THE SPECTATOR
11 JULY 2007

NOTHING DOING

Christa D’Souza says fighting boredom is a vital, but endangered life skill.

Online008-Natalia.jpg

Do your children ever complain of boredom? If they do, what is your first response? To drop  everything and get down on your knees and play? Or to shrug your shoulders and say, just as your parents might have said to you, ‘It’s only boring people who get bored… now go away’?

If you’re like me, it’ll be the former.  And if you aren’t the person getting down on your hands and knees, you’ll have employed someone to do it in your stead. Don’t worry — you, me —we’re not alone.

There are millions of us middle-class types in London who worry that if we make our kids build their own hideout in the garden, or organise their own wretched game of hide-and-seek, the social services might come a-calling; that if we do not micro-manage their every waking minute, that if we do not have them enrolled in an after-school activity every day of the week so that they are in a perpetual state of ashen, low-level fatigue; that if we let them, as we did, just come home and chill after school, we are somehow short-changing them, cruelly neglecting to unlock the, er, magical potential within.

Bloody parenting classes! What have they done to the next generation? ‘Bred a load of overstimulated ADD-suffering louts who’ll end up wanting to do their gap years in Barnes Wetlands, that’s what,’ as one dissatisfied ‘pupil’, a W14 media mother of two (who’d rather not be mentioned by name) complains.

 

Boredom. Ennui. That exquisitely ‘savage torpor’ as William Wordsworth called it, which you get from four hours of watching the test card or tracing rude words on a misty car window, of being so numbed out of your skull you have to create an imaginary friend.

 

Kids today, they have no idea, do they? The only time for vague reflection they ever get is when they are forced to sit on the naughty step. The only example they get of adults engaged in the act of doing nothing is watching Big Brother, which is perhaps why the horrid programme is the huge success it is.

 

As for finger-tracing in the car. I don’t know about you, but you should see the charging up of Nintendo DS Lites and PSPs and portable DVDs and rewinding of story-tapes that has to take place round our way (not to mention the towel affixing to windows to keep the sun off the screens) if the journey is going to be anything more than 30 minutes.

But we must not blame ourselves entirely. In this CrackBerry-addicted, gum-snapping society of ours where the void must be filled at all times, where achievement, achievement, achievement is fetishised at the expense of everything else, where the tyranny of choice means we are never actually satisfied with or engaged in anything, always (rightfully) wondering if there’s something better going on somewhere else — no wonder the collective threshold has been so lowered, no wonder we’ve all, including our children, got figurative theatre leggie be­fore the curtain has even gone up.

 

Boredom, as Søren Kierkegaard once famously said, is the root of all evil, but it is also, as the late Susan Sontag observed, essential to existence — its avoidance, as she put it, being one of our primary purposes. And she’s right. Boredom is the Mother of Invention. Take my putative mother-in-law who, as a child in colonial India, was forced to take a three-hour afternoon nap in a darkened room: she used to spit in her navel and create swimming competitions for her little fingers. Take the political activist friend of my mum’s who, while in solitary confinement, would chew his daily ration of stale bread and then, instead of swallowing it, take it out and make little sculptures out of it. Hell, take Tom Hanks in that marvellous film about the federal express airplane crash, Castaway, where he made himself a friend to talk to by painting a face on a football with his own blood.

 

The problem is, it is hard to invent something, to be ingenious, to create something truly original when you’ve also got to learn Chinese, get your next belt in karate and master GarageBand so you can be a rock star by the time you are 16; rather pointless to concoct an elaborate imaginary parallel universe in your head when a PlayStation will do it so much better. Perhaps we should have a kind of amnesty, a collective handing in to the police of all those horrid Grand Theft Noddy games children are so hypnotised by, although I don’t see how you’d get anyone under the age of 15 to comply. Perhaps, instead, the answer is a compulsory class period where children are forced to sit at their desks and do absolutely nothing, and I mean nothing except think for an hour. Would it have more of an effect than that ridiculously amorphous subject they all take now called ‘Citizenship’? Who knows, but one thing is for sure. Children and adults alike, we must, must learn to play with ourselves more.