Chairman of the Bored

by Pip Williams

How has your first week of “freedom” been, then? Now that most of the restrictions are lifted, now that nightclubs are open and we can meet in groups of any size we like, how have you been spending your time? Has it been a reserved affair for you, cautiously re-introducing yourself into an environment that still feels like it could collapse at any minute, where even the act of breathing in can be answered with grim swiftness by that catastrophic “ping”? Or have you gone absolutely bloody mental, you scamp, your party trousers on and scouring the night to make up for a year of missed opportunities?

Alas, your correspondent here has not been spending his week racing up and down the streets of South East London, snogging his friends and ironically stuffing masks into his mouth like so many papery, tasteless naan bread. My housemate got COVID so I’ve been back in my room for the last nine days or so, periodically going into my garden to face the sun before scuttling back into my room to trudge through the big clever book I’m pretending to read currently.

And I have been bored. I have been so, so bored. I have so many things I could be doing- I have a week off work, a week where I can’t nip to the pub when I hit a wall with something, a week where I could really catch up with the various projects I’ve persuaded people to help me with, where I could catch up on the big clever book. Have I done these things? No reader I have not. Most days I have opened my laptop, clicked on a document and then stared out of the window for half an hour, perspiring gently. Or watched endless tutorials for guitar pedals I will never own. Or done endless, endless crosswords. I have felt boredom so profound it has drained my body of the possibility of ever doing anything else, that is has voided the notion of activity entirely, a boredom, in short, that totally eliminates its own cure.

When I think of the kind of art that might come out of this experience we’ve all had, I always wonder whether we need to think of a way of dramatizing boredom. Yes there absolutely needs to be art about the rage, grief, loneliness, fear and sense of wild injustice that we’ve encountered together this last year, and urgently, too. But my abiding memory of large chunks of the last eighteen months is of crushing, debilitating boredom, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. 

It is the boredom of sitting inside on a summer’s day and knowing that seeing your friends could kill you. Of scrolling through social media when socialising is banned. Of napping just so you don’t have to think of things to do, of watching a film you’ve seen a million times already, of ringing your parents with no news at all, etc etc.

Now, I am aware of course that boredom is to a large extent a luxury, and I know many people who have not had the time to be bored. It is all very well for me in my relatively secure bubble, spending much of 2020 semi-comfortably furloughed from a job it was literally impossible to do from home, to speak of how much boredom defined my year, when there are many who fell through the (multiple, gaping) cracks of the government’s various limp schemes and were working constantly. You know, the kinds of people who actually kept the world turning and made it possible for lazy scumbags like me to keep floating about like a sad otter. 

But while it may have been a luxury, it was also fairly revealing, I think, for me and I think others. I think it made us examine more closely the very flimsy fabric on which our day-to-day had existed, the scarcity of things that gave us actual emotional nourishment, and indeed, one hopes, the actual value of the things we do have at our disposal, be they family, a roof over our heads, access to the internet, a clean bill of health.

Yes yes, but I’m still BORED.

So what would art about boredom actually look like? 

I suppose the main issue we’re looking at here is that art that addresses boredom would have to work quite hard to be, well, not boring. Representationally, I can see that a two hour film of someone lying on their face in bed and occasionally making a coffee or doing a crossword wouldn’t necessarily be riveting stuff. 

While you could argue that boredom can make one do interesting things (i.e being so bored that you force yourself to do something time-consuming or out of the ordinary), the actual mental and physical experience of boredom seems to be an entirely separate matter, and one that isn’t discussed or depicted a huge amount.

So what are we meaning by “boredom”, exactly?

When I was locked down with my parents last April, I remember having some lengthy conversations with my dad about the spiritual connotations of boredom (because there’s always a party at the Williams household). There is sloth, of course, which is one of the seven deadly sins, and which is mostly defined as laziness, as the simple failure to summon the energy to do what needs doing. But early Christians also coined the term akedia, which refers to a deeper spiritual fatigue, combining a listlessness, a heaviness, with the sense that you should be doing something, or could be, and thus failing to do anything.

In Christian terms, boredom and akedia are bad because they distract you from useful things like your duty to God. But reading up on it now, the Christian definitions of boredom just look a lot like depression; the misery so heavy that you can’t leave your bed; the gloom of listing all the things you should be doing while rooted to your spot on the sofa.

When we talk about boredom, we are talking, in my mind, about one of two things; sloth, which is essentially an absence, a refusal to do anything, a heavy and apathetic laziness; or akedia, which I would call more of an inability- the knowledge that you should do something and cannot.

Akedia seems to sum up our current experience of boredom, I would say, as it is a kind of paralysis- we are stumped by the desire to do things, anything, and for any number of reasons we cannot. How many of us have tried picking up a book or a pen or a set of dumbells in the last eighteen months and found ourselves totally mystified by the object, like we have picked up something impossibly archaic and confusing?

What I think I mean is, when we talk about boredom, we are talking about inability. When we talk about boredom, we are, I think, talking about despair.

So how best can we dramatize this spiritual, psychological inability? 

Perhaps it would be an empty stage or a blank screen, with just a barely perceptible high-pitched whine playing for two hours.

Perhaps it would be hundreds of people speaking all at once, reading the text for the ads you get on 4OD. 

Perhaps it would be your favourite film or song, but being played loudly in the next room, and you’re not allowed to leave your chair or go to the toilet.

There have been some interesting attempts to dramatize the akedia of 2020-21; Bo Burnham’s Inside turned debilitating anxiety into pop nuggets about Jeff Bezos; David Tennant and Michael Sheen battled to keep smiles on their faces over Zoom screens in Staged; Forced Entertainment recreated Shakespeare plays with household objects in their Table Top Shakespeare.

It was interesting then to watch Together the other night, a 90-minute TV movie written by Dennis Kelly and starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan. Filmed over 10 days really very recently, it starts just as the first lockdown was announced and ends a year later, in March 2021. In it, an unnamed couple (known just as Him and Her), trapped in their home, talk, mostly directly to the audience, about the various trials that face them as the pandemic rages, the main one of which being their contempt for one another- “It’s just your face, I hate looking at it,” He says, minutes in, “I actually think of him as a cancer,” She replies, all of this addressed directly to us. 

Set entirely in their house, and mostly in their nice kitchen, it is a claustrophobic, painfully funny and deeply angry reflection on the last year; He, a Tory-voting miner’s son made good, is forced to lay off the staff of his start-up; She, an administrator for a refugee charity, has to say goodbye to her dying mother over facetime. And of course it turns out their feelings for each other are more complex than they let on.

But if, as I say, when we talk about boredom we are talking about despair, Together seems to encapsulate that boredom in a particularly searing, poignant way. In one spectacular monologue, Her describes the term “exponential growth”, and how the misunderstanding of that term killed hundreds of thousands of people. Fighting tears, she says “I can’t escape the feeling my mother was killed…by stupidity. By dumbfuckery. She was killed by someone looking at something coming at them with the speed of a freight train and saying let’s just, let’s just carry on.” As she draws to a close, Him comes over and says “I think that’s it, isn’t it? I mean if you’ve got more, you’ve got the right to say.” To which she responds, “Oh right no. Yeah that’s it.” 

Later, in another monologue, Him describes an encounter with a supermarket employee he’d insulted at the start of the pandemic. Emotional and repentant, “Thank you, “ He says to her, “for keeping us all going…you’re a hero… People like you will be valued, it won’t go back to the way it was… We’ll remember.” And the employee says simply, “No you won’t, you’ll forget. No one will remember.”

All of which to say, the reason Together seems to me to be a perfect encapsulation of that boredom that is in essence spiritual despair, is that by its very form it is inherently inactive. Him and Her talk and talk, they talk to us, they talk to each other, they cry and joke and rage about their relationship, about the government, about the past, and they do nothing. What can they do? They are more than aware of their problems- they state at the beginning that they hate each other and have only stayed together for their son- and talk at length about the problems of the country. But, in lockdown, trapped together in their house, they are stuck in an endless feedback loop, only able to look back on their mistakes and on Britain’s, unable to move forward. They know what they should have done and what Boris Johnson should have done, should be doing, and yet they cannot and do not do it. Before every scene, statistics flash up on the screen- the date, the number of the vaccinated, the number of the dead; a stark reminder of the real and escalating horrors outside of this cramped bubble. And these two people have no power to change that.

And so they are doomed to talk to us, to try and explain everything to us, the passive viewer, in the hope of what, educating us? Exonerating themselves? Getting something off their chest? And what can we, the viewer, do? Nothing. 

Together is never boring- Kelly’s dialogue is, as always, brutally honest and viciously funny, and McAvoy and Horgan are extraordinarily watchable. But it is, in my opinion, about boredom, about akedia; the boredom of being shut inside and watching the world burn; of realising nothing new but the failures, personal and political, of the past; of watching a ship go down, in real time, very, very slowly.

Together ends with Him and Her leaving the house to look at a dead parakeet, their future uncertain but hopeful. My housemate is better now and my isolation is over (for now, anyway). The sun is out and I’m going to go outside. I know what I should be doing, the list goes on and on, and I still probably won’t do it. But at least now, back in the outside world, a world that is tentatively, cautiously reopening, there’s a chance that if I try and explain something to someone, they might reply. That we can talk and talk, about the past and maybe the future. That if I tell people what I need to do, what I should be doing, maybe even what we should be doing, then maybe we can do it together.