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While on a short trip to Edinburgh a few years ago I went to see the Scottish National Gallery. It was a quiet day there and I wandered from room to room looking at paintings both old and new, both Scottish and international. I was on my own most of the time. One painting, in particular, caught my attention so I took out my camera to photograph it. No sooner had I done so than a large, very unfriendly curator descended on me and red in the face lacerated me, not for touching or damaging the painting but for having taken a photo of it. “Did you not see the sign?” he demanded in his best sergeant-major’s voice. As a matter of fact I hadn’t seen any sign as very few national galleries ban photography anymore – they simply ask you not to use a flash. In any case there was no placating this martinet, this mini Hitler, so I thought retreat was the best form of defence and left the Gallery never to return.


As to the painting itself it was the portrait of a writer I greatly admire – Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped as well as poetry, short stories and travel books. But what I liked best were his essays particularly the one called An Apology for Idlers.


It is ironic that this man who suffered from poor health all his short life yet filled it with travel and hard work should write in praise of idleness. Yet that is what he does but in the process he gives us a great insight into what constitutes a good life.


His basic argument is captured in one sentence: “Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity”. What he means by this is that anyone who becomes obsessed by any single human activity, like making money, seeking power or working long hours has lost a taste for life and hides behind his or her obsession. Single minded dedication to any aspect of life is dangerous. Elsewhere he writes: “Idleness, so called, does not consist in doing nothing but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class”.


His central point is that we should take time to appreciate and enjoy life. He pictures a man lying beside the bank of a river, listening to the birds, smoking his pipe and reflecting. True education he argues is not to be found at the top of a mountain or the bottom of a well because it is all around us. “An intelligent person”, he writes, “looking out of his eyes and hearkening in his ears, with a smile on his face all the time, will get more true education than many another in a life of heroic vigils”.

He contrasts those who have been obsessed by work, become great scholars or who have amassed fortunes with those who had time to take care of their health and spirits, who have been a great deal in the open air and who have achieved wisdom. Whose company would you prefer he asks – people who are incapable of relaxing, who take no delight in normal human activity, who cannot hold a conversation, who are lost if they haven’t something to do and who are self-obsessed or would you prefer people who have time to share with you, who are open minded and friendly and who can make you smile and forget your worries?


In another memorable line he writes: “There is no duty we so much under rate as the duty of being happy”. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits on the world, we radiate goodwill and we light up the darkness.


One of the great pleasures in my life is observing the kindness of strangers. I fondly recall the girl in the Galway coffee shop who not only told an elderly customer that she could take home her unfinished cake but went to great trouble finding a little box and wrapping it up for her. Or the hotel receptionist who was faced with a couple who had arrived late that night only to find they had booked the wrong day and that the hotel was booked out for the night. Instead of ignoring their plight and turning to other customers this kind woman told them not to worry. She then phoned surrounding hotels to find accommodation for them, negotiated a good price, asked the hotel to keep their dining room open and produced a map to show the way. These are the people we would all like to encounter.


Stevenson finishes this wonderful essay with a whole series of questions. Why are some people so fussy about their lives? Why do they, as a consequence, embitter their own and other people’s lives in pursuit of some goal they may never achieve? Why do they think their personal achievements are so important? When nature is so careless of a single life why do they fool themselves into thinking that they are of exceptional value? Who told them that their single-minded commitment was so vital?


Referring to those who are fanatical about some aspect of life he concludes with these sobering lines: “The ends for which they give away their priceless youth, for all they know may be chimerical or hurtful; the glory and riches they expect may never come, or may find them indifferent; and they and the world they inhabit are so inconsiderable that the mind freezes at the thought”.


An Apology for Idlers is an essay that oozes with humanity. It is an appreciation of what is really important in life, given the fact that life is so precious and so precarious.  Had that unfriendly attendant in the Scottish National Gallery studied it, he might have been more sympathetic to my simple desire to have a picture of my great literary hero, the author Robert Louis Stevenson.

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