Idling and talking about Kevin

7 May

‘I deliberately chose a wind-up word,’ said professional idler Tom Hodgkinson and I suspect the other author this evening, psychopath specialist Kevin Dutton, had done the same.

Tom is the first to admit that his ideas are nothing new, just culturally unpopular since the protestant/puritan work ethic. Though he’s used the words idling, loafing and laziness what he really means is daydreaming, contemplation and creative boredom, or just doing stuff you want to do rather than being ‘condemned to toil by outside forces’ – ‘no shit jobs’. Which is something else both speakers had in common – very quotable.

Not that he’ll be pinned down into a definition, this would be anti-idling. One woman asks if playing app game Candy Crush is the best use of her retirement. Tom says, ‘I’m wary of having an approved list of idling activities’ and then describes how his magazine, The Idler, praised MP Nigel Mills for playing the game in a parliamentary committee. 

I loved the audience questions and comments: the modern concern with ‘redistribution of wealth over the redistribution of leisure’; how to harness the idling power of teenage boys. No solace for me though, the frowned upon daydreaming in schools is something ‘we’re stuck with’. Which sounds like a challenge.

There’s lots of quotes from the usual dead thinkers and deities (Socrates, Aristotle, Jesus, Keats, Byron, God – who worked for six days then took the rest of eternity off), after all, philosophy and poetry (being the Messiah/Lord Almighty) is the ultimate in idling and neither pay very well, but I’m tickled to hear punk described as a philosophical movement. “The last great anti-work movement – no one is ever going to employ them looking like that.”

The Idler Academy teaches ‘non-utilitarian’ courses which sound anti-idling but are in the spirit of the ancient Greek understanding of the word ‘school’, which meant ‘leisure’. Courses like the ukulele (Tom plays the instrument) or beekeeping sit alongside bookkeeping and other such things designed to help the self-employed; if you want to be the master of your own destiny you have to ‘grow up and learn to use spreadsheets’.

Next we need to talk about Kevin.

In total contrast to Tom’s shirt-out cheery sensibilities, Professor Kevin Dutton was all slick expensive suits and big-screen presentation.

Prof Kev has studied and worked with all kinds of psychopaths, from the high functioning kind like SAS turned novelist Andy McNab, to serial killers in Broadmoor prison.

According to Kevin, there are many different psychopathic traits – think of them as dials – and only one of these is aggression. The people who end up doing 30 years in jail are the psychopaths with all their dials turned up to max. Other people with the mental focus, fearlessness, ability to read people and be able to (metaphorically) stab others in the back – and the front – have fruitful careers as surgeons, lawyers, politicians, journalists, law enforcement, special forces and, er, clerics.

Kevin’s next development is in working with students from top drama school, RADA. He witnessed Andy McNab telling four rowdy men to leave a pub, which they did. (I’m guessing they didn’t realise who they were squaring up to until Andy’s eyes turned to stone.) Kevin wants to see if actors can mimic the psychotic fearlessness that turns aggressive hulking men into harmless kittens.

An audience member asked Kevin the question: are you a psychopath? ‘I score pretty highly,’ he replied. ‘I’m let down,’ he laughed, ‘or should I say, saved by my conscience.’

Kevin has written a number of books about how drawing on your inner psychopath can help people in sports, the commercial world, politics, etc. Psychopathy is – like idling – a bit of a wind-up word designed to wake us up into thinking about what it really means beyond notorious serial killers.

Although I – like all the others in this below-average-psychopath Arts Centre audience (we took a test) – am fascinated by psychopathy, I’m wary about how far it should be taken. Corporations need to have more empathy, and get away from the Wall Street attitude that it’s ‘only business, nothing personal’. Do we want politicians that stab each other in the back or front and lie with a smile on their face? Do we want a police force that has no emotional connection to the people it serves and protects?

Happiness in contemplation or action? Tom and Kevin were on opposing sides of Aristotle, but both authors made for a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking evening.

I’ll finish with a quick question and a test of mental focus.

1. Do you worry you’re a psychopath?

2. What is the answer to 1000+40+1000+30+1000+20+1000+10?

If you answered ‘yes’ to the first and 5,000 to the second, then congratulations: you are not a psychopath.

Tom Hodgkinson and Professor Kevin Dutton appeared at Swindon Arts Centre as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature, 6 May 2016.

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison.

Louisa Davison is the founder of Festival Chronicle and is also known as (the non-psychotic) Agent Louisa of Secret Agent Marketing.

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