Boredom. Tedium. Monotony. Quiet. It’s been over a year since the pandemic exiled us to a repertoire of sofas, armchairs and kitchen-tables-turned-desks. Though the phenomenon of lockdown has been common across the board, few of us have experienced it in the same way. Here, Wales Arts Review compiles reflections from some of the finest writers of Wales on the elusive art of being, rejecting and wishing for boredom.
Charles Dickens first coined the word ‘boredom’, in Bleak House in 1852. The thought of it keeps me awake, not bored, but word-obsessed, with anagrams, rhymes, crossword clues. Poems in draft. Poems I have by heart, like Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, or verse composed as I lie awake, to be forgotten by morning.
These days I suffer poetry paranoia, occasional writers block, never boredom. I have not endured the grey, weighty world of boredom since childhood: waking on a Saturday morning to find my best friend has gone out for the day; closing the last page of an un-put-downable book, my mother too busy to take me to the library; or home from boarding school, my only home-town friend away on holiday. Then, boredom was a wall to stare at – my bedroom wall in Barry, later in Penarth, ready to scrawl the emptiness with crayons had I not been too weighed down with lethargy to bother; the flaking, white-washed wall of a fallen vinehouse in the garden in Penarth, its mildewed vine scrawling the day with sour, poisonous, inedible fruit, as my mother set me housetasks I was too idle to perform. There was no time for wall-staring at Fforest Farm, Pembrokeshire – never bored with my Ga by the sea, I swam every day, sun or rain, all summer long without a word in my head.
Nor am I bored now, where fields extend to a horizon of hills, where there are birds to watch, a hare in the gap, a fox crossing the field, our two cats, this moment bringing me a gift-mouse. Home for a year from travels, gigs, festivals, I am a recluse, but not bored. I never want to catch a train or a plane again.
Where is the art of boredom? It seems to be hidden somewhere between sucking Netflix dry, dressing my top half for Zoom calls and reminiscing nostalgically on days when I could go to the dentist.
From initial creative intentions, through a stifled sort of reality, to a dribbling zombified mess of shoulda woulda couldas and a swansong to the last time a stranger inspected my teeth, it has been hard. All sorts of hard. No-one claims that only boring people are bored anymore. No-one thinks that eating seven meals a day is anything out of the ordinary. We all just nod morosely, weep, then plan what we are having for our post-dinner dinner.
I, for one, don’t want to read anyone’s lockdown diaries when this is over, but I fear I hear the tapping of laptop keys and the title ‘Day One’ being typed all over the land. No doubt some erudite, witty soul will manage to pull it off with a worldwide bestseller and I will seethe with jealousy that I didn’t diarise this mundane everything.
I’ve not written much at all. This piece is a tome. The art of boredom has largely eluded me. Unless I think of boredom as art in itself.
We are a living out a story for ourselves and for future generations. The patterns we paint with our feet as we repeat our daily actions around the house. The rhythms we fall into, a dance. The theatre of being a pawn against an uncontrollable other. The unspoken words which ache inside us and the everyday words which have taken on so much more meaning and weight.
This stillness has changed me, not through choice but necessity. I watched a bank vole eating a seed in my garden. Noticed the rebuke of a bolshy bullfinch. Took time to observe the way a crocus opens gracefully to the sun. Made songs of clouds.
While I am desperate to hug my niece, see friends, wander freely through this world again, I will do my best to observe the art of living with a grateful eye. Perhaps to live and breathe and wonder is art in itself? Perhaps it is enough?
I walk up the hill and rearrange the house names as I go:
The White House
The White House
The White House with towers
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
Tŷ Gwyn House
The White House
The avant Garde should be up to this boredom. That’s in its soul. Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire, eight hours of the Empire State Building doing nothing, no change of camera angle, no action. Lights go on and off. Occasional figures appear at windows. The light on top floods on. Then off. Warhol had already filmed 45 minutes of a painter eating a mushroom. By comparison this was thrilling stuff.
In 1967 Yoko Ono had shown her film No 4 otherwise known as Bottoms which ran for eighty minutes and consisted of a fixed camera showing sequentially 365 naked bottoms and had a soundtrack of the participants talking about world peace and conceptualising about the film itself. The bottoms were those of the counterculture famous of the day. Jeff Nuttall, Philip Corner, Richard Hamilton, Carolee Schneeman. The film was at first refused a certificate and then granted one. I watched it at a London art house and felt a boredom threshold break around half way through when I suddenly began to enthuse about which new bottom would appear next. Would it be different? In reality, none ever were. But the expectation was enough.
So here I am, Covid-locked, Finch of the Welsh Avant Garde coping with an endless procession of White House Houses, daily, unchanging unless I will it. As I often do.
In 2019 there was a plan to rename this entire district as Ty Gwyn. Didn’t go through.
The White House House, White House. House House. House. House. House. It would make a fine film.
Today my son asked me for the umpteenth time, ‘now what should I do?’ I told him he could do anything he liked, as long as it wasn’t on a screen. He spent the next half an hour gazing out a window and crooning sadly to himself. ‘Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources,’ Berryman’s mother told Berryman ‘repeatingly’, according to Dream Song 14 – and my mother told me so repeatingly, too. I remember lying on the floor as a child just like that, gazing out a window and crooning with boredom. Or, not so much gazing out the window as gazing at the window, whose dusty smoothness seemed boredom’s very manifestation. At most, I might breathe on the glass and languorously draw a sad face in the condensation, to prove to the world that I was ‘heavy bored.’
After sufficient boredom, as my mother knew, I would be forced into play – into life, into the company of others. In other words, I did not make use of inner resources, but rather of outer resources. Childhood is the process of developing a sense of self, of gathering the resources which can be relied upon in adulthood. For children in the pandemic, deprived of play and each other’s company, their boredom does not in any way resemble my childhood boredom; because there is no play, no company, into which they can be pushed. And not having developed inner resources, their boredom does not resemble the boredom of adults. Their boredom is a boredom without the possibility of relief.
I think this is part of what we leave out, when we talk about children in the pandemic through euphemisms like ‘mental health’. There is something profounder, even, than children’s mental health at stake. I have read that there are adults who think children should be sent back to school this summer to catch up on lessons; that there are adults who think gyms should be opened before schools. I am bored of these adults, with their ‘plights & gripes’. Our most important job this summer is to make it possible for children to play. Let there be play, in schoolyards, in parks, on the beaches, in the streets and in the woods. To prioritise the desires of adults, who have inner resources, above those who are still developing their very personhood; this would be unconscionable.
I once heard a well-known writer say that boredom had been the making of her career. An only child, in a foreign country, she had quickly read everything to hand and had spent hours alone. The only way to fill the imaginative vacuum was to create her own people, with their own stories. The emptiness around her had been so sterile, the desire to populate it so huge, that it had forced her into creativity.
In many ways the writing process is boredom management, a complex mix of presence and absence. There are short, intense times of fixing one’s gaze on the story, not looking away, concentrating. But this is punctuated by often longer periods of pause, of getting up and walking to the window and standing with your hands in your pockets, then finding that ten minutes have gone and the leaf you have been staring at hasn’t moved. What was in your mind during that time is often difficult to say, but something was happening.
But is this really boredom? Maybe not. It’s certainly different from the stark what shall I do? of an empty day when nothing is interesting and the only feeling is a dissatisfied, restless anxiety, though that may be the starting point.
Perhaps the writing process involves rather what the meditation experts call accidie, a state of ennui induced by the practise of the same prayer or work, a sense that it’s not going anywhere and that no one is listening, and wouldn’t it be easier to give up?
Of course, any boredom should be invisible to the reader.
I mean, between this sentence and the last there was a five minute stare through the window, but hopefully you didn’t notice.
That leaf still hasn’t moved.
Each day, whatever the weather, myself and my 21-month-old son walk a path that cuts through a series of fields and meadows in the village where we live. We’ve re-traced this same route since the lockdown began last Spring. Our activities along the walk consist almost entirely of bird spotting, ball kicking, puddle jumping, and stone throwing. With so many different life pressures occupying my thinking, there is so often some part of me, of my awareness, disconnected from these things we do. And, projecting this ‘outside-edness’ onto my son, on each walk I worry that what we’re doing is becoming boring to him. That whatever this walk can offer won’t sustain him. That he deserves more. And yet, day after day, I watch as he gives himself totally to whatever activity he opts to undertake. And slowly, through him, I come to realise that it isn’t the activities themselves that fulfil us, but how much of ourselves we give to them. What makes anything meaningful is our immersion in it. For over 300 consecutive days we have made this walk, and undertaken these same activities. Yet, for my son, every puddle, every stone, every bird, is new. There is no generalisation in his mind. Everything exists as and of itself. Everything is vital. And just so long as he gives himself as completely as he does, to whatever activity he undertakes, nothing can ever be boring. By living beyond himself, beyond self-consciousness, he exists wholly in experience. This is something I come to realise that, somewhere along the line, I have lost. And every day, little by little, through him I attempt to learn again.
with each throw
the boy’s stone lands
at the centre of the universe
Philosophers, writers and artists have, for centuries, considered what it means to be bored. I feel the weight of their wisdom here – their intricate explorations with words and paint. ‘Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?’ It occurs to me that perhaps I am bored of this tendency in my work – to defer to others’ ideas and experience. And is it just dull to quote T.S. Eliot’s well-known ode to ennui? Perhaps boredom is indeed, as Diane De Beausacq claimed in Les Glanes de la vie (1898), really ‘the fear of self’.
To me, boredom is a nebulous concept describing a complex of interrelated thoughts and emotions. It is a feeling that can be born from privilege – a writer’s own fatigue at her own predictable creative processes, for instance – and it can be the result of inequality and a lack of opportunity. As Eliot and countless other thinkers and artists have shown, boredom is a symptom of modernity and, ironically, a remarkably fertile state for those seeking to explore this experience. In 2021, we have greater access to information, mental stimulation and social interaction than at any other time in human history. And yet, this creates its own tedium. During this latest COVID-19 lockdown, in particular, Baudelaire’s interminable Parisian winter in Les Fleurs de Mal has seemed close to home:
Nothing is longer than the limping days
When under heavy snowflakes of the years,
Ennui, the fruit of dulling lassitude
Takes on the size of immortality.
My solution to the ‘limping’ virtual days of lockdown has been to go out for walks in my home city of Newport and to seek out, where I can, the insignia of a coexisting and, for me, endlessly interesting and mysterious natural world. To, in some small way, ‘dare disturb the universe’. A tired, overly Romantic take, perhaps. And I miss the pub as much as the next person. But in such moments, at least, I find it is impossible to be bored.
In the autumn of 2006 my small household was joined by a new member. Over the years that were to follow I spent more time- by a long way- in her company than with any other living creature.
Unlike the other housemates Minnie Ferguson did not exit the front door for destinations of work or education, her food and medical care being paid for by us.
She and I were alike in many ways, but differed in others. Externally we had eyes and ears, nose and mouth. Internally the lay-out was the same; lungs, heart, kidneys and all the rest, albeit hers on a smaller scale. Behaviourally we had a large overlap. Nightlife – its absence bitter in a time of pandemic- was important. Ours entailed trips to Felinfach, Cardigan, Aberystwyth and was over by eleven at night. Her nightlife was closer to hand and began at eleven, a descent to the back door and exit for eight hours.
The range of emotions we felt were much the same. At her low end was panic. But that only happened once a year when New Year fireworks erupted in the sky. There was bliss to be had regularly. She had an uncanny skill to know just where and when a pile of freshly laundered, and still warm, shirts or sheets had been laid down. She was heliotropic. Her instinct to know wherever there was a hint of sunlight to be relished was uncanny.
She did not need to work but she knew how to play. She played whenever she felt like it. I might be absorbed in writing but that left front paw would first tap my arm with increasing pace. If I were absorbed in a knotty item of a theatre review her next stage was both simple and logical. My netbook is not large and nor was she but her couple of kilograms could cover the keyboard wholly.
So her days and months passed, eating, sleeping, playing. When the season came butterflies were to be leapt at. Admittedly she did few things but they were done with gusto. And she was never bored.
Boredom is for us. It is the gateway to many things; tedium and impatience are crucial for innovation. That stopping-still of our private world, irksome in the short term, is indispensable for the longer term. To be gripped in boredom is wholly human.
In thirty years of working in theatre – as an actor, writer and director – I always regarded not being boring as a categorical imperative. My work has been at times underdeveloped, overcooked and, in rare instances, downright offensive; yet such failures were tolerated as staging posts in my creative journey so long as I eschewed tedium. To test beyond comfort the patience of audiences, especially young ones, or to recreate for the stage the longueurs of everyday life was an irredeemable sin. Multitudes told me they would never see a play again after a bottom-deadening, soul-shrinking school visit to the RSC, instilling an unhealthy obsession with pacing my storytelling to the limits of their digitised attention spans, or the melting of ice in their drinks order waiting at the bar.
Then I discovered Noh.
Noh is a classical dramatic form that originated in Japanese temple rituals of the 12th century, developing into a potent fusion of music, dance and oral storytelling. Its plays are short, but such is the painstakingly slow, almost self-indulgently elaborate performance style of Noh actors that a single hour unfolds like a tortuous, hypnotic, perhaps never-ending stretch of open time. Did you really spend fifteen minutes watching someone traverse just a few feet of stage, or was it fifteen hours? Atonal pluckings, flutings, and a ponderous beating of drums from the hayashi chorus accompany the guttural utterances of a cast of three. The narrative mode is suggestive, evoking mood rather than detailing specifics. Even modern Japanese, familiar with Noh’s dramaturgy of national myth and history, can find the action of a Noh play somewhat difficult to discern. The uninitiated Westerner wonders not only what may be happening but whether anything is happening at all.
For me, this epic slowness of anti-drama seemed to bend time itself, so that I descended through levels of impatience down to the bowels of frustration and then beyond, to an emotional state beyond boredom. When suddenly, the lead actor – the shite (pronounced shee-tay) – sprang into a climactic dance of beguiling effortless grace, releasing springs of tightly coiled energy so intense that I was moved in an instant from startled surprise to stupefying exhilaration. It was one of the most intensely thrilling moments I have ever experienced in my life, let alone inside a theatre. I understood instinctively that the power of this dance resulted directly from the hour of excruciating slowness that preceded a sudden explosion of speed. I learned from Noh that action can derive increased power from inaction, a flurry of movement can be heightened by a prior weighty stillness, as words are informed by silence. Being boring on stage was no longer always to be avoided, because it can frame those moments when art intensifies our lives most vividly.
To write this piece I had to look up the exact definition of Boredom. It’s not something I feel. Rather than being bored, what I think of as the longer-term, and sulkier, ‘being fed up’ is my go-to grumble. Mainly used when I want to go somewhere new.
Wikipedia tells me that Boredom is a modern phenomenon: ‘when an individual is left without anything in particular to do… and experiences a lack of stimulation’.
Why don’t I experience this? Easy. It’s the internet, stupid!
I have too many things to do, too much stimulation: pages to scroll, notifications to check, emails to read.
It might not be healthy for me. And it might not be the most productive use of my time. But, because of THE INTERNET I don’t think I’m ever really bored. Which is something, at least.
Echoes from the 1960s. My parents’ words from our butcher’s shop on the corner of a terraced street in Swansea East: ‘Can’t you learn to amuse yourself?’; ‘Nice to have the time to be bored.’ Teachers’ pronouncements from my all-girls grammar school in leafy Swansea West: ‘Nobody wants to spend time in the company of a bore’; ‘A bored person is a boring person.’ Perhaps words sent from God on high as I sang this particular hymn with all earnest from the pews of St Luke’s church.
Awake my soul, and with the sun
My daily stage of duty run
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay thy morning sacrifice.
You get my gist? My boredom was an affront, a slap in the face, to those who worked their fingers to the bone for me, who tried to educate me and raise me up, and to Him, who aimed to save me from that deadly sin: Mum and Dad’s boredom, my teachers’ moral degradation and their references to Baudelaire’s ennui, Bishop Ken’s sloth. How dare I be bored?
Fast forward to March 2020 when, for the first time in a working life (so far) of almost fifty years, Lockdown saw my day-job work disappear overnight, but gave me, what my parents would call, ‘the luxury of time.’
Initially there was a danger of endless, almost unmarked time, sapping the soul and the creative spirit. And then there was the guilt. Always the guilt. I had been given this unexpected (and perhaps undeserved) time to write creatively, but how could I justify venturing into the fantastic and the seemingly frivolous when there was so much horrific fact all around me?
I begged my conscience for answers, gave myself permission, allowed myself the luxury.
I’ve viewed the last twelve months as an unpaid writing retreat at Chez Channel View, Gower. I’ve set myself targets, kept busy, kept going. I’ve had to. I’ve learned Spanish. I’ve drafted a hybrid novel of 100,000 words. It’s raw and it’ a mess (as am I) but it’s on the page. There’s plenty of work to be done but I’ve avoided boredom for fear of God and some invisible wrath.
As a rule, I don’t suffer from boredom. Indeed, before the pandemic, I would have replied that I only ever got bored during meetings. Any meetings at which people gather together to discuss things that they pretend to consider important, but especially workplace meetings. It is only during meetings, when everyone is seated around a table feigning interest in something that even the one or two people present who can remember the purpose of calling the meeting in the first place have long since given up all hope of resolving, that I have to come to terms with my lamentably low boredom threshold. Now that we have endured a year of Zoom meetings, I can confirm that I still get bored during meetings, but even more so than before. Now, my greatest horror is being asked to contribute at these spectral shows, when the ghosts of people I once knew — I think — appear before me in the dusky light of my loft, as I perch behind my computer, and ask for my opinion on matters that I have never even considered, nor ever held an opinion about, but have to pretend to hold one, in order for the meeting to conform to the expectations held of it, and for me to sustain the illusion of being the person I once was.
When less is sold as more.
We are now doing more than ever with less, it seems. With the sole use of a screen this year I have written and taught students about writing; home-schooled my children; attended meetings; ordered food, drink, clothing and a million other things; spoken to relatives and friends; attended leaving dos; had health consultations; confirmed my identity for an employer; attended birthday parties; watched authors give talks and launch books; been a panellist; conducted interviews; examined students; attended parents’ evening; watched a funeral, etc. And so has everyone else.
There are some who try to sell this as a positive. Aren’t we lucky to be able to do all of this? I can see why. I am lucky. I still have a job at a time when many people don’t. I live in a developed western democracy where I have access to technology that plugs me into the ecosystem of life, as demonstrated above. I have a house and a garden and an allotment and a partner who I still love very much after a year of us both working from home.
But this new way of doing has, in many cases, removed so much of the joy and meaning from day-to-day activity. When joy and meaning disappear, emptiness creeps in. This emptiness, for me, is characterised by a listless ennui, a lack of desire to engage, the depletion of any desire to take part in activity that is conducted via a screen big or large. And when everything is now done via screen, a state of boredom can tip over into depression and even existential terror.
Last weekend when the sun revealed itself, when it felt possible that March would actually arrive, I didn’t touch a screen at all. Okay, maybe I used my phone. And I did watch Netflix. And I ordered a birthday present. And I read the news. But also, I went out and stood in the sun. We found a newt in our pond and the kids were so excited. I mean, I was so excited, and fascinated, and alive.
Do Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman suffer from RPI (Repetitive Presentation Injury)? What happened when the composer Schumann plunged his injured hand into the guts of a freshly-slaughtered cow as a quack remedy? Are the Hairy Bikers gay?
These are frivolous questions to which no answer matters or needs be demanded. They are the dawdling children of Boredom.
The incurious are strangers to boredom. A week spent completing a 2,000-piece jigsaw of the Colosseum or seeking the answer to piffling queries are staple. But boredom is the condition that like a smog infiltrates the core activities of the genuinely curious, obliging them to counter it with aimless pursuit and speculation, such as puzzling over jigsaws and wondering if the Pope wears Versace chinos and V-necks on his days off. If boredom-related exercises become more than the means of killing time before the smog lifts, their participants cease to be bored: a jigsaw is then therapy or philosophic whole-from-parts process, and the Pontiff’s smart-casual appearance an opportunity to humanise a Divine appointee. For the truly bored, such outcomes are immaterial.
To be bored is to have become prey to undirected idleness, which can nonetheless masquerade as essential and productive. Social media’s founders know this. SM ‘platforms’ are predicated on retrieval, self-aggrandisement and benign megalomania. They have turned a ‘friend’ into a ‘Friend’, a cap F person so far from one’s daily thoughts as to have been willed into the recesses of fond memory. They have reduced conversation to braggadocio, and guaranteed its swift decline into rancour and bullying. Above all, their reductions are encouraged by brevity and trivia, and, like boredom itself, they are conducted against a sinister and ever-threatening background.
Boredom is the cousin of depression and the sister of lethargy and fatigue. For those deprived, pro tem, of its antidotes, it will pass; and so will its relatives.
I’ve found myself almost longing for boredom over the last year. That feeling of hours with nothing to do, nothing to fill them, no purpose. (To be fair, I probably haven’t experienced that in over two decades, but it is nice to wallow occasionally in nostalgia for that long-lost era known as ‘nineteen’.) While friends bemoan the lack of pubs and coffee shops, my time has felt stuffed – full to the brim with questions, queries, requests, demands. In my repurposed living-room-now-office, bereft of books, there’s no time to look out of the window and simply await the spring. Boredom, in many ways, is a luxury – it’s time available to be frittered or wasted.
I recently read a piece about how perceptions of time may feel distorted by successive lockdowns. I couldn’t tell if this meant time sped up or down, partly because I didn’t have the time to read it properly, but it did make me wonder how our notions of boredom are tied up with our understanding of time. For me, time feels curiously warped – both faster and slower. Days are too short but this winter has lasted for decades. I feel like I’m caught in a time-loop where I’m always brushing my teeth. In my living-room-classroom, I teach apocalyptic literature (a little dystopia here, a portion of plague there) and perhaps this explains my fascination with time (running out) and my perpetual state of existential angst. But if I had time to be bored, I wouldn’t waste it on boredom – I’d go to the library and spend quality time with my friends (of the book variety) or I’d simply sit in my actual office, in the building I can’t travel to, and soak up the silence, admiring the blossoming tree that must, a year later, have reached my window. Life is too short (and too long) for boredom.
For a simple word, ‘bore’ is quite an ambiguous one. If someone tells me about two acquaintances, and she describes one as ‘boring’ and the other as ‘a bore’, I have two very distinct mental pictures (and I’m much more likely to avoid the second person). When we say ‘boredom’, we’re talking of two quite different states.
The first is the boredom of repetition – that experienced during an unfulfilling job or at school during a double period class of a badly-taught subject. This is the boredom that the punks sang about wanting to avoid – the daily grind, the labour of Sisyphus without even the moments of failure to break it up. This – ‘a bore’ rather than ‘boring’ – is the harder kind, at least for me.
The other is the boredom of emptiness – of having nothing to do. This has been some people’s experience of lockdown – being separated from the activities that normally give their lives meaning – work, socialisation or just getting out of the house.
For many people, especially artists, this latter boredom has its uses – Philippa Perry said that ‘We need that existential void in order to be motivated to make something.’ This boredom can be a Zen state – the neutrality that allows new thoughts in.
I once asked a group of my First Year students why, as a species, we’re so committed to telling stories. After a range of the usual replies – escapism, making sense of the world, mythologizing – one said ‘Boredom.’. I asked him to elaborate, and he shrugged: ‘Well…. you’ve got to do something.’
Maybe the real divide over the last year has been between those for whom the Pandemic has been merely boring, and those much less fortunate ones – NHS workers, teachers, people with children – for whom it’s been a massive bore.
Boredom is a driving force as strong as fear or hunger or lust. It drives us to action, to change. Philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell, wisley warns us ‘Boredom is… a vital problem for the moralist, since half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.’ It is not a comfortable state; we can’t relax into boredom, we complain about falling into it. It does not forge new parts for us, but forces us down them as we run, tail between legs, from dreaded apathy. It’s for this reason we should be grateful for this uncelebrated state of mind.
It’s a state that seems unique to humanity. Cats never bore of sitting in the sun, dogs never tire of chasing their own tails. Boredom is a catalyst for innovation and change. If presented with a world where we were able sit comfortably in a state of boredom, our innovations would shrink to nothing. Imagination would fail. The human landscape would never change.
What if Coco Chanel hadn’t got bored of fashion’s corseted silhouette? What if Bowie had never tired of dressing like a mod? If Picasso hadn’t lost interest in representational art he never would have played his part in inventing modern, abstract art. If James Joyce hadn’t bored of writing standard prose, we wouldn’t have Ulysses.
Boredom walks hand-in-hand with curiosity and invention. It makes us analyse the parts of our lives – and our world – that have grown tired. It inspires us to reinvigorate our art and our selves.
Never shun boredom. Seize it. Welcome it with open arms, but don’t let it settle. Invite it to stick a hot poker up your arse. Give it the steering wheel. Let it drive your creative mind to somewhere new and wholly unexpected.
You’d think that a writer who delights in the creative use of words would embrace the opportunity lockdown offers to get creative without hindrance or distraction. In my case, the contrary has been true. After some of my poems were published last year, my muse has deserted me, replaced by a great laziness that has colonised my soul. Chuck Berry knew about such torpor, saying, ‘Lots of days I could write songs, but I could also take my $400 and play the slot machines at the riverfront casino.’ Adding to my disappointment, the riverfront of course isn’t open now, in Newport as well as Chicago presumably.
Hence I’ve been bored. That is until now when I am mercifully relieved of enduring my plight. Boredom is a condition that deranges so many of us living alone under lockdown, like a cancer threatening to spread if untreated, only a step from metastasising into disillusionment and self-pity. Life becomes miserable when it’s meant to be fun, innit?
So what has come to rescue me from boredom? Well, that c-word again. After my recent diagnosis, I’m driven to fight off the threat I can control, by the imperative to savour each moment, excavate what lies dormant or overlooked deep within while I still have the energy to concentrate my will in that direction. Not meaning to overstate the odds, as the philosopher Manly Hall put it, ‘There’s nothing like impending death to rouse you from existential boredom.’
So I will be writing with some defiance to connect, to feel I am fully myself and alive, recognising the truth of what another philosopher said: ‘Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.’ (Kierkegaard),
and to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, shall write, write against the dying of the light.
Boredom has learned the art of assuming the masks I keep in a dedicated drawer. Boredom sits, eyes like television static, and tugs at my sleeve to show me. Today, a favourite – Grief.
The play-act is predictable. We sit on the floor together, an unread book splayed between us, the words blurring and indecipherable as mites. Everything, Boredom tells me, is a tragedy. Boredom spends time with me, crying. Self-help books fall mysteriously through the letterbox. Their covers shine there, revolting, like roadkill.
Fear is mostly an evening identity – terror as formalwear, if you like. Together, we doom-scroll. The act is cyclical: Instagram, News app, Facebook, Twitter – and once, God help me, I am scrolling Linkedin at two in the morning.
Time does not exist during panic. Together, we sweat in the brute light of noon, come to an hour later with crescent moons carved into our thighs and our nails needing clipping again. Something, at last, to do. Boredom saunters off for a cigarette.
The Guilt-mask. Imagine, Boredom says, shifty and green, all that bread unbaked, all those novels unwritten, all those languages discarded. What’s the square root of 185? Who invented the pendulum clock? Sut wyt ti? Answer me. In the corner shop, we buy milk and cheap wine for the third time this week. Boredom boils in its Guilt-mask. In a sudden twist, we buy cigarettes at the counter, then return home to a stale kitchen. I pour a bitter glass, blow a stream of smoke towards the extractor fan. Boredom drifts through the vents.
In television, a character can simply fix a fake moustache to its upper lip tug down a pork pie hat over the brow, and assume its new identity with conviction – an absurdity you go along with, because it’s easier. Cynicism takes effort and questions will always be rabbit holes.
Nobody has the energy for revelation.
We all understand boredom, don’t we? We were introduced to it in childhood on rainy Sundays; as students with dull lecturers; as adults attending committee meetings where a useless Chairman let members drone on. But such boredom is brief and distraction is within reach. I am blessed: I only know brief boredom.
Then came Covid. The daytime was fine. Good weather lifted the spirits. I was busy walking the neighbour’s dog, researching and writing and organising, conquering my “to-do” list and organising virtual drinks parties with friends.
Evenings were the problem – being alone with a television was unsettling. Structured viewing became my new hobby. I took a Reithian approach and aimed for programmes that either informed, educated or entertained. The latter was the most difficult: I restricted Netflix’ empty calories and settled on steaming operas, classic movies and Trollope videos. Fear of boredom assuaged.
In Lockdown Two the obligatory “Yes, I am coping” began to sound hollow. The unremitting routine of the day began to pall. My concentration easily broken. I felt caged like an animal in a zoo, gawped at via zoom, skype, face-time. My relationship with the television began to feel unhealthy. Was real boredom seeping into my life?
Lookdown three, with its vicious variants and government- instilled fear, brought the answer. I experienced days of feeling, unmotivated, exhausted, disconnected. I looked up the definition of lassitude. Music, which usually gives me much joy ceased to please me; my earworms were advertising jingles not arias. I had stopped streaming operas and apologised to my piano: stroking the closed-lid and promising to be back soon. I OD’d on Netflix. This is no ordinary boredom. It is ennui – the paralysing state of ennui.
Philosophers in the mid-19th century were the first to examine boredom, concentrating on polar opposites: the wealthy with too much leisure and too few interests, and newly industrialised workers with tedious repetitive jobs. Today’s analyists can forget boredom: please tell us how to avoid/cope with ennui!
In this digital era, while we hold what has often felt like the whole world in our hands via our mobile phones, we certainly have enough to occupy us. However, it also means we have a low tolerance for boredom when a pandemic arrives. We never expected the digital world to be our only option, so even when we most needed it, it became insufficient.
Boredom can be a visitor in many guises and it can bring all sorts of uninvited emotions along with it. Depending on our circumstances, it can feel like luxury or torture. Some people long for a little boredom; to be allowed some time to stop running from A to B. Others are the opposite, terrified of any moment that allows too much time to think – to do nothing. Where do we even begin with nothing?
Well, perhaps nothing is the beginning of everything.
I’ve learnt that boredom is an opportunity for us to react, reflect and consider new ideas. It’s a chance to zoom in and ask, “Are you doing what you really want to do?” It gives us time to recalibrate before we find focus again.
For me, being bored during the pandemic hasn’t been a concern, and I feel grateful for my current circumstances. However, the discomfort I’ve felt due to not being able to experience the outdoors in all its glory has encouraged me to appreciate the vivid colours of nature. So, I started writing a novel I would love to live inside, and it’s brimming with all the colour I miss.
This, I believe, is key to human contentment; having the freedom to imagine an ideal world and in this case, boredom is a lens through which we see what we truly need at our fingertips.
Boredom is dangerous. Don’t get me wrong, we all have days when we feel that dejected wave wash over us and, for the most part, it is an inconvenience rather than a problem. Except for when it comes to politics, or culture, or art, or anything we believe in, but so often don’t stand up for because we’re ‘bored’ of talking about it and nothing really changing. Perhaps we’re bored of hearing the same old arguments, bored of discussion with people whose opinions we already know too well, or bored of the status quo and that is when boredom becomes dangerous. In 2016, researchers from Kings College London and the University of Limerick carried out a study which revealed that boredom can lead to more extreme views and voting habits among voters. Certainly over the past few years it’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot more in relation to politics, with an increase in complaints that people are growing bored of Brexit, of the rhetoric politicians use and of a political system which no longer seems to fully serve the needs of its people.
Perhaps the boredom itself is not the problem, the real issue lies in what we do with that boredom. Claiming to be bored with a situation is fine, provided we are prepared to look rationally at what is causing that boredom and then challenge it in a constructive way. As a society, we don’t need increasingly polarised political views, but equally, we don’t need any more voter apathy. What we do need is enthusiasm and energy, a willingness to stand back and look at what is causing the boredom and then ask what we can do to address it. As we approach the Senedd elections in May and start to emerge from a year in which staving off boredom has become a national pastime, we have a chance to look at the world afresh, to ask ourselves what we really want it to look like and how we can make it exciting again.
Boredom’s not something I can touch or carry
but driftwood is, which might set you thinking
what’s the connection between driftwood
and an abstract noun? Another abstract noun:
time; the extra time I’ve been gifted
has released me from the need to travel or teach,
granted me leave to lap up this landscape
of green and blue brushstrokes, of jumbled triangles
of roofs leading down to the sea, each day to pace
the flat sands and search for wood – not to
craft a driftwood cat or a driftwood spade to sell
in the closed driftwood shop, but to feed the fire
in the hearth, and in the heart which is the touchpaper
of passion on the page. There’s wood enough to make
a raft and sail away except you’re not allowed to
go anywhere, plus I don’t have the skills,
though I could teach myself raftbuilding by June
in theory. Uninterrupted wood gathering means fewer
encounters with even fewer people to propose
parameters for what I should, ought, need, can, must
write about. What if the fire of writing will not
be regimented? The moment before the act
begins with a moment of observation: a twig
on the sand whose size, type and provenance
propel me towards one who has lingered
at low tide decades before me: Shani Pob Man –
Jane everywhere – Shani in her shawl and tall hat
in the doorway of her clom cottage on the shore,
Shani calling for Bidi and Kit and Richard and Ruth,
the flutter of chickens at her feet picking at seaweed,
Shani in a field above the farm. She got around.
I doubt she, like me, was ever bored. The found line
of flotsam at dawn has taught me the art of observation.
And that’s one pandemic habit I think I’ll keep.
Boredom, can seem like an empty space, a gap or void. A place where nothing happens. But the emptiness of boredom is much like an engine, waiting for fuel. A useful space, a vessel or vehicle of some sort. And in a vehicle – a full tank can take us anywhere, we know this and we appreciate it. Yet we loathe boredom – we never want it to find us. The thing is, it must be treated correctly, acknowledged even, as a fundamental emotion that drives creativity and activity. Boredom isn’t lurking beneath the settee or crawling up the stairs to find you. It’s already within you, and every now and again it finds a seat the table – when necessary. It isn’t a selfish emotion, hobbies are friends of boredom – in fact it was probably boredom that introduced them to you. So selfless is boredom, that by throwing you into more and more hobbies and activities, it barely gets a looking. And one that has everything to do, might even miss boredom.
What happens then? When life becomes so interesting and entertaining that boredom is something you yearn for, a slice of simplicity, the space to re shape, re think and be blatantly bored once again. Suddenly, boredom seems like a luxury. And it’s over there, not with us – but someone else, and they’re probably cursing it. Arguing with their loved ones over it. I’m sooo bored, my life is boring, the world is boring, there’s nothing to do. Why me! Not appreciating the fact that boredom, is giving them everything on a plate. It is rolling out the carpet, stretching time and space.
Boredom and procrastination are interlinked arts for a writer. A cure for both, is the specially curated, yet entirely random YouTube playlist of shame.
Some people wouldn’t want their browser history becoming public, you can have my browser history, just don’t look at my YouTube history.
It starts innocently enough. Looking up a song performance. Suddenly it’s been a hour and I’ve watched an hour of this niche folk singer that I liked that one song by that one time.
Or it starts out of ‘well I wonder about that thing I read about that one time’ and somehow between looking up London in the 19th century, somehow, we’re on Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories. And now you’re on Undertaker YouTube. Yes that’s a thing. I know a lot about embalming now. Which might be handy you never know.
Back on that original playlist of shame, oh look there’s one more video from a concert two years ago, it’s pretty grainy and it’s from the back of the room. But you might as well watch.
Ok now we’re on The Great Canadian Baking Show. Because I need some very specific intersection of my love of cake and my love of Dan Levy, and why does YouTube not provide this? But ok I’ll watch this compilation one more time.
How am I watching someone on what is called ‘Study Tube’ talking about revising for their Uni exams? Who is this guy with the stupid hair? Is Zoella still a thing?
The middle of the day is always time for a palette cleanse and a 15-minute break watching musical theatre performances is a good way to break up the day right?
It’s already been half a day but it’s been educational. Ok one more concert video, what else is there to do anyway?
Looking through the books beside me now, boredom is everywhere, in John Berryman’s Dreamsongs: ‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.’ (no. 14); in Philip Larkin’s “Dockery and Son”: ‘Life is first boredom, then fear’; and in Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another.
Reading about Gellhorn’s boredom of being on a cruise ship, I was reminded of Hyacinth Bucket, who organises a trip on the QE2 in Keeping Up Appearances. It takes a long time for the Buckets to get to the ship because of a traffic jam Hyacinth doesn’t want to sit in. They take a wrong turn and end up in a field, where Hyacinth reprimands Richard for basically following her instructions. Richard does all he can to keep his wife and her executive luggage set safe, eventually arriving via Copenhagen – ‘luxury at last’ – only they don’t get to enjoy it.
Gellhorn writes that she cannot stand the ‘organised jollity, the awful intimacy of tablemates, the endless walking round and round’, whereas Hyacinth thrives in such climates. She books a place on the captain’s dinner table and has various costume changes, ‘Now tell me is it suitable? Does it give [the] impression [of an] experienced foreign traveller?’ she asks in her floral two-piece. And before they can enjoy the nautical scenery, Hyacinth enlists Richard to run around with her in a tracksuit to rescue her ‘stowaway’ sister and husband (who have actually won a prize to stay onboard, and are happily watching television in a luxury cabin when all this is going on).
Being bored allows something new to take shape, and at least keep Larkin’s fear at bay. Even Gellhorn admits that the cruise, whilst boring, was ‘a fine rest cure’. I can’t help thinking Hyacinth would have enjoyed the QE2 so much more had she permitted herself to feel boredom- let Daisy and Onslow off the hook for being there, and allowed Richard some time off from watching for potential icebergs.
Recently I’ve been reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable The Little Prince to my children. En route to earth, the prince visits a planet inhabited by a businessman, who declares himself to be ‘concerned with matters of consequence.’ When pressed by the curious prince, the businessman reveals that he’s counting and recounting the stars, so he can ‘administer’ them. He claims this means he owns them and that he can deposit them in the bank by writing the number of stars on a piece of paper and locking it in a drawer. The little prince fails to see how this is a matter of consequence, but is accustomed to the puzzling views of grown-ups, and simply leaves the tiresome businessman and continues on his way.
This reminded me of a scene in another fable-esque story: Milo and the Phantom Tollbooth, which I first encountered as a film directed by Chuck Jones based on Norman Juster’s novel. In it, a bored schoolboy crosses into a realm filled with fantastic characters and creatures, akin to Alice’s Wonderland. In the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo must face the Terrible Trivium (coincidentally, dressed like a businessman) who coerces Milo and his companions into undertaking arduous yet meaningless tasks; Milo must move a pile of sand, grain-by-grain, from one place to another with a pair of tweezers. When Milo comments that their tasks don’t seem important, the Trivium gleefully agrees, telling him, ‘If you always do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones.’
It’s when engaged in tasks more fitted to the businessman, or the Terrible Trivium, that I experience true boredom: not the healthy boredom of free time and reflection that may lead to inspiration, revelation, and creative endeavours, but the mind-numbing boredom of purposelessness and futility that, upon scrutiny, is mingled with nausea and dread. I suspect such feelings must be fairly common for those of us residing in the grown-up realm the little prince finds so curious. And though the prince can casually drift on to the next planet, and Milo finds a way to escape the Terrible Trivium, in the real world avoiding such tedium is far more difficult. But we can try.
Whenever I’m bored it’s not because I lack options but because none of them appeals to me and their very unattractiveness saps my capacity to manufacture alternatives.
At Christmas, the prize for a cracker-pulling victory is sometimes a tiny spinning-top, like a tubby ballerina revolving en pointe. As a child, I’d set this little toy going in front of a small mirror. Its whirling action instantly doubled in the busy space before the mirror’s bright face. But on the other side of the mirror nothing was happening.
When I’m bored, I’m in a place of nullity, as actionless as the terrain behind the mirror. All is meh.
In my experience, there are three paths of reaction. The first is do nothing – which feels like double meh and risks becoming a sink hole, to unpleasant, risky depths.
Then there’s do something – with one proviso.
If I do something which has a focus outside myself, the inertia of boredom usually shifts. Say, I finally make that donation to a charity that has been pending for ages in my tray of good intentions. I see, with borrowed eyes, a new potential set of purposes.
I have no professional expertise in this area (and we are considering boredom, not depression) so my opinion is no more than that: I wonder if boredom is the surface level of accidie (from the Greek a = ‘not’ and kedos = ‘care’), a not-caring-state. Accidie is an affectless torpor, experienced as both restlessness and an inability to act. The ancient remedy has been a gentle but determined creation of a schedule and adherence to it until an unforced energy returns. I see this as another version of focus outside oneself; in this case on productive, often humble, activities.
And there’s do nothing, but purposefully. If I embrace the silence and stillness behind the mirror, entering into it, in a safe practice of mediation − as into a territory of expansion, limitlessness, hope − I give myself the chance of hearing new messages.
Boredom is an antithesis of joy but it can be the start of something big.
Historians often puzzle about whether people in the past experienced the same emotions as we do. The consensus is that they probably did but that the meanings of those emotions could be quite different. Long and strenuous working hours made the absence of something to do probably more a relief than anything and it never lasted long, at least for most people. But it’s difficult not to think that those, say, bed bound or imprisoned must have got bored, even if that’s not a word they would have used to describe their condition.
In the pre-modern world, time was viewed as limited and thus precious. Those who wiled it away doing nothing or trivial things could be seen as self-indulgent or sinful. This was a sentiment found in several places in the Bible and encapsulated in the proverb ‘The devil finds work for idle hands’. In contrast, using time for contemplation and prayer was deemed good for the soul. Indeed, the challenges of a monotonous life in an isolated, enclosed monastery was part of what was supposed to make the experience spiritually worthwhile.
Such beliefs probably explain why the word ‘bored’ is relatively modern, seemingly dating back only into the 18th century. Even then, it was used more to describe uninteresting conversation rather than a lack of anything to do.
By the 19th century, public discussion of boredom was more widespread and concentrated on the tedium of polite social gatherings. In 1893, an Anti-Boredom Society was even formed. Its aim was livening up small parties through complicated conversation rules. However, the society’s public launch came across more as someone showing off how they clever were, rather than an indication of a real problem.
This did not mean that Victorians did not worry about boredom but the concern was not the condition itself but what it might lead to. Crime, violence and sexual excess could all sometimes be blamed on people having too much time to themselves.
Having nothing to do became regarded as a particular social problem during the mass unemployment of the interwar years. Discussions of being on the dole were not framed in terms of boredom but there were genuine concerns that ‘idleness’ would damage the mental and physical wellbeing of the unemployed. Schemes to occupy and entertain them were developed and even became a matter of national concern, as the threat of another war emerged and authorities worried about whether the population was capable of fighting it.
Such concerns mixed genuine sympathy with considerable moralising and a belief that the workers were less resilient and capable than the ‘thinking’ classes. The idea that only people without self-discipline, imagination or intelligence got bored did not disappear. In the middle of the twentieth century, the popularity of cinema, television and petty crime were all attributed at times to people bored because they were not clever or creative to entertain themselves.
Boredom was thus seen as evidence of declining standards in public and private life. It could be even be seen as a sign that life had got too comfortable. One 1938 newspaper attack on the supposed rise of boredom and the associated popularity of the radio and cinema, complained that people now lived life second-hand rather than ‘adventuring themselves, as was necessary in a sterner age’.
Amidst such moralising, this writer did rightly identify loneliness as a cause of boredom. The sociability of humans is one emotion that clearly stretches back through the ages. It is also something ripped apart for many people by lockdown. ‘Bored to death’ is a throwaway and exaggerated phrase dating back into the 18th century but it also masks a much grimmer reality that being alone can help send people to an early grave.