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Signs of busyness

23 September 2016


YOU have locked yourself out of your house. You call a locksmith, who sweats over the job for two hours, and charges you £200. But he’s worked hard, and you can get into your house; so you give him a cup of tea and a tip.

But what if you got a locksmith who managed to get the job done in ten minutes, and charged you £200? You would resent the cost and send him packing. The differ­ence is only that the latter is better at his job than the former.

This modern parable of business economics came courtesy of Pro­fessor Dan Ariely, and was deployed to satirise our penchant for rewarding effort rather than out­come. As part of the series Oliver Burkeman is Busy (Radio 4, week­days last week), it underlined the extent to which status now­adays is linked to busyness; as Burkeman puts it, we fetishise busyness in ways that can ultimately prove counter-productive.

Thus we will arrive home from a holiday and boast of the thousands of emails that have accumulated since we left. We insist to others that we barely have time in the day for a coffee, let alone a sandwich. Lunch is for wimps; you snooze, you lose. And yet it seems a curious thing to boast about. The truly successful person would surely have people to deal with tedious correspondence, leaving time for the three courses that he or she truly deserved.

Burkeman is superb in his un­­picking of the rituals by which we generate self-importance. The claim of busyness is, perhaps, the most effective of all.

Some lucky people get big grants to look busy, even when their subject of study is rest. Congratula­tions to Professor Felicity Callard and her team for landing a two-year academic residency at the Well­come Collection — although, if The Anatomy of Rest (Radio 4, Tues­­day of last week) is to be believed, they have not spent their entire time lying around in ham­mocks and thinking clever thoughts.

Professor Callard’s team includes psychologists, historians, poets, and musicians, each ap­­proach­ing the contemporary phenomenon and the history of rest from different vantage points. I was particularly drawn by the contribution of Antonia Barnett-McIntosh, an experimental com­poser, whose collaboration with a flautist has resulted in a piece where the performer is required to sustain breaths of more than 30 seconds. One can hardly imagine it being restful for the poor player.

Perhaps that is part of the act: the excitement of effort. Certainly that is something that drives the comedy of Mark Watson, a busy performer who punctuates his humour with self-referential asides on the success or failure of a par­ticular gag.

This was particularly the case in Mark Watson Talks a Bit About Life (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), in which the topic was spirit­uality. The show started in a determinedly focused way, with a song about the C of E, but then it veered off delightfully into discus­sion of evaporated milk, famous last words, and what a vegan ver­sion of the game Hungry Hippos would look like.

Watson is somebody who man­ages to hit just the right tone for radio comedy: may he remain busy for many years to come.

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