[EDIT: I’ve made this post sticky, as this topic is back in the news again! Mostly since Oxford university researchers announced that over 40% of jobs will be taken by robots soon . It’ll be interesting to see what really does happen, whether (as I suspect), people will just be kept busy doing ever more ludicrous tasks.]
In the early 70s, perhaps catalyzed by LSD or Marxism (or possibly both), academics in the humanities very briefly experienced a mini enlightenment. One of the most enlightening articles from this era, which I would recommend anyone read – if only the first couple of paragraphs – is Marshal Sahlin’s The Original Affluent Society.
In The Original Affluent Society, Sahlins explains that contemporary (ie-1966) hunter-gatherers like the Kalahari Bushmen or Inuits spend on average three hours a day working. Yet they live in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Imagine how easy it must have been for stone-age hunter-gatherers living in temperate parts of Europe or America to survive. Their surroundings were so abundant they could procure everything completely for free from nature’s larder within minutes of their doorsteps – if they indeed had doors. They also had the knowledge to just go out and make anything they wanted – again completely free and gratis, using their extensive knowledge of the environment. This is why it’s a good idea to remain skeptical about the development agenda. If a person is “surviving on $1 a day in Africa”, it might actually mean they are actually rather well-off. Introducing waged labour and that economists’ pet obsession, property rights, to these communities turns them from being the most affluent people on earth into the poorest overnight. Way to go economists.
So, what does this have to do with us? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll have noticed: hold on a minute – three hours a day? In the arctic? WTF are we doing here in the West? We have the mechanisation of agriculture, digitisation of just about everything and roboticisation. Yet we humans are working more and more hours. We work 40 hours a week – probably around 4 times the amount of our paleolithic forebears. Something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. We should be living in some kind of utopia where everybody is drinking drinks with umbrellas while robot slaves do our housework. What happened? Why do we live in such an inefficient society? Especially when capitalism claims to be so big on efficiency?
Unfortunately, the answer to this has been known for over ages. Herbert Marcuse predicted in 1956:
“the closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of domination dissolve. Civilisation has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the hierarchy of the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals, it becomes itself an instrument of universal control.”
Marcuse, Eros and Civilization
Which, in a nutshell means: Capitalism wants to keep people busy. People must keep working to live and living to work, otherwise society will start – gulp – thinking for itself.
Those of you long enough in the tooth to remember the 70s might remember that Marcuse’s predictions about productivity had started to become a reality. Human labour capacity was outstripping demand and a “leisure society” was inevitable. There was talk of a three day working week and the question was posed: what are we going to do with all our free time? Freed from the shackles of employment, humanity would reach a new era of unprecedented creativity. People could live in tipis in Wales while robots and computers did all the human work. It was going to be like Woodstock every day. But with robots. Of course, all western governments realised this was terrible news for them. How can a Labour party survive with no workers? And how can right-wingers and Liberals survive with no consumers? Luckily for them, they had a solution: Bureaucracy.
Keep people busy at all costs. Introduce audits and targets and league tables and managers at all levels in the nationalised industries. Make them feel indispensable. Devise outreach schemes and health and safety drives and equal opportunity commissions; make sure that these new jobs are promoting equality and diversity, then any left-leaning person will be unable to question them. Make the public sector one huge, teetering bureaucracy where everybody feels they are helping society. Even though all society really needs is a few nurses, teachers and possibly policemen. If this bureaucracy idea is implemented, we can ensure that all people will be kept:
a. Too busy to change the status quo
b. Dependent on the state
Which is what happened. Ask any teacher, nurse, doctor, policeman, lecturer or social worker about their job and they will all, without exception, tell you that is blighted by inordinate amounts of pointless paperwork. The drop-out rate of new teachers is approaching 50%. A large proportion of them cite overwork as the cause. They are even talking of scrapping the long summer holidays, so it must be bad. Tenured university lecturers in the UK have to spend over half their working week on paperwork instead of doing new research or teaching students. Nurses and doctors spend as much time reporting on what they have just done as doing it.
The Protestant work ethic is so embedded in Anglo-American society that everyone from the unemployed demanding the “right to work” to the super-rich who do internships instead of just whatever the fuck they like all day are all in it together. The drudgery of wage slavery is the only way to feel fulfilled in our society. The long-term unemployed become suicidal. We are urged to detest those on Benefits Street because they are refusing to play along with the game.
The fact of the matter is that our society only really needs a two or three day working week. The other two and a half days create the surplus value which feeds capitalism by creating the consumer society. If people had those extra two and a half days, they might start their own businesses and compete with large scale capitalism by owning the means of production. ‘Owning the means of production’… of course, all this Marxist language sounds hideously old-fashioned to us now. It may be outdated, boring, passé, but let’s face it: It’s bang on the money, right?
Anyone who’s ever read a Terry Pratchett, JRR Tolkien, or JK Rowling (before she went all bleeding-heart-pinko and grown up on us) has fantasized about traipsing through misty snowcapped mountains and enchanted forests, encountering endearing local folk and mythical creatures and being held captive in imposing, multi-towered castles (or if it floats your boat – a boarding school).
The good news is, all this can be easily found in Europe if you know where to look (except for the mythical creatures). Here are my top 5 Fairytale destinations, Europe style…
5. Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Nestled in the Bavarian Alps and built by Mad King Ludwig, Neuschwannstein is the epitome of camp Fairytale kitsch. It was inspired by the castles of the Loire Valley and in turn became the inspiration for Disney’s ‘when you wish upon an star’ castle.
If you can stand the hoards of Japanese tourists and eye-watering parking fees, it makes a nice day trip from Munich. While you’re here, you can stop by at Hitler’s secret mountain lair at Berchtesgaden for a spot of ghoulish Boy’s Own-style sight-seeing.
The castle is currently undergoing renovation and its fairytale factor is therefore slightly diminished by it being entirely covered in scaffolding. Hence its position at number 5.
4. Bialowieza Forest, Poland/Belarus
Welcome to the dark heart of Eastern Europe. If those magical creatures were discovered to exist after all, it’d almost certainly be here. Bialowieza is the largest primeval forest in Europe and home to bison, bears and wolves. Travel advice: if you see a house made of gingerbread, probably best to avoid.
3. Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland
More like something out of Discworld than Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is a… erm… giant causeway in Northern Ireland. The crashing waves of the tempestuous Irish sea are vaguely reminiscent of the lighthouse scene in Harry Potter 1.
Likelihood of actually seeing a giant is slim, but after a few Jameson’s, who knows. If all the Caspar David Friedrich-esque Romanticism gets a bit much, for a light-hearted add-on, you can do the open top bus tour of the Falls and Shankill Roads in Belfast and wave at the chavs sitting outside Rangers and Celtic Supporters’ pubs.
2. Tintagel, Cornwall, England
Did King Arthur and Merlin and Gwynevere really live here? Is this where Arthur pulled the sword from the stone? Did he rule his Kingdom wisely with a proto-democratic round table on this rocky outcrop in Cornwall? Probably not, but it makes a nice excuse for the locals to open crystal shops and sell homeopathic remedies in ‘Merlin’s Tea Rooms’ and ‘King Arthur’s convenience store’, so who cares?
1. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Anyone who feels himself to be imbued with the Elfish gene… Anyone who ever applied to go on Knightmare… Anyone who has ever lost his girlfriend, job and flat due to their addiction to World of Warcraft (it happened to my friend’s brother)… Anyone who knows what The Gathering is… will like it here. And just about anyone else, to be honest. It’s a lovely little town in Southern Czech Republic that just screams “Hobbit!”. It’s great. Good beer, too.
Bavaria – Austrian Lakes – Slovenian Alps – Ljubjana – Zagreb – Istrian Peninsular (Croatia) – Venice – Verona – French Alps – Aix En Provence – Avignon – Languedoc – Pyrenees – Bilbao – San Sebastian – Dordogne – Rhone Valley – Brittany – Normandy – UK.
Here are some of the best snaps I took en route with my phone.
The Konigsee, Bavarian Alps, Germany
Hitler’s mountain lair, the ‘Eagles Nest’ at Bertchesgaden, Germany
Dragon Bridge, Ljubjana, Slovenia
Gondola Drivers, Venice, Italy
The Cathedral Cloisters, Verona, Italy
Pope’s Castle at Avignon, France
Carcassonne, France by night
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
The destroyed village of Oradour, France
Mont St Michel, Normandy, France
If you’re looking for day trip ideas from London, the Suffolk coast provides a little bit of olde England, just an hour or so by car or train. The charming resorts of Southwold and Aldeburgh transport you back in time to bucket and spade holidays of the 1950s, with their easy-going atmosphere, locally-sourced food and superlative fish and chip cafes. The Suffolk coast makes an up-market and far more peaceful alternative to the likes of Brighton and allows you to really feel like you’ve got away from it all.
Here are some iphone snaps I took on a recent Redpig road trip. A long weekend was ample time to recharge the batteries, sample the local cuisine and seek out a few ‘secret’ beaches.
On a recent trip to the Peak District, I stopped by Hadfield, the location for Royston Vasey in the TV series The League of Gentlemen. I didn’t see Tubbs and Edward, unfortunately, but I did see a Daily Mail branded newsagents wishing us Merry Christmas and a surprisingly sexy pie advert. Also good to know British Rail still run there, as I could have sworn it was privatised in 1993.
In March this year, my husband and I drove down to Italy in our camper van (the van is affectionately known as The Red Pig). We saw bits of France and Belgium on the way there and back. As you can see, the weather was pleasant most of the time, and lots of places were completely deserted.
Going out of season was great, as it cut out queues at nearly all the museums. It also allowed us to pull up and snooze in the van more or less wherever we liked. Below are some iPhone snaps I took en route.
September and May have always been my favourite time to visit the Mediterranean, as scrambling over Roman ruins, drinking red wine, sunbathing – all the good stuff – are clearly best done without fear of heatstroke. It’s also well-known that August is the worst time to visit Europe, as many cities such as Paris and Madrid effectively close down. On top of that, you have the school summer holidays calendar which means just about everywhere with a patch of grass from St Petersburg to Dublin will be mobbed by screaming kids. Don’t even think about visiting an open-air swimming pool in late July.
Of course, the ski season lasts from mid-December to Late March, but the winter is otherwise a pretty miserable time to visit Europe, where winter means either -40 in the North or grey skies and inadequate central heating in the South.
I’ve just got back from an epic three-week trip down to southern Italy and back in the camper van and I have to say that mid-March is in some ways an ideal time to ‘do Europe’ if you are interested in culture rather than beaches. There were no queues for museums, no reservations necessary at restaurants, easy parking and sleeping wherever we liked in the van. The coast roads were traffic-free, which is also a huge bonus in places like the French Riviera and the Italy’s Amalfi coast, where there is enough local traffic to cause headaches at the best of times.
The weather was extremely varied, ranging from bright sunshine in Lyon to freezing hail in Naples, to snow in the Alps and April Showers in Belgium. It really felt like we got a unique insight into a side of Europe we hadn’t seen before.
Most importantly, of course, there were none of those insufferable other tourists ruining our tourism by doing touristy things and being all touristy. Which was great!