Kicking Leaves

15 02 2009

[You can listen to this episode here]

One of the great challenges for every privately educated schoolboy is to extract some piece of clear thinking from the many sermons, of varying quality, delivered in Chapel. Even the keenest of minds and most attentive of ears may prove insufficient. My experience of this, at a classic Anglican boarding school in the surreal world of Cheltenham, was typical. Most weekdays, and very often on Sunday mornings, we would be herded (anybody who has experienced the practice themselves will know that ‘herded’ is indeed the correct word) into the ranks of pews to sit and be given some valuable piece of advice for life.


Of all the lessons given, one sticks in my mind particularly. It was that wherever we ended up in the world, and whatever it was that we ended up doing, no matter how important we were, or busy, we should always make time to kick leaves.


Perhaps it was my childish ignorance, but this idea always left me rather cold. I managed to figure out that ‘kicking leaves’ was probably a metaphor. That it was neither the leaves themselves, nor the action of kicking them, that formed the central part of this apparently crucial activity. Further than that, I was lost. Lost, that is, until just a few days ago when I suddenly grasped what it was that the Chaplain had been trying to communicate to us.


Anybody who has left their house, or indeed anybody who couldn’t, in the past week or so cannot have failed to notice the thick coating of snow with which the United Kingdom has been painted. Travel chaos and school closures aside, there is something extraordinarily magical about snow. More than anything else it has the capacity to transform even the most banal examples of concrete architecture into little scenes that would not be out of place in a fairy tale.


So one morning last week, my breath was taken away as my bike gently whizzed down the hill towards my University library. Anybody who has visited the University of York will know that its architecture is not normally the most romantic so the scene that morning was a great, and welcome, surprise for me. The usually lumbering buildings and walkways became delicate cake decorations. The goose poo was completely obscured and the cheery, if deformed, snowmen, added a human touch. To finish off the perfect scene, a number of Freshers were engaging heartily in a snowball fight.


Well that was, I’m sorry to say, the end of the fairy tale for me. I had a seminar to be reading for, so it was the library and not the white battlefield which had to take precedence. And it was at that moment, stepping out of the brisk cold and into the clammy warmth of the library that my epiphany came.


Whether or not you kick leaves, or throw snow, is immaterial. What matters, ultimately, is that when the moment comes you have the time to engage in some pointless, childish, but deeply satisfying activity. As a humble student I may not have the pressures on my time of a Chief Executive or government minister, but it disturbed me nonetheless that instead of joining in, I had to focus my mind elsewhere – that morning, on the French Revolution as it happens.


There seems to be a distinct lack of clarity over the status of the global economic situation at the moment. Some say recession, some say depression, while the BBC step around the issue and call it an ‘economic downturn.’ Well, whatever it is there is a temptation to let it take over our lives. The daily news stories informing us of another thousand job cuts, or of an even greater slump in the value of our savings, are, of course, difficult to ignore. There may be a temptation to abandon all entertainment in favour of hard work but without some escape to a fantasy world of irrelevance the real world would be impossible to survive.


We are told that Gordon Brown’s reaction to any worsening situation is simply to work harder – getting up at three instead of five in the morning, for example. Margaret Thatcher famously managed to run the country on only four hours sleep a night. I’ll let you make your own judgement as to whether Brown is right to follow her example.


Surely, though, it is not just the downturn that might be encouraging us to take everything more seriously, and work harder. Life in the twenty-first century is quite intense. I don’t suppose many listeners to this letter find their lives controlled by a Blackberry. But I suppose the Blackberry does represent an attitude that Society seems to have developed recently – that being in touch permanently will somehow make us more productive.


I’ve no doubt that this can increase our output, but we should be careful not to confuse the quantity of our output with the quality. The national office of statistics doesn’t happen to hold any figures for the matter, but I wonder how many great discoveries have been made not by intense endeavour, but by allowing the mind to meander in an idle moment. Michelangelo took four years to paint an otherwise very ordinary ceiling in the Vatican. I cannot imagine he would have responded positively to an efficiency audit.


Every time we enjoy that rare thing in this country – a bank holiday – there is a statistic trotted out. It is the calculation, in however many millions or billions, of the cost to the national economy that comes with the day off. Of course, this figure is measured in pounds. It is a financial calculation, based on the potential transactions that would have been made had the population been at work. Well I’m sure to some that this is a very interesting number. But it seems to miss the point of a Bank Holiday – which is not to make money.


Time off – with family, with friends, getting out of the city, doing something really satisfying or just nothing at all – is with more than just money. There is a clear common-sense link between having a rest and being a healthier, happier, and more productive person. But more than that, if our life is made up entirely of work, with no space for silliness, enjoyment and childishness… well, it makes that difficult question about the meaning of life much harder to answer.


Of course, I’m a student. Most of my time is already taken up with things that I enjoy. I wouldn’t be reading history if I hadn’t chosen to do so. My occasionally forays into broadcasting are entirely optional, so I must enjoy them a little. Pretty much every night I’ll be seeing friends in the pub or at a party or at some event or other. Many weekends I’m able to get out of York for a day in the countryside, pub lunch included. It would be hard to describe my life as being full of hard work.


But at the end of this academic year, all that will change. The world of a real job awaits, and I must confess that I do not look forward to that with undiluted relish. Call me melodramatic, but a comparison to death doesn’t seem too far-fetched. It’s going to come at some point, there’s nothing I can do about and once it does all the life will be sucked from me.


Well, I suppose that’s what the Chaplain was trying to talk to us about a couple of years ago on some draughty Sunday morning. Work probably isn’t all that bad – but if you’re going to keep your head in the real world, you’ve got to escape from it every now and again. The weatherfolk tell us that there won’t be much snow in the next few days, and it’s probably going to be Autumn before the leaves fall again in any quantity to be worth kicking. So, in the meantime I guess we’ve got to find something else pointless, futile and childish.


Anybody up for the debating society?




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