As the 205 flames of Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic Torch parted, sank and finally died, so did my heart and those of many Londoners around me. I for one shed a tear or two, and woe betide anyone who may have tried soothing me with platitudes in the vein of ‘all good things must come to an end’. For those people I harboured secret plans to make good use of the still dormant missiles strategically placed around London.
The morning after was as it sounds. London had a hangover, whether or not its constituent parts had been drinking. Even the sun refused to shine. So what better course of action to take than to do absolutely nothing? (editor’s note: we like where this is going).
There is an Art to doing absolutely nothing, its fundamental premise being that you actually have to do something which you can tell yourself isn’t doing anything at all. Even thinking about how you are going to do nothing is walking on thin ice as it prevents you from thinking that what you are thinking is absolutely nothing. Avoiding these paradoxes and conundrums is the entire reasoning behind the creation of a pastime known as idling.
mug of the snail
I fancy I hear a throng cry out that I am writing about idling ergo can not be idling as writing is clearly an action; but I beg them turn their mis-led souls and blinkered eyes to the words of Alfred Jarry, author of Ubu Roi, who quite rightly claimed that idling was ‘designed to upset the mundanity of being’ and transform it into ‘the eternal dream’. So actually I’m dreaming. And you can’t get more idle than that.
I may have been at a loss as to how to continue floating comfortably in a dream bubble were it not for the fact that an equally idle friend of mine had told me of the existence of the Mecca of idle pursuit – The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment – and that it lay practically on my doorstep. So I set off to Bayswater to find it (although with some trepidation, lest an aficionado of René Descartes’ philosophies be lying in wait there in order to leap upon me and prove that I was not dreaming at all).
I needn’t have troubled myself with the apparent reality of moving shadows as I couldn’t actually find the place. I was told it stands opposite The Westbourne Tavern in Westbourne Park Road and is number 81. Now London is notorious for making things up as it goes along, particularly when it comes to house numbering. Under normal circumstances, the numbers should go up or down depending on which way you are walking and be even on the one side and odd on the other. Not so with this road. There was no number 81. On either side. There was most certainly a number 80. And an 82. But 81 was obviously a figment of my friend’s imagination.
It seems to be a golden rule that you will only find something once you have given up looking. I had abandoned my search and was walking disconsolately homeward when the The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment suddenly appeared like something out of Alice In Wonderland.
Entrance of The Idler Academy of Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment
I stood on the threshold faced with a cross between a bookshop, a library and Ye Olde Tea Shoppe on the seafront of every coast town in England. Something about it reawakened the smells and aura of my old school and of childhood holidays simultaneously. One wall was lined with well stocked bookshelves, the other adorned with curiosities; the front an Edwardian full-length glass shop front and the rear a desk with a till and a tea-making table, replete with cake, standing before a sash window. Behind the till was an open door to the garden and stairs leading down to a dark and mysterious place. I wanted to ask what lay down there but was afraid of the possibility of mundanity encroaching upon my dream, so I headed instead for the tea table.
the tea table
As I crossed the wooden floor, partly covered by a thinning faux-Persian rug worthy of my former headmaster’s study (and his head, if the truth be told), an old rumple-suited man began to expatiate to his long grey beard, teapot and anyone else who may have chosen to listen upon the subject of rationality as it relates to the philosophy of economics and the improbability of the Impossibility Theorem. I thought it best to ignore him and concentrated on the delicious selection of teas displayed on a hand-written blackboard leaning against the tea table.
Our Man in Notting Hill peruses the merchandise
From a selection including Oolong, Pua Mai and Fresh Mint I chose a Himalayan Orange and sat at one of the oak fly-leaved tables to peruse the bookshelves. And what was the very first thing that caught my eye, sitting there amongst The Iliad, Will Self and Blood & Mistletoe? What other than Bertrand Russell’s In Praise Of Idleness?
At this point the rumpled man, who had become a low monotone soundtrack to the Academy, suddenly said very clearly;
‘Kenneth Arrow, of course. You are familiar with Kenneth Arrow?’ My tea arrived and I stood up at once and stepped towards the bookshelf, my mind searching furiously. Then it came to me.
‘Yes, I believe I heard him mentioned on the radio this morning,’ I replied, pointedly looking at the books, my revelation being that Kenneth Arrow was in fact the gay policeman who had stood as a candidate in the election for the Mayor of London.
‘I very much doubt that,’ he retorted and launched into a torrid invective of the man so torrential that my mind and ears automatically shut off, my hand instinctively reached for Bertrand Russell and I quickly turned to the lady behind the till brandishing the book and saying;
‘How can I resist this? I’d like to buy it if I may.’
‘And I would like to sell it to you,’ she replied, ‘ but I’m afraid the till’s broken. There’s always something broken here.’
As suddenly as they had been aimed at me the rumpled man’s attentions returned to his beard, teapot and whoever else was choosing to listen and he continued to ferociously pluck Kenneth Arrow feather by feather. (I have since discovered Arrow was the man who came up with the Impossibility Theorem. I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out why the old man insisted his theorem was improbable).
What was I to do now? Well, as a means to my idle ends I had brought a book along with me (I never leave home without one). A detective novel. An intelligently written detective novel, but a detective novel nonetheless. Now, having been deprived of the possibility of reading Russell, the obvious thing would have been to have made do with the exploits of a gumshoe, but instead of reaching for the novel I panicked. How could I be seen in the company of Ovid and Darwin’s Ghosts reading a mere detective novel? How trite is that?
The Lady of the Till
Before beads of sweat could form on my troubled brow I was mercifully saved by Joanna the Lady of The Till who must have noticed my disappointment, or panic, or both, for she said;
‘Why don’t you give me £10 and I’ll write a receipt and you can settle any difference there may be next time you’re in?’
I fell in and out of love with her in the time it took for relief to wash over me and for me to dig out my wallet and fork over £10.
So I sat back down, sipped my Himalayan Orange tea and begun idly leafing through Russell’s pages. The old man finished his tea and tutorial, mumbled something about how the Idler Academy was always re-using its tea pigs and shuffled out. I was left to enjoy the fulfillment of the promise inscribed above a snail on the glass over the entrance, ‘Libertus per cultum’, and to conclude that idling was indeed the best way to beat the post Olympic blues.
interior of The Academy