What do you do when you suddenly find yourself with time on your hands and a million jobs to do? I can tell you what I do – in the great tradition of writers faced with a sheet of blank paper, I prevaricate.
It comes as a shock to the system, when you’ve spent the last couple of months solid, slaving over a hot keyboard and/or rushing around like a blue-arsed fly fulfilling all kinds of obligations, to discover that time for once is not pressing. I even toyed with the idea of making a carrot cake – to try out a recipe I found on The Guardian’s home page and to fulfil a family joke. It’s not a very witty one, but whenever someone proposes a hot drink, the other adds: Yes please, and I’ll have a slice of carrot cake with it. To which the enquirer ripostes: I don’t think we’ve got any left. Well, I told you it wasn’t very witty. Anyway, I haven’t yet made the carrot cake, because my wife and daughter have a thing against raisins.
There’s something to be said for the routine of regular work. For one thing, it means that you haven’t got time for all those other hundreds and thousands of jobs that need doing, so you can shift them to the back burner without fear of reprisals. On a more metaphysical level, there’s also the advantage that it stops you examining the state of the human condition. Rivets, as good old Joseph Conrad might have had it. In other words, mundane routine keeps our thoughts away from The Heart of Darkness. I suppose that’s why some people, faced with the delicious prospect of retirement, go rapidly to pieces. Our work has come to equal our worth. Without it, we start questioning our value in society.
Personally, I’ve always hated work. Had I been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I would have spent my life reading, writing and making music compilations. Once the family seat had been handed down to me as oldest son, I would have turned it into a sanctuary for endangered species and spent the rest of the livelong day chatting with the animals. Unfortunately, the spoon in my mouth at birth had Made in Sheffield embossed on its stainless steel handle. So I’ve been driven ever since by the Protestant work ethic and, in adulthood, by the need to earn a crust.
Yesterday, though, I took an executive decision to indulge my indolent inner self by watching two rugby matches – consecutively. However, the decision rapidly triggered a chain reaction of guilt. No sooner did I get back from the Saturday-morning market in Martel, than I changed into my worst work clothes, strapped on my wife’s head lamp that she keeps by the bed in case she wakes up in the middle of the night and needs to read to get back to sleep, gathered up some plastic ties from Aldi and crawled into the vide sanitaire beneath the house to finish the pipe lagging I’d started the weekend of the Big Chill.
It wasn’t pleasant, but it was good penance. Once I’d made lunch with some leftover brown rice in the fridge, I’d finished the self-flagellation and was ready for my afternoon of self-indulgence. Yesterday it was the culmination of the 2012 Six Nations tournament: three matches choreographed for maximum drama to conclude at Twickenham in the early hours of the evening. The schedulers, however, hadn’t reckoned with Wales winning the Grand Slam by late afternoon. Which meant that the final match, between England and Ireland, was meaningless. Nevertheless, I commanded The Daughter to walk the dog and settled down on one of our outsize cushions with a packet of crisps and Daisy the cat on my lap to see whether a resurgent England could vanquish the Irish. Despite the rain and an oval ball that slipped about like an errant bar of soap, they could and did. Convincingly. Even though a childhood in Belfast has conferred on me honorary Irish nationality, I was happy.
The self-indulgence should have concluded with the final whistle. But no. Sometimes the sloth inside surprises me. It shouldn’t. After all, I am still the same person as the child who used to park himself in front of the old black-and-white telly to watch Test match cricket during summer holidays. Ball by literal ball. Voluntarily I would watch the likes of Geoff Boycott and Ken Barrington compile their painstaking centuries. By the time Chris Tavaré was in his pomp – or maybe I should say his shell – some years later, adulthood had taught me that you can’t afford to do this if you want to get things done.
So when, after dinner, my wife proposed a family film, I didn’t say no. Poor thing, she had been working all day, so who was I to deny her some self-indulgence of her own? Thus it was that I clocked up five hours on the telly when I should have been filing papers, finishing my wife’s website, lagging yet more pipes, repairing a leak, pruning plants or even making a carrot cake. I told myself it was less self-indulgent than the rugby, because we have a duty to start working our way through a great big accumulated pile of movies. We watched a worthy attempt to film David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. The novel was one of three we both read during a winter of snow-themed reading matter: The Shipping News, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Cedars. The DVD was going cheap at the annual Saint Denis lès Martel brocante. It was beautifully staged in authentic, exquisite Pacific North-West locations, featured some fine performances from the likes of Max von Sydow, but it was just a tad… stodgy.
Stodgy is an adjective that I hope won’t apply to my carrot cake when I finally make it. I have proposed cutting up dried apricots as a substitute for raisins, but my daughter is still not happy. I’ve told her to be open-minded about dried fruit. There’s plenty of time for prejudice once you become an adult. So I shall arise and go now and attempt to make this cake, because I’m of a mind to turn a self-indulgent Saturday into an entirely hedonistic weekend. Work? Ptui! I spit upon the concept.