In the early 20th century, mass participation in leisure was a “striking feature of British life”, says Wessie du Toit in The New Statesman. People “played in brass bands and raced pigeons”. They took dance lessons and performed in plays and choirs. In 1926, “nearly 4,000 working-class anglers from Birmingham” took part in a single fishing competition. People still do these things, of course, but they have become “hobbies” that belong to a culture defined by work, and are too-often judged by the “unleisurely criteria of self-improvement”. By this grim logic, physical and intellectual pursuits are admirable, since they bring “fitness and cultural capital”, but excessive interest in birds, say, “marks you out as an eccentric”.
In a more civilised society, more of our productive energies would be channelled towards “reviving the art of leisure”. What’s needed is a real counterbalance: a “positive vision” of downtime that isn’t merely rest or entertainment (“though it can provide both”). Ultimately, true leisure should be surplus to our “worldly needs and ambitions”. It should be something we do “not as a means to any end, but simply for its own sake”.