I’m going to start with yesterday’s quote from the Guardian:
‘Being a productive member of society is now a 24-hour project that consumes all the space needed for inner development.’
When I say ‘being a productive member of society’ I don’t mean doing anything that I would regard as useful; helping others, looking out for the homeless, taking care of refugees, protesting against racism – I mean doing those things that the culture expects – even demands of us, whether they are actually useful or not.
Number one on the list is probably home ownership. You’re not really considered an adult unless you own your own home, but home ownership is largely a myth – or a ‘future truth’ – you gamble on being able to pay off your mortgage before you retire; if not, you’re in trouble. In order to pay a mortgage you need a job – or more accurately, two jobs. This situation works in a nice symbiosis; in order to pay the mortgage, you need a job; in order to work, you need somewhere to live. You spend your life servicing this situation. But renting is such a poor alternative with so little in the way of control, you can hardly blame people for signing up to it. Besides, ‘owning’ your own home (even if you only actually ‘own’ a small fraction of it) is like a card that gets you into all sorts of clubs. It’s easier to get credit. People take you more seriously. You’re a grown-up. And don’t even get me started on the attitudes of trades people; if you’re a homeowner they’re generally helpful and respectful; when we were renting a plasterer cleaned his tools all over our garden and left our plants splattered with plaster.
But it’s not only the work-mortgage/rent-work cycle that takes up your time and energy: it’s all the other things that go towards being a productive and useful citizen. You must keep up – or preferably improve- the value of your house, which means compulsory gardening and DIY. An entire industry is devoted to selling us better and brighter ‘solutions’ for our kitchens and bathrooms; different ways with lighting for our living rooms and 101 ways to convert that spare room into a den/games room/studio/padded cell.
I’m not saying these things can’t be fun. If you’re interested and creative and you really want to do it – great. The same goes for gardening and even work, though jobs that are interesting and creative seem to be in very short supply at the moment. And then there’s exercise and ‘self-improvement. I’ve nothing against exercise; we all need it and if you enjoy it (to some extent at least) and it keeps you healthy, great. But if you’re compelled to push yourself all the time to do more and more – not so great. We have now got so deep into this competitiveness thing that there are actually people running marathons inside the Arctic circle. This seems to me the very definition of insanity. Where will it all end? Marathons on the moon?