Sunday, 8 August 2010

The ant and the grasshopper

I did this piece on the importance of play for the Guardian last week:

At this time of year, the out of office auto-replies ping back with the certainty of Federer volleys. Everyone is “away”. We don’t call it holiday any more, as if, even in August, we need an unspecific euphemism to assuage our guilt at being absent from work. I am not away. I am still in the office in high summer. My name is Joe and I am a workaholic.

I should, at least, feel at home in the current political climate. One of the side effects of the recession-led reiteration of the need for “fairness” is a moralistic emphasis on redirecting limited resources to the industrious and deserving. Incapacity benefit shirkers must pick up their crutches and work; university lecturers must forego their long holidays; idle, nest-feathering managers must be culled and Stakhanovite frontline workers retained. Whatever the economic rights and wrongs of these arguments, I detect a mean-spirited, puritan streak in them. We must work, work and work to cut the deficit. Like Vershinin in Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, we believe that one day life on earth will be beautiful, provided we put in a few hundred years’ hard labour first.

“Why should I let the toad work squat on my life?” asked Philip Larkin, weighed down by his in-tray, in 1955. But Larkin was writing at a time when most people believed in an automated future, when labour-saving machines would rule over the workplace and the problem would be how to fill the endless hours of leisure time. They needn’t have worried. Today’s political culture is dominated by the middle-class conservatism of Thatcherism, which was born in a Grantham grocer’s shop and which believes that work, and receiving just rewards for it, are central to human identity. The clich├ęd way of complimenting key voters in the New Labour years was to call them “hardworking families”. Hard work has become the definition of citizenship.

In their recent book, Bugs Britannica, Peter Marren and Richard Mabey remind us that these anxieties about doing useful work are part of our folklore. Perhaps the earliest example is Aesop’s smug little fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper spends the summer lounging about while the ant works away gathering food for the winter, when the grasshopper, unaided by the ant, dies of hunger. I prefer Richard Lovelace’s version: a cavalier poet writing during the civil war, he reversed the tale to castigate the sanctimonious ant who would not even allow himself an hour “to lose with pleasure, what thou got’st with pain”. Lovelace would surely have approved of the Muppet Show’s take on Aesop, in which the ant gets trodden on and the grasshopper drives off to Florida for the winter in a sports car.

The problem with work, as Aesop never acknowledged and it has taken me 20 years of work to realise, is that it never ends. This world is run by money, and there will never be a point at which money will say “enough”. The market goes on forever and it always demands more. The virtual markets which managerialism has brought to the public sector engage in a similarly infinite pursuit of “excellence” and “quality”. You could spend a lifetime of toil in search of these elusive abstract nouns.

Of course, work is a good and necessary thing in its place. It stops you from starving, directs your energies and can even, if you are lucky, offer friendship and community. But nature writers like Mabey have pointed out that seeing work as the meaning of life is a human, metaphysical invention; it has little basis in biology. Play, not work, seems to be the defining essence of life on earth. Elephants push over trees, penguins belly flop on the ice, birds chase each other or drop and catch sticks in the air, cranes leap up together like ballet dancers – and all just for the hell of it. While the new austerity requires us to put a price on everything, play remains priceless precisely because it is pointless: a way of simply enjoying and celebrating life when life is all we have. Play is also free, egalitarian and equilibrium-loving: it costs nothing and asks for nothing in return and is therefore an excellent model for sustainable living with scarce resources. “Thus richer than untempted kings are we,” writes Lovelace in his poem in praise of the grasshopper, “That, asking nothing, nothing need.”

At the beginning of the financial crisis two years ago, there seemed to be a brief possibility that it might allow us to reassess our priorities and value more those aspects of life – play, pleasure, friendship, free time - that do not show up in growth figures. But now the ants are on the march again, all of them warning that the grasshoppers will die in penury, just as Lovelace did. I don’t care for this joyless, ungenerous attitude in which we must constantly prove to each other how much useful work we are doing. I may be an honorary ant, but I have a soft spot for grasshoppers. Their days in the sun may soon be ended by the harvest sickle, or the scythe of government cuts. But until then, whether they are “away” or on holiday, I hope they can guiltlessly enjoy the sweet idleness of summer. Work is not the meaning of life. Take it from an ant who knows.


  1. Just a great piece. Really lovely. Something to put on a banner (probably quite a big one) and parade down the street with.

    Seem to connect with a whole number of things for me yesterday :

    DW x

  2. Thanks Daniel - and thanks for sending the post. I saw those other things as well.