‘Old-fashioned boredom’ is going out of style
Rainy days with nothing to do are becoming a thing of the past thanks to technology, but maybe boredom wasn’t so bad after all
By Phill Jupitus
Follow Phill on Twitter @jupitusphillip
Childhood boredom was the worst. Usually consigned to wet leaden Sundays. No shops open, nothing on TV, nothing to do. I vividly remember sitting at the table of our living room in Barking in the late 1960s and drawing sparse, repetitive landscapes. Overlapping hills receding into the distance. When I ran out of space, I turned the page and started again. Trees, clouds, buildings or animals were never added to break up the bleak vista, just the hypnotic interlacing slopes of endless hills.
Whilst recently making a documentary about the changing nature of boredom for Radio 4, it became apparent that this kind of ‘old-fashioned boredom’ is going out of style. The main reason is that most of us now carry a whole world of knowledge around in our pockets. Any information, entertainment or news is instantly accessible. The real-time activities of friends and colleagues are all the mere swipe of a finger away. Take a walk round your nearest shops and cafés and start counting how many people are looking at their devices, heads bowed, in mute worship of the new religion.
I have always regarded my line of work (wiseacre without portfolio) as a form of cultural lottery win. At school, I never showed much of an aptitude for anything. After a coma-inducing visit to a careers fair, options were narrowed down to meteorologist or supermarket manager. The latter is gleefully thrown in my face regularly by my father. On the opening night of Hairspray at the Shaftesbury Theatre, he ambled into my dressing room after the show to find me, a wheezing seven feet and 20 stone of wig, heels, false eyelashes, lipstick and red sequins. He looked me up and down and mumbled: “You’d have been a rubbish Co-op manager…”
I didn’t pursue life as a performer. The job and I bumped into each other by accident in 1985 and just sort of struck up an unlikely friendship. Today, there are hundreds of comedy clubs where young hopefuls can hone their skills. The drama department of the University of Kent offers a degree-level course in stand up comedy. Every August, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival groans under its cargo of thousands of solo performers. Today, rather than random chance, there’s a well-worn path and career structure. The way you negotiate this can mean the difference between doing the same thing 20 years later or sitting in Beverly Hills, sending your shakshuka back because they didn’t use a duck egg.
Perversely, the thing I have enjoyed most about an accidental life in performance is the boredom. Onstage on your own, the brain is more alert than at any other time. Fizzing with adrenaline and nervous energy, you are hyper aware of both surroundings and situation. You look out at the hundreds of faces and work through your act. You know the peaks and troughs of your narrative, so any variation in response throws you into a mild panic. This constant artificial state of high alert is incredibly tiring. Subsequently, you crave nothingness. Looking forward to just sitting and watching the bonnet chewing up the miles. Car in cruise, brain in neutral.
For the first time in 30 years, I have absolutely no idea what I will be doing over the coming 12 months. When self-employed, unemployment rarely happens suddenly, it gradually creeps over you. But I am looking into the approaching void with optimism, a chasm into which I for one will definitely be casting my smartphone, releasing my mind from the dull tyranny of constant digital distraction. Now, hand me a sheet of paper, because I feel some landscapes coming on! Hang on, my agent just sent an email.
Ah… never mind.