the years away. It's great to doze. Who doesn't know it? Proust's epic novel is a mere series of reflections during a prolonged doze one morning before rising from bed. But dozing isn't living. And the worst kind of dozing is that which we do in the factories and offices were we allow ourselves to be enslaved. Well, that's how I see it. Some people spend a lot of energy aiming for promotion, and when they achieve it and become a more valuable slave, they are even more enslaved. When Sartre said, 'Man is condemned to be free.' he failed to add that most people end up selling their freedom. And they do that, I believe, because they are brought up to do so. 'Make sure you do what you like,' said Shaw, 'or you'll end up liking what you do.' Everything - well, maybe not quite everything - in our society here in the west encourages us to become enslaved. Even many wealthy middle-class become so enmeshed. But the reason why the middle class are predominately those who are published writers, exhibited artists, or otherwise generally successful at achieving something worthwhile, is because it's in their upbringing. They have been brought up to believe in themselves; not to be slaves.

As for the rest of us, what encourages us to relinquish our freedom is not the need for money - though that plays a part - it is that we are discouraged from thinking for ourselves. We don't learn to use time constructively - or if we do, then it is only for short periods. We soon exhaust our capacity to think how best to use our time, so we look around for someone to sell it to - or give it to: ie, charity work. This is the kind of reasoning that led me into slacking, or loafing. I've been doing it successfully now for more than 15-years.

I don't deny that once I'd awoken to my real predicament - a universal predicament - I spent a year or two considering the matter. It seemed a daunting decision at the time. Then I went for it. It felt a bit odd at first. I'd made a few ambitious plans - always remaining entirely flexible, otherwise the whole object of the venture would be lost. Then after a couple of months of 'heel kicking', I began to put into effect those plans, which involved a similar approach to when I'd charged into that central heating installation eight years earlier.

And so began a prolonged travel experience - a perfect launching point for a future of loafing. As I say, that was 15-years ago. Many events have taken place since. Nowadays, I don't have to mark-time in some factory or office, 'asleep' to Life; but instead I can observe the seasons, go as I please, socialise with other pseudo-bohemians, zoom off somewhere at a moment's notice - none of which feels in the least bit odd as it would have done formerly. What would feel odd, would be getting a job....like the guy in my little item on Studs Terkel.

And the same might be said of Baz Morgan, the protagonist in the little SF story, who unwittingly becomes caught up in a most unlikely series of events in 'The Wayward Computer' ...