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ON BOREDOM

I wrote on Tuesday that I had been persistently bored since the death of my father. It’s true, I have been: bored bored bored bored bored bored bored. What a terrible power boredom has. What a curse it is to be denied distraction.

In the first week after his death, I was transported back to the third week of the long summer holiday. That is, to that point when the novelty of not having to work has completely worn off; when you have played with your toys, read your books and watched your videos; when one half of your friends have gone on holiday and you can’t see the other half because you don’t have anything to do with them; when the only thing to do is to roam the house telling everyone how bored you are: bored bored bored bored bored bored.

Meanwhile, in the background, holiday homework loomed with ghastly inevitability. This was the knowledge that I would eventually have to get back to work. Now I am, and it feels like going back to school after three months off. In the intervening period, I have forgotten how to perform even the simplest tasks: how to add up, how to write, how to hold a pen.

Boredom is created in the gap between an impulse and an awareness. The impulse is the overwhelming desire to do something. The awareness is the absolute certainty that there is nothing that will satisfy that desire. Nothing. When I told people how bored I was, they tried in maternal fashion to suggest activities: have you read your comic?; have you called your friends? They didn’t understand. There. Was. Nothing.

Most of the time, it is a great pleasure to do nothing. But doing nothing is only possible when there is something to compare it with, something else you should be doing. All the best distractions are in part procrastinations. All the most meaningful entertainments are in fact avoidances. Everyone knows this, but if you are going to be distracted then you cannot know it too clearly, because nothing destroys fun like reasons to be having fun. In-between moments, like Sundays, are worst of all for this. The task at hand is not immediate enough to supply its own distractions; yet neither is it far enough away to hide completely the need for distraction. Being bored is the long Sunday of the soul.

David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished, novel, The Pale King, was going to be about boredom:

His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work … Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests.

The extract I’ve read – “Wiggle Room” – is typical Wallace: sharp, funny, very clever and beautifully written. But he struggled endlessly with the subject. And in the end, in the form of the endless manuscript, it contributed to his death.

Wallace was bored, I believe, chronically so. His magnificence lay in his refusal to accept not only his boredom, but also the remedies on offer. He refused to lose himself in television or drugs. He denied himself the full measure of distraction.

It’s often said – by frustrated parents, in the main – that only the boring are bored. I don’t see it that way, but I wonder at times whether David Foster Wallace did. He was facing a great enemy, and there was no shame in fighting dirty. Yet he refused.

In him, this was heroism. But, for myself, I prefer to do what I can.

WHAT AM I WRITING?

Not a novel, but a notvel.

Hat doff: David Pitt-Watson.

HOME FROM HOME

I did my best to relieve the unbearable tedium of the Chelsea-Barcelona game last night (BBC texter: “most important incident by far was Puyol’s booking”) by wondering this: why does everyone – including players and managers – seem to think that nil-nil away from home in the first leg is a good result?

From a rational perspective, nil-nil suits the home team. With this result in first leg, a score draw in the second leg will send them through. Yet somehow it doesn’t work like that. I woke from my slumber last night to hear Clive Tyldesley saying that the last three Chelsea-Barcelona clashes have been won by the team playing at home second. I imagine this holds true throughout the Champions League.

In one of his characteristically almost-but-not-quite-excellent pieces for the LRB, David Runciman looks at this phenomenon. You’ll be shocked to hear that it has something to do with confidence:

In sport, the magic that everyone is after is a sprinkling of the fairy dust of ‘self-belief’, that elusive quality that is so often said to separate out the winners from the losers. It turns out that really and truly believing the ball is destined to go through the hoop makes no difference. But this doesn’t mean that there is no magic out there.

The clearest evidence that mysterious forces are at work on the sports field comes from the unarguable impact of home advantage in almost every kind of sporting contest (in professional basketball the home team wins about 66 per cent of the time, and in Premiership football the home team wins nearly 64 per cent of the available points). There has been a lot of academic work on this phenomenon, too, but there is nowhere near as much consensus about what is causing it. Some have argued that the advantage of playing at home derives from a series of ‘technical’ factors – away teams are tired by long journeys, have to sleep in uncomfortable hotel beds, may be unused to local playing conditions – which means that it is no different from the other technical advantages, such as fitness and skill levels, that players bring to a game. The problem with this view is that although the advantage of playing at home has declined somewhat over the century-plus history of professional sports, it hasn’t declined by much; meanwhile, the technical disadvantages of playing away have been greatly reduced by significant improvements in all aspects of travel: first-class flights, fancy hotels, on-site physiotherapists etc. These days, no big league team should ever arrive at an away game tired, tetchy, homesick (the top players lead such bicoastal, transcontinental, post-nuclear lives that it’s not clear what it would mean for them to be homesick anyway); yet winning away from home is still very hard.

06 APRIL 2009

My father died three weeks and one day ago today, at roughly 10am on Monday 6 April.

A week and one day ago today, on Monday 20 April, we buried him.

I have nothing to add to these statements.

I’m always happy to discuss my current emotional state, as anyone I’ve spoken to recently will know. I’ve become incredibly popular in the last three weeks, apparently as fascinating to others as I am to myself, and I have disserted at great length on my favourite subject: me.

But I don’t really have anything to say at all.

In this situation, people often tell you that they can’t imagine what you’re feeling. I think they mean that they cannot imagine the strength of your emotions; those extremes of sadness or anger you surely must be experiencing. What they are certain of, however – and I have felt certain of this in the past – is that your emotions are strong and clear, that they rule you like a great passion. Nothing could be futher from the truth, at least so far as I am concerned. Passion is engrossing, captivating, gripping. Yet in the last few weeks I have felt bored more often than I have done for years. The dominant emotion? Not sadness, or anger, but confusion.

A comparison: imagine being stuck next to a speaker at a concert when the volume is suddenly thrown up. Louder and louder it goes, far beyond the point when it might improve hearing. Your whole body vibrates. Your ears ring in not-quite circles. From this moment onwards, there is no sound in any true sense. Sound has become noise. In the end, the ringing in your ears will seem just like the ringing of silence.

For me, this is the experience of grief. The volume gets turned up, but everything is muted. It’s fine really. Very much like normal life. Just, occasionally, something will turn up to remind you that you are listening to the world in stereo, watching it in Technicolour.

Anyway. Enough. You can read the eulogy I gave at my father’s funeral here. It, too, has nothing to add. My hope is that – for once – it isn’t taking anything away. That is the goal right now. That is the endeavour.

Many many thanks to all those who have contributed, in particular those who have written. I haven’t replied, but I have read. Thank you.

CONFIDENCE AS A VIRTUE, REVISITED

From an article by Tony Blair in the International Herald Tribune, 24 December 2008:

To work effectively, globalization needs values like trust, confidence, openness and justice.

CONFIDENCE AS A VIRTUE

One of the principle arguments of my book is that confidence is a modern virtue. So I was delighted to find (via jcgr’s flickr photostream) this billboard:
For A Better Life - Confidence

It comes from an organisation called The Foundation for a Better Life. On their website, values.com, they’ve got loads of these billboards. Each one represents a contemporary virtue – hope, compassion, leadership and so on – with a photo of a heroic exemplar. So perseverance gets Shaq; strength gets Christopher Reeve.

There’s so much to be written about this campaign, from its status as advertising to its political orientation (right of centre, I’d say). What’s fascinating to me though is the way it treats confidence: as a virtue.

Virtues seem to be called values nowadays, at least outside books on moral philosophy, but the principle is the same: both represent the qualities that define what sort of life, what sort of character, what sort of actions and what state of being it is desirable to aspire to.

It’s odd to me that confidence is this age’s particular virtue. Previous centuries have found it pretty irrelevent. Yet for us, it makes perfect sense that a list of virtues should include both confidence and “believe in yourself” (with Shrek as its exemplar). One of the things I hope to do in my book is suggest reasons why this might be the case.

Some virtues are timeless: pretty much all societies at all times have had notions of courage and truth, for example, both of which made Aristotle’s foundational list. But other virtues are specific to their time. This is why, for me, confidence is well compared to honour. Honour appears in a variety of forms on values.com, but it’s virtuous power has faded considerably. Not that I know of course, but the same could well happen to confidence.

That’s not to say that confidence is not important – right now, it might be the most important thing in the world. The billboards section of the website has comments from down the side. Here’s one:

“One morning I took an alternate route to school.It was the day of a big test that I prepared for but yet was uncertain of my ability. I saw this billboard and really felt the message, I knew that was all I needed–to believe in myself and have confidence. When I am faced with a tough situation I remember this billboard. Thank you-all your billboards are great!!”   Teresa T., New York, New York, USA

A LITTLE SELF-KNOWLEDGE

Is a dangerous thing:

rowland-urban-dictionary-cropped1

(Wenis, apparently, is the skin on your elbow. Of course it is).

AND THE PRIZE FOR METAPHOR

…goes to Gordon Brown:

“Leaders meeting in London must supply the oxygen of confidence to today’s global economy and give people in all of our countries renewed hope for the future”.

READING

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SPIRIT OF THE BRITS