I am in London this week visiting my children and just by being in this frantically busy 24-hour city, I’ve discovered what I like doing best of all: nothing. I absolutely love doing absolutely nothing.
All around me people are walking somewhere to do something. Even as they walk, they seem incapable of doing nothing. Their faces are cast downwards, bathed in the light of their smartphones or Kindles. Their thumbs are busy typing or their tongues are busy talking into dangly face-mikes. I think the streetlamps must have learned to sway backwards on their metal stems as this river of people flows towards them without looking to see where they’re going.
The essence of doing nothing is to avoid making any plans. Simply jump on board the first means of public transport that stops nearby and stay on board until some inner instinct prompts you to disembark. Once on the pavement, begin walking. Soon you will arrive at a cafe. Go in and order a hot drink and preferably a large wodge of cake, in my case any cake with lemon in it. Make a point of not taking out your phone, station yourself next to a large window and start doing nothing.
Immediately the show will begin. The whole world will begin to perform for you. The girl who makes the coffees is trying hard to do nothing. She looks a little pale and hungover. The door opens with a swoosh, wafting in a few autumn leaves and about 18 people of mixed ages. Hungover Girl shoots bolt upright. I can tell she was hoping to have been able to do nothing for a little longer, after all, it is only 11.30 in the morning. What are all these people doing here? The reason becomes apparent. A tiny pink bundle is passed from hand to hand and cuddled. Everybody is smiling. Champagne is ordered. It is a christening party. Within minutes, everyone is sitting down drinking champagne and doing nothing. That is why they are all so happy. When you are with friends there is no pressure to do anything except be together. It’s the same with family.
Yesterday I took my daughter and her boyfriend flyfishing for trout at a small lake near St Alban’s. It was a Sunday but the M1 was like Ben Hur with BMWs. BMW drivers don’t know how to do nothing. They have to be in front of every other make of car because they are driving “the ultimate driving machine”. So instead of making their minds a blank, leaning one elbow on the cushioned window ledge and steering with two fingers of the left hand, they jockey in and out of lanes without indicating, determined to make every other vehicle suck their exhaust fumes.
At the lake nothing is happening. Some guinea fowls and ducks get out of the water and run over to look at us. My friend says hello, shakes my hand and we tackle up and begin fishing. Soon we are all wrapped in up in the moment. The sun is out making us feel golden inside. A ripple scurries along the surface of the lake. Some leaves detach themselves from the trees and drift down to kiss the water. A few wee flies hatch out. Every so often the fly line darts forward and there’s a deep, pulsing kick on the line as another fat rainbow is deceived by a few wisps of fur and feather. Later that afternoon, we visit my oldest son and his boyfriend in their new flat. There is port, cheese and crackers. We sit around happily doing nothing. It is the perfect November Sunday as the sky darkens and the street lights come on.
One day I am hopeful that technology will take over. All the necessary functions of life, the things we all have to do, will be adopted by machines. The five-day week will disappear and with it the need for us all to be doing something every minute of the day. We will eat lemon drizzle cake, hang out with people we love and look out of windows. Outside there will be nothing happening. It’s going to be great.
A work of fiction rooted in the harsh reality of life in breadline Britain
I just watched Cannes Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, the story of a 60-year-old carpenter who has a heart attack then finds it impossible to jump through all the hoops and hurdles put in his way by the benefits system before he can claim disability benefit.
To be honest, it didn’t grip me by the throat the way I expected it to. I found it predictable, clichéd and overly sentimental. But when the lights went up, all three of the women sitting next to me were in floods of tears and all throughout the cinema, people were handing each other tissues and dabbing their eyes.
It did make me angry though. That’s because I read in the papers how Greg Clark the Business Secretary reacted to it on the BBC’s Question Time. “This is a fictional film, nothing like how the benefits system works in real life.”
It always astounds me when people criticise films made on sets with actors playing parts written for them by professional writers on the grounds that they don’t depict reality. Fiction exists to help us make sense of our lives. Greg Clark reacted to it as if it were a piece of exaggerated left-wing propaganda. To make matters worse, he was happy to offer his opinion without having seen the film.
Just so you know, there is nothing in the film that feels exaggerated except one scene where an out-of work mum is given a tin of beans at a food bank then rips the lid off and starts eating them right away with her fingers because she’s so hungry. I found that hard to believe but I’m inclined to suspend my disbelief because I know for a fact that Ken Loach, the director, and his research team studied over 100 real-life cases of people whose lives were made miserable by the staff at benefit offices whose job it is to look after them.
As for food banks themselves, they didn’t used to exist but now there are hundreds of them up and down the country. I’m sure the Department of Work and Pensions finds that a very inconvenient truth but instead of digging in and defending themselves, I’d like to see them introduce measures that would alleviate the suffering of benefit claimants instead of routinely humiliating them for trying to claim what is rightfully theirs.
John Lewis has done it again
One of my old pals from advertising is talented enough to have been repeatedly chosen to direct the John Lewis Christmas ads. I visited his office in Soho this afternoon and after making me swear an oath in my own blood that I would keep the idea behind the new ad to myself, he gave me a sneak preview. I can tell you now that it’s another belter and you’re all going to be talking about it and sharing it with your mates. But that’s all I’m telling you.