I was idly thinking about Idle Theory this Easter Sunday morning, wondering if it might be possible to deploy it as a weapon against Tobacco Control. I like to think that Idle Theory might be a bit like the gun in C.S. Forester’s The Gun – one of the formative books of my youth, along with several other books of his, most notably Brown On Resolution.
The Gun was made into a film. The gun itself was a single huge cannon which was dragged from one city to another, during some war in Spain, in order to blow huge holes in the city walls, and thereby reduce them. I can’t remember anything else about the plot. I only remember the arresting idea of a huge gun that could blow holes in more or less anything.
Brown On Resolution was also made into a movie. It was set in the early days of WW1 when German raiders were sinking British ships on the high seas all over the world. One such ship was the light cruiser Emden, which put into the British atoll of Diego Garcia in the first weeks of the war to refuel and re-supply. The captain (and presumably also the crew) of the Emden was well aware that war had broken out between Britain and Germany, but the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, deep in the southern Indian ocean, were completely unaware of this, and greeted the Emden as they would any other ship in peacetime (an episode worthy of its own film). So the Emden was refueled and re-supplied, and its captain and crew fêted, before they sailed off again to resume sinking British cargo ships all over the Indian ocean.
In Brown On Resolution the atoll was replaced by the caldera of a volcano, with cliffs all around the central lagoon, and a narrow opening to the sea. It is into the lagoon of this deserted island that a German raider enters, to anchor and carry out some repairs. But Resolution island is not in fact completely deserted: there is a single man – Brown – living on it (or stranded on it), and he is armed with a rifle. And, hidden in the cliffs above the lagoon, he uses the rifle to great effect to stop, or at least slow, the repairs from being carried out. It’s an iconic story of one man against an entire army (for that is what a cruiser is). It’s another variant of David v. Goliath.
Anyway this morning I was cheerfully conflating the two books together, and imagining a variant book – The Gun on Resolution? – in which Brown was not armed with a mere rifle, but with an enormous cannon. In this variant, Brown single-handedly levers the huge gun around to aim at the anchored raider, and with the very first shot blows a very big hole in it. The captain of the raider immediately proceeds to fire up the ship’s boilers and raise steam as rapidly as possible, while a flotilla of small boats attempts to tow it from its exposed position, its big guns rain shells on The Gun’s position, and marines wade ashore to climb the cliffs to it. Something along those lines…
It was with these thoughts in mind that I found I had received an email from George Speller, in which he drew my attention to a small article in the April 1918 edition of The Engineer, which he thought might be relevant to Idle Theory:
It was indeed relevant, for it touched upon something I was writing about a week or so ago. For while the author of the quoted Saturday Review article declares that “a nation which can say without shame that some of its citizens ‘do not go to the office on Saturdays’ must, and does, pay the penalty of laziness,” the author of Random Reflections completely disagreed, and wrote that “we do not believe that the world was made only for hard work… With few exceptions it is the leisure of life that makes life worth living, and we like to regard the hours of work simply as those that must be undertaken to secure the means for rational and comfortable leisure” – a sentiment almost straight out of Idle Theory, in which people work to acquire leisure (or, same thing, idle time).
Tobacco Control, I often think, is much more of the mind of the Saturday Review author, and frowns on idleness just as much as, say, the author of Proverbs 24:
33 Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
34 So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth; and thy want as an armed man.
All those people sitting in pubs, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, are being lazy. They could all be doing something useful or productive, but they’re not. They’re just fruitlessly wasting their time away. And they should be made to pay the penalty for their shameful dereliction. For we should all be working, all the time. Not just on Saturdays, but also on Sundays, and all day every day of the rest of the week.
Tobacco Control, in this account, wants a world that will be one vast labour camp, in which there is no smoking, no drinking, no talking, no singing, no dancing, and no leisure at all. Tobacco Control’s ideal world is a sort of Auschwitz. But Tobacco Control would have to replace the placid homily above the gates of Auschwitz – Arbeit Macht Frei could easily be the motto of Idle Theory – with its negation (Frei Macht Arbeit?). For Tobacco Control wants to drive out all those idle and free people happily sitting smoking and drinking in pubs, and railroad them into a forced labour camp, and make them do something ‘productive’, even if that productivity entails simply digging their own graves.
But that is only one possible explanation of the rationale underlying Tobacco Control. There is another possible explanation, which is that Tobacco Control strongly objects to any sort of unnecessary or superfluous activity. And sitting in pubs, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, its a completely unnecessary activity. And so people shouldn’t do it. They might add that watching television, reading books, surfing the net, playing video games, are also entirely unnecessary and superfluous activities. In this variant, the Tobacco Controllers are not so much averse to idleness, but averse to anything that is unnecessarily done in idle time. The idle man must remain idle. He must do nothing. He must sit still like a seated Buddha in quiet meditation, doing absolutely nothing, not even thinking. He must sit so still that birds might nest in his hair, and plants grow on his lap and on his shoulders. He must, in short, be as still and silent as any corpse interred in a graveyard. He must become dead.
There may be yet more explanations for Tobacco Control’s war on smoking. And here I’m using Idle Theory to try to understand my enemy, and perhaps understand him better than he understands himself. For if I could do that, I would be holding a most enormous gun to his head, and one that could blow his head “clean off.“