Skip links

blubberland 2

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Jul-2011

Edition: First

Section: News Review


Page: 22

Wordcount: 1798

We’re all lost in the supermarket


Work is more than a four-letter word and leisure may be a dirtier one.

One of the scariest things you can do – far scarier than base-diving or splatter flicks – is head to your local Westfield on a fine mid-week morning. Retail slump or no retail slump, the mall is permanently packed. Queues in, queues out for more and more and more food and games and stuff.

The mall is the built form of that defining 20th-century ideal, universal leisure. Of course, leisure always existed, although how much and for how many remains controversial, but the tantalising concept of leisure as perpetual and general is a strictly 20th-century meme.

Outside politics, where “jobs jobs jobs” is the constant theme, an alien listening in to Earth would quickly conclude that work was a very bad thing indeed. It’s as though we think we’re creatures designed for sloth, as though our main life-task were to keep work at bay. But can that be right? Is it? Are we?

In women’s magazines and talkback radio, Twitter and Facebook, we bang on about our stress levels and the pathologies of overwork, as though taking work home or wi-fiing on trains were early symptoms of some dread disease – madam, I fear you may be a workaholic! – that, if not treated, could engulf your entire existence.

The very phrase “work-life balance” implies life and work are polar opposites rather than allies. And although statistics show our leisure time steadily increasing, they also show that more than a fifth of us believe we’re overemployed and should relax more. Don’t live to work, goes the motto of Gen Y; work to live.

You’d be forgiven for thinking work – not leisure – had caused the cancer, diabetes and obesity engulfing affluent society.

This polarised view has shaped our cities, separating work from leisure physically as well as temporally. Seen in hunter-gatherer terms, the tall, noble city centre was for hunting; we called this male stuff work. The suburbs were for gathering and we called this female stuff leisure.

So it may be no surprise that our disdain for work and reverence for leisure burgeoned with feminism. But we’ve known for 40 years that urban segregation is a mistake. That cities are healthier and more creative when, as in the traditional city, uses are more mixed; that loosening zoning regulations to allow shop-houses, home-offices, residential-commercial towers and other integrated formats enhances safety, amenity, air quality, cultural production and public health.

Could it be that the same goes for lifestyle? That mixing up work and leisure is actually healthier and more “natural”? The leisure paradox – that we work for wealth we are too busy working to enjoy – sometimes seem central to contemporary life. But is it a false paradox? Might even the distinction be false?

So where did it come from, this leisure ideal? I think Marx has a lot to answer for here – both in spreading the idea that as industrial creatures we’d allowed ourselves to be duped by evil capitalists into selling our precious time for fruits we’d never properly savour, and in persuading us that these material measures were our principal, and even our only, values.

It is often said – and is a long-treasured shibboleth of the hippie movement – that hunter-gather societies had more leisure than we. There’s this idea of the smiling nomad, a rolling stone unable to gather the moss that would burden him. Never mind that most nomadic tribes, given the option of a Western lifestyle, jump at it. Even the facts about Ur-man’s leisure quotient are largely conjectural, since both arguments and evidence are largely obscured by the politics of a debate in which all participants, it seems, have a barrow to push.

Until the 1960s it was largely accepted that hunter-gatherer lives were, in Thomas Hobbes’s memorable phrase, “nasty, brutish and short”. Then in 1966 Marshall Sahlins presented a paper to the “Man the Hunter” conference in Chicago – a conference whose backlash would shape anthropology for decades.

Sahlins’s paper, The Original Affluent Society, argued that hunter-gatherers gained all the food they needed in four or five hours a day, and spent the rest of their time at leisure. His argument, based on desert peoples from the Kalahari and Arnhem Land, has been somewhat discredited, partly because he did not count the hours of food preparation (women’s work) and partly because it is impossible not to consider many of the products of work – from organ transplants to the internet – as advances.

Yet the Marxist-romantic idea of work as the polar opposite of life lingers in the popular consciousness, making work a thing to be minimised and leisure a thing to be maximised.

This ideal found its built apotheosis in suburbia where, from the earliest reformers, living was not only separated from work but conceived as a refuge from it. The push to suburbia is typically seen as originating in public health reforms – a withdrawal from disease-ridden slums, open sewers and the dark satanic mills of industry – but that was never the whole story.

Beneath the public health concerns lay a deep moral fervour. It is no accident that the reformers, such as William Wilberforce, were also Christian Evangelists who saw the suburb as a means to reinforce the then newly invented closed, domesticated, nuclear family.

Until the 19th century, the new mercantile middle class was urban, living in shop-houses that were open to the life of the street. Reformers such as Wilberforce, however, saw all this – the clubs, entertainments and unending social opportunity of urban culture – as a profound threat to morality. The theatre, wrote Wilberforce, was “most pernicious” and “contrary to the laws of God”, while “balls, concerts, cards etc” should be seen not as amusements but as “temptations to be undergone”.

The family, on the other hand, was a haven for, and reinforcement of, sober Christian values. To remove merchants’ houses from the temptations of the city to the protective, female-run semi-rurality of suburbia became a primary objective, every bit as important to these Evangelicals as opposing slavery.

This clearly demanded that women not leave the house to work. As the theorist Robert Fishman notes: “This restriction of women to the home was in fact an elevation to the only real priesthood that the Evangelicals recognised.”

Suburbia, in other words, manifesting a desire to enlist women’s greater religiosity in the Evangelical cause, required the sequestration of women not as an end in itself but as bait, to protect men from themselves; a Christian form, you might almost say, of the burqa. Only later, when halfway through the 20th century “suburban neurosis” became one of feminism’s primary triggers, did suburbia (like the burqa) come to be seen through the other end of the power-scope as a deliberate closeting of women.

So by 1902, when Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow proposed a low-density, zoned, residential pattern of “slumless, smokeless cities”, the ground was well prepared. As the expanding train network gradually allowed, this low-density, use-separated suburbia was rapidly realised.

And the houses in this new Jerusalem? Why, they were bungalows, of course, which, though despised by the aristocracy, had emerged from Anglo-India as the symbol of unearned privilege.

Yet it’s not as though the British arrived in India to find it studded with charming, spreading, low-roofed mansions that they could simply copy and ship off to the colonies.

The banggolo, a peasant’s hut of rural Bengal, was distinguished by its rounded, thatched roof, generous eaves, encircling posts, bamboo framing and mud-brick platform floor. According to John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father, this banggolo type merged with the British soldier’s tent, with its square platform, corner bathing cubicles and double canvas walls to produce the basic bungalow form. These seductive, vast, frail-skinned houses, and the leisured lives they contained, relied on two things; high compound walls and unseen droves of wallahs. The walls territorialised enormous areas of land, far more than was available to natives, while the wallahs not only cooked, cleaned and operated the various punkahs and thermantidotes needed to cool these plump white men but, sleeping on the verandahs, doubled as security guards, warding off their own people.

When, through the 19th century, the bungalow gradually filtered its way into British consciousness, it already carried this aura of unearned luxury – of stolen leisure, if you will – that would, within a hundred-odd years, translate directly (and without the charm) into the McMansion. But it is stolen, this leisure. Where the bungalow stole leisure from the locals, McMansions steal it – in the form of land, water, food, air – from the future.

The idea of the bungalow and its compound, the suburb, caught like wildfire, largely because its hidden message was one of leisure, universal and perpetual. The bungalow exists in dozens of different cultures with almost as many definitions – from seaside shack (Britain) to hotel-side pavilion (Germany) to house fit for Europeans (Africa, Mexico and the Caribbean).

The common theme, apart from the sense of a stand-alone single-family dwelling, is the theme of manifest leisure, obvious waste or, in Thorstein Veblen’s term, conspicuous consumption. “People will undergo a very considerable degree of privation in the comforts or the necessaries of life,” Veblen wrote in his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class, “in order to afford what is considered a decent amount of wasteful consumption”.

The idea that this waste-time, or leisure, might be available to everyone quickly made it despised by the upper classes but beloved by the rest. It was as if, in buying a bungalow, you were buying the promise, or at least the possibility, of perpetual vacation.

But there’s an irony here which, like so much of Western modernism, looks set to rebound on us. For excess leisure doesn’t make us healthy or happy. We’re just not that kind of primate.

But perhaps we can learn something from changes in city form. Perhaps, just as we are beginning to reintegrate work and leisure to make more interesting and creative mixed-use cities, as well as reintegrating the gender roles, we can also rethink the leisure fallacy.

Certainly, as the Evangelists recognised, inner-city living demands discipline – not just to withstand the temptations of the flesh, in their terms, but peaceably to tolerate the irritations that density brings.

Yet it is this very irritation that’s the sand in the oyster. It’s why cities, not suburbs, are always the founts of culture. Surely, then, the mature and creative response is not to use women as bait, drawing men into suburbia’s safe cultural vacuum, but rather to encourage a lively mix of work and play, male and female (and in between) in which all of us develop the muscular self-discipline required for a well-tempered and sustainable civilisation.


DRAWING: Illustaration: Simon Bosch


Join the Discussion