At least the recession will ‘slow down London’

Why the well-heeled, slow-witted campaigners of the Slow Movement are welcoming the economic downturn.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.’

As snobbish as TS Eliot’s 1922 lament for the spiritually, culturally bereft masses might be, it has nothing on the Slow Down London project (1). This, for those too preoccupied by modern life to have noticed it, is a project ‘to inspire Londoners to improve their lives by slowing down to do things well’. The problem, as Slow Down London sees it, is that the city hordes are maniacally, pathologically busy. They work too hard, they live too fast, and they do so for no worthwhile reason. Except, of course, to buy stuff they don’t really need, like trendy clothes or iPhones.

In response, Slow Down London is currently staging a range of events (until 4 May) that will tranquillise the frantic working masses to revelation, unmasking the frenetic futility of their unthinking city existences. For fans of dozing, it’s an impressive line up of events. There’s been ‘an introduction to meditation’, a ‘slow walk’, and – if those aren’t somnambulant enough for you – a course in ‘slow yoga’, aimed, presumably, at those for whom the normal, stretch a-bit-in-a-gym yoga is just too nose-bleedingly energetic.

For Tessa Watt, a co-organiser organiser of Slow Down London, these activities address what she sees as a serious social problem: ‘There’s a sense in a city like London that we do tend to run around like mad rabbits in a hutch. We get angry with someone ambling slowly on the pavement, and we want to throttle someone if they haven’t got their Oyster card out at the gate of the Tube. Things are a little bit out of hand.’ (2)

To be fair, Watt’s anecdotage does contain a kernel of truth. Getting around London, especially at rush hour, can be annoying, and occasionally people’s tempers fray. But the reasons aren’t difficult to fathom. Underground trains are delayed; exits and entrances are overcrowded; buses are stuck in traffic; and sometimes – not often, but sometimes – people end up being rude to one another. (Even then it’s usually because someone has behaved thoughtlessly, pushing in, perhaps, or just standing in someone else’s way.)

One solution to the irritations of getting around London is to sort out the transport system – to create an underground and bus network fitting for the frenetic pace of modern life. For example, to stop people getting annoyed with queuing at the ticket gate, it might be an idea to have more ticket gates. And more staff staffing them.

But Slow Down London isn’t interested in anything as practical as improving transport infrastructure. More fundamentally, it is not really interested in allowing people to pursue their lives unimpeded. For this is a protest precisely against those lives, against the living enactments of ‘the madness of the age’, as Slow Down London supporter Alistair Sawday puts it. And what is this madness? It is the ‘spiral of consumerism and work’ that we have been trapped in since the Industrial Revolution, writes Slow Down London champion and Financial Times columnist Harry Eyres (3).

Seeing as Slow Down London presents the problems of modern city life in terms of the ‘madness’ of work and consumption, a kind of psychosis of modernity, it is not surprising that its solutions are similarly psychological. London’s short-fused office-drones simply need to adjust their perspectives, apparently. Work and consumption are not the be all and end all of life, we are told: take a break (without consuming a Kit Kat), slow down, and spend a few hours as a flaneur: a nineteenth century Parisian-type who had enough wealth to spend his days dandyishly loitering around mid-nineteenth century shopping malls.

As a response to the alienating aspects of work, like having every last minute of energy and inspiration squeezed out of you at the behest of a therapy-speak-spouting manager, the impulse behind Slow Down London is perhaps understandable. But Slow Down London goes further than complaining about current work practices; it doesn’t only denigrate the form which work, and indeed production, takes today, but rather denigrates productive activity per se. Hence its clarion cry of ‘Slow down!’, which means less production, less consumption, less active living in general.

From the perspective of the rather well-heeled critics behind the Slow Down London project, work – the activity underpinning the production and reproduction of social life – lacks any meaning. It seems purposeless to them, an activity that has irrational ends, be it profit for the bosses or, for the rabbit-like wage-slaves, simply a means to consume. Slow Down London campaigners are incapable of seeing anything so insane as a rational motive in either production or consumption. Little wonder that the recession actually seems like a good thing to them. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, writes: ‘The economic slump brings a much-needed moment to pause and reflect on our addiction to speed. It can remind us that GDP growth need not be the only measure of success, that there is more to life than buying the latest iPod or Prada frock, that one way to enrich a journey is to slow it down.’ (4)

Honoré is right insofar as the shrinking economy will allow more people the time to idle away the hours in jobless rumination. It is highly unlikely, however, that unemployment will be quite the spiritual journey its slow-witted champions claim. Watt at least had sufficient understanding to acknowledge that ‘for people not in employment, [life is] undoubtedly very painful’. Yet even then she couldn’t help but add that: ‘It’s also an opportunity to look at what we want from life so we can appreciate some of the other things we might have missed out while we were rushing around.’ (5)

Slow Down London arrives at a curious historical juncture. Like the environmentalist cause, to which it bears close resemblance, it seems secretly pleased that production and consumption will wane during the recession, giving people a chance to live ‘slow lives’ and ‘rediscover some purpose’. This is nothing less than a desperate attempt to rationalise severe economic recession as a socially progressive phenomenon, and to treat unemployment and unproductivity as something positive and inspiring.

Tim Black is staff writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Anna Travis wanted to put the break on the cult of slowness. James Murphy investigated the new Puritanism. Frank Furedi explained Why the politics of happiness makes him mad. James Panton celebrated the freedom of flight. Or read more at spiked issue Happiness.

(1) See the Slow Down London website here.

(2) Slow Down London gives city time to relax, The Times, 14 April 2009

(3) London’s first Slow Down festival, Harry Eyres, Financial Times, 28 March 2009

(4) Recession? The perfect time to slow down, , Guardian, 24 July 2008

(5) London’s first Slow Down festival, Harry Eyres, Financial Times, 28 March 2009

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Topics Politics


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