Bored, bored, bored … That’s been my coronavirus experience. Luckily, I’ve avoided the plague. But I’ve been thrown on my own inner resources – and found them woefully inadequate.
I’ve tiled the tiny floor of my boiler cupboard – badly. I’ve framed two pictures – badly – and hung them in my flat. I’ve read The Lost Diaries of Nigel Molesworth (a masterpiece but pretty short); half a dozen Penguin mini-classics, all around 80 pages or fewer; and half the letters of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. That isn’t much to show for two months’ worth of extra free time. Isaac Newton worked out the principles of calculus when he was in his plague lockdown.
My idleness wouldn’t matter if I didn’t mind being bored so much. During my school and university holidays, I had nothing to do – and I loved it. But that was in the days BI – Before the Internet.
In her brilliant new book about school summer holidays between 1930 and 1980, British Summer Time Begins, Ysenda Maxtone Graham describes that intense boredom – and how we were all utterly used to it then. One person she interviews was so bored as a child that she even made imaginary friends – with blades of grass. In the book, Danny Finkelstein, the Times writer, describes how he used to play football on his own and get very good at scoring goals against himself. I did exactly the same. I’d recreate famous Arsenal goals – with me playing both sides. And I’d practise keepie-uppie for hours on end.
But I can’t do that any more. My attention span has been destroyed by the bloody internet. Against that paltry list of small books I’ve read, I’d hate to see the sum total of time I’ve spent grazing the internet – the most pernicious form of time-wasting ever invented.
The fatal thing about the internet is that it is immediately more interesting than reading a book. Who knows if that new, unopened email isn’t offering you a million pounds to write an article about Paris Hilton’s Chihuahuas; or even if it’s an email from Paris Hilton asking you to stroke her Chihuahua?
It never is, of course. But the thrill of the unknown makes you click on the inbox rather than read a book which, however brilliant, offers no hidden, outlandish reward.
Reading can never be as interesting as, say, drinking. But you can’t do that the whole time. And reading is the best way of managing boredom and simultaneously learning some stuff at the same time. But not if you’ve stupidly destroyed your attention span by staring at a computer screen for 20 years.
Alan Bennett has certain favourite knives and forks in his cutlery drawer: yes to the one with the wooden handle; no to that horrible blue plastic one.
I couldn’t agree more. In lockdown, I’ve worked out my favourite hours in the evening. 6.30pm: BORING! Too much of the evening to kill. 11.30pm: irritating – time to brush your teeth and go to bed. My favourite time is 9.15pm: I’ve eaten, drunk two glasses of wine and there’s still enough wriggle room to fit in an easy-going film starring Hugh Grant or Jennifer Aniston before bedtime.
I’m suffering from gossip’s remorse – a malady that affects those who delight in finding fault in others. An old work colleague died recently – not of the virus and at a decent age. I’d always found her amusing, affable good company. But the wicked tendency of the gossip is to drill down deep in search of flaws – and I’d settled on lack of curiosity in her case. In death, I found out she was a voracious reader – much more than me, now my attention span has been destroyed by the aforementioned internet.
I was wrong about her. I hope that will change my gossipy taste for zeroing in on people’s supposed faults over their genuine virtues. Fat chance.
My salvation in lockdown has been coming into the Oldie office in Fitzrovia.
Office life has been mocked over the years, not least in The Devil Wears Prada and, supremely, in The Office. But has anyone written a book, film or TV series praising the joys of the office – a place away from home, full of interesting things to do (if you’re lucky) and a fully realised cast-list of goodies and baddies? How much better than sitting around at home, staring into a screen (see above) and occasionally looking at someone else staring into their screen.
As those of us who are beginning to tire of Zoom calls know, there is no substitute for the company of real-life humans in the flesh.
Harry Mount is the editor of the Oldie
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