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Tom Hodgkinson: How allotments could save us £23bn


Think-tanks seem to spend their time working on proposals on how to get the feckless working class back into jobs. Liberal do-gooders of the Tony Benn stripe wax lyrical about the joys of full employment, and how "work" will return dignity and meaning to empty lives. Right-wingers attack scroungers, and declare they will "crack down on the workshy", bringing to mind Himmler's "Operation Work Shy" of 1938, when persistent idlers were rounded up and put into concentration camps. They were identified by a black triangle sewn on to their shirts.

So it was with great joy and relief that I read a recent pamphlet from the New Economics Foundation, a sort of eco-think-tank, called "National Gardening Leave", which argues not for more work, but for less. With the appealing subtitle, "Why Britain would be better off if we spent less time at the office," the pamphlet, written by Andrew Simms and Molly Conisbee, argues both for a four-day week and for more allotments.

It is overwork, argue the authors, and insufficient pottering time, that cause our problems, and not, as is more often thought, underwork and laziness. The pamphlet aims to prove that gardening is immensely therapeutic: it benefits mental health and physical health, whereas overwork leads to anxiety and nervous breakdowns. And mental-health problems, we hear, cost the country £23.1bn annually. Which is good news for peddlers of anti-depressants, bad news for the zombies on the drugs.

The authors also argue that a measure of self-sufficiency, as proposed by radical old William Cobbett in the 1820s, brings happiness, self-reliance and satisfaction. Gardening can save communities: we learn here of inspiring schemes such as Grown in Detroit, which is currently expanding its urban farming programme in the wake of the city's recent decline.

I can testify to the truth of these observations from personal experience. Until a couple of years ago, I reckoned I had my work/life balance pretty well sorted. I worked four days a week for four hours each day, writing articles and books, and editing magazines. The rest of the time was spent walking, napping, and gardening. In 10 years I visited the doctor only once.

Then, two years ago, I started working hard, in order to launch our bookshop, café and events centre. Blimey, I worked. From four hours a day I was hurled into a world of 14-hour days, along with a load of financial pressure. As a result, I completely stopped gardening. I think I've done about two days in two years.

The result of all this hard work was not dignity, self-respect and cash in the bank. It was a nervous breakdown and a load of debt. And suddenly there I was at the doctor's, being prescribed some horrific pills, which I later threw away.

I'm glad to say, though, that our shop appears to be turning a corner, and I now plan to employ more staff and do lots more delegating, which, happily enough, is recommended by all the business gurus, and is also an idler's trick.

I am also learning that success in business is not actually down to hard work. Spend too much time in your business and you will go insane like Basil Fawlty. In fact, good businesses, those ones which make a profit and are a source of pleasure, satisfaction and fun to their owners and staff, are the ones which use intelligent systems designed to make the work run smoothly.

So it is with the permaculture approach to gardening, which again is not about hard work, but about designing efficient systems that reduce the need for hard toil as much as possible.

A shorter working week has been in the minds of economists for many years: both Keynes and Bertrand Russell argued for shorter working days. But somehow this never happens. A 25-hour week was introduced by the French government some years ago, but abandoned by its successor. This failure is often cited as an argument against a shorter working week by today's Presbyterian utilitarians. But Simms and Conisbee write that after the law changed, "most workplaces left their arrangements unchanged". They also point out that the Netherlands has embraced a four-day week.

My friend Andrew Harrison of Lincoln has been working on trying to improve mental health through non-drug methods for many years, following his own nervous breakdown, caused by work. He is convinced that the pressures of the modern world cause mental-health problems, and has asked me to contribute an idler's mental-health manifesto for use in local campaigns. He suggests simple measures such as letter-writing, silence, laughing and pottering in the garden as antidotes to melancholy – measures that rarely occur to the utilitarians or the moneymen.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'