As Boris Johnson will know from his love of Greek tragedy, hubris leads to nemesis. And it is Boris’s own hubris — in playing cricket with Lord Spencer the weekend after Brexit, and not finishing his leadership speech on time — that supposedly led to his downfall.
I well know from working with Boris at the Telegraph that prompt timekeeping is not his forte. For five years, my Wednesday nights were destroyed as Boris regularly missed the 7 p.m. deadline for delivering his column. ‘It hasn’t arrived,’ I’d say to him over the phone at 7.01 p.m.
‘Ah, Christ, sorry,’ said Boris, ‘Bloody internet! It must be pinging its way down those threadbare copper wires as we speak, old man.’
In fact, he hadn’t finished writing the column. I could hear him tapping away at his keyboard on the other end of the phone, while insisting he’d already sent it.
The lateness wasn’t because he was lazy. One of Boris’s brilliant ruses is to give the impression of idle chaos, in order to disguise the diamond-hard ambition that lurks beneath. He gets up at 5.45 a.m. every day. And on those Wednesday evenings, he had already put The Spectator to bed, been to Prime Minister’s Questions and perhaps written his GQ car column.
And yet he was vilified for his supposed laziness last week — for captaining a team of Johnsons against Lord Spencer’s XI at Althorp; for only having done 500 words of his 1,500-word leadership speech on the Wednesday evening before the Thursday deadline to submit his nomination.
Did Pericles, Boris’s hero, submit a draft of his funeral oration over the Athenian dead in 431 bc? Did his other hero,-Churchill, have to fact-check his speeches: ‘I’m sorry, Winston, but when you say “We shall fight on the beaches”, can you specify precisely which ones?’
Boris is an unfair victim of today’s Stakhanovite age, where work is seen as a good in itself. It doesn’t matter what quality of work you do, as long as you do lots of it, from dawn until dusk. Gone is the old English amateurish spirit: of Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls as the Armada was spotted, just like Boris batting at-Althorp while Britain was splitting itself down the middle.
‘Boris is to be congratulated for his apparent insouciance in playing cricket just after the referendum,’ says Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler magazine. ‘When pondering important matters of state, it is wise not to follow the puritan’s “must… work…-harder” route, as did the sunken-eyed Gordon Brown and, before him, the deranged Stakhanovite Mrs Thatcher. There is a limit to how hard we can work, and it’s well known that tired people made bad decisions. When the going gets tough, the truly tough should surely take a break.’
Of course, laziness isn’t a virtue in and of itself, when it means doing absolutely nothing, snoozing away your mornings with lie-ins and hungover self-pity. But bursts of pleasure between work aren’t merely enjoyable. They’re also — dread word — useful. Pleasure doesn’t just soak the brain in a warm, revitalising bath of endorphins. It increases the sum of experiences, stimulating the brain and sparking all sorts of cross-fertilised thoughts between the sizzling synapses. When the brain is in a relaxed state, it is at its most original, not least when it’s being provoked into original thought by the easy discipline of pleasurable conversation, particularly when oiled by a few drinks.
Talking of drinking… Whatever you think of Nigel Farage, before he resigned as Ukip leader this week, he was the most successful politician of the modern era — and the most pleasure-loving. David Cameron and Boris have been defenestrated; Jeremy Corbyn is surely bound to follow soon. Only Farage has gone at a time of his choosing, and all on a diet of booze and fags.
In fact, Farage is one of those rare beasts who combine work with pleasure. In the BBC political reporter Ben Wright’s new book, Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking, Farage confides that his upper limit before an interview is five pints. In his ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview in April, he sank three pints of ale, a large glass of port and half a bottle of Château de-Lugagnac.
In today’s puritanical age, pleasure — whether it’s drinking, reading or going to a gallery — is looked down on as wasted time. Hence those endless work calls you overhear on the train — nine times out of ten, the call is largely pointless, and could easily be truncated, or replaced with an email. But the David Brents of the quiet carriage stretch out their conversations, bolstered by the knowledge that they come under the broad, undeniably beneficial heading of ‘work’.
What would you prefer? Bursts of concentrated work mixed with useful pleasures? Or days of endless work-lite, giving yourself the mistaken impression you are satisfying the great god of work, when you are in fact producing next to nothing? I’ve lost count of the friends from university, with firsts in classics and English, who never pick up a book or a newspaper or go to an exhibition, whose minds have been sterilised by eternal work; who have trained their minds to prefer work over pleasure.
Often they have no choice, with their workdays dictated by the boss and the zeitgeist. But the horrifying hours of these professional slaves don’t necessarily improve performance. Until the Big Bang in 1986, life in the City principally consisted of dim public schoolboys squeezing in a few hours’ work around two-bottle, three-hour lunches. In the 30 years since, the City has been taken over by lean sushi-munchers with Ivy League MBAs and Oxbridge firsts, working 14-hour days. And what did that lead to? The biggest financial crash in generations.
There’s a chink of light at the end of the tunnel, though. This week, new research from the recruitment company Astbury Marsden showed that the number of City workers doing 12-hour days has halved, from 10 per cent in 2012 to 5 per cent today; 62 per cent of City employees now regularly work from home, compared with 46 per cent two years ago. And 26 per cent of City staff now work part-time and job-share.
Here’s hoping that, with their new-found freedom, the liberated slaves take the odd day off to play a bit of cricket.
Harry Mount is editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson (Bloomsbury).