The following notion was conceived in a public house in a leafy suburb of London known as ‘the Wood’.
In this pleasant and retired spot I was sitting not long ago, enjoying a gin and that great luxury and blessing of idleness, concerning which so much cant and false doctrine have been preached. It is, no doubt, perfectly true that a few men, a very few men, are born into the world to whom a great task has been assigned by the Almighty, and they are to perform this task or fail at their peril. Woe to the prophet who will not prophesy: doubtless. It would have been woe to Turner the painter if, instead of painting, he had devoted all his energies to that queer, disreputable life he led on the riverside by Chelsea, where he was thought to be an old specimen of the retired mariner. There are the prophets words and in paint and in other forms who have their work to do and must do it. But, for the rest of us, our “work” is but the curse of Adam , the slavery that we have to endure; about as blessed as oakum-picking and limestone quarrying and treadmill climbing and the other employments of the poor fellows that we call convicts, as if we were not as much convicts as they. We have been convicted of the offence of been born, and the sentence of the Court has been that we shall earn an honest living: an awful and a dreadful doom, if we had the courage to confess it. For, if we see clearly, we shall see that the men we call convicts and criminals have evidently chosen the better part. They have refused to abide the dreadful sentence that was pronounced against them at the moment of their birth. They have revolted, in one way or another, and the plan of things has got hold of them and pronounced a second sentence against them, and enslaved them, as it believes, in a much worse fashion. But the scheme of things is mistaken. It is not a much worse fashion. The convicted criminal is the victim of greater force. He cannot help himself: true: but he has no responsibility for himself or for his actions. He may think oakum-picking a loathsome occupation for a man; still, he is forced to do it, the choice is not his, but that of others. Violent bodily compulsion absolves him from all sense of degradation: if there be anything of a kind it is on the shoulders of those who order his occupations and compel him to follow them.
But this consolation is withheld from those whom cowardice or lack of enterprise or incapacity keeps the narrow way of what is called honesty. It is, no doubt, sad enough, if you earn your ounces of bread and ounces of meat and ounces of potatoes by compliance with strict demands of the warders and the Governor of the gaol , but it is surely much worse when the said ounces - that is livelihood - are purchased by shameful insincerities and smooth compliance. There are men - many of them - whose life it is to be shamed and insulted on Monday and then to be the good companions of the oppressor on Tuesday - lest they lose their living on Wednesday……
……Hence, I say, my profound contempt for all those who praise “work” and the ways of honest living, which are, mostly, degradations somewhat below those experienced by the procurer of Soho. Hence, my profound gratitude for the bliss of idleness, for the happy state in which you may survey the universe, somewhat in the manner of Socrates, who, so far as I remember, never did an honest day’s work in his life, and made a very fine end. And, in this spirit, I was relishing the savours of things in general, thanking heaven that I was at last, after long years, an idler once more, and sipping my gin and water, when a man entered the retired tavern which I have endeavoured to describe. He sat down opposite to me. His manner threatening. He said in a very meaning tone: “The leaves are beginning to come out” and looked hard at me as he said it.
The above extract was taken from the opening chapter of Arthur Machen’s autobiography ‘The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering’ published in 1924.