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It may come as a surprise to some, but the fact is that Britain's aristocratic lords are seriously worried about the problem of leisure. Of course, as Lieut. Colonel Arthur Jocelyn Charles Gore, 6th Earl of Arran, put it when he opened the debate in the House of Lords, Britain has had a leisured class "for many hundreds of years, but in the past it comprised only a minute section of the population and with their leisure went great responsibilities.... Now we are faced with the prospect of tens of millions of leisured persons with few responsibilities. What," asked Milord of Arran, "are they going to do with their spare time? Judging by present social habits, one envisages a great sea of blank, gaping faces stretching out before innumerable television screens from midday to midnight, with short pauses for the absorption of tinned foods recommended on the programmes."
In the view of Viscount Esher, the prospect seemed even bleaker. Letting his mind wander backward through his own leisured childhood, Lord Esher saw a vista of infinite boredom. "In the old days," he said, "great trouble was taken to assist the limited minds of the rich from the affliction of boredom; shooting and hunting, racing and yachting. Golf and tennis, health resorts and a great deal of changing of clothes among the women helped to fill the long empty hours. Nevertheless, in spite of all that, my grandmother was bored." This trait, Esher went on, was already discernible "in some of my grandchildren."
Viscount Hailsham, the endlessly energetic carbon copy of Sir Winston Churchill who has headed the Tory Party since 1957, had a characteristically brisk answer to the problem in increased government sponsorship of participant sports. "Watching or reading about sport certainly takes up more of most people's leisure activity than almost any other single item," said Hailsham. "But there is a danger that we may become a nation of sports viewers instead of a nation of sports players."
With this view, the Right Reverend Roger Plumpton Wilson, Lord Bishop of Chichester, was in complete agreement. "In view of the high cultural level of so much of this debate," he said, "I might almost apologise as a Bishop in propounding this as a first priority."
To get the debate back on its lofty plane, another peer who ranks high in Conservative Party circles went to the dictionary to define the word leisure itself. "I made," said Robert Cecil, 5th Marquess Salisbury, whose ancestors, like himself, have been telling England's sovereigns where to get off for centuries, "what was to me an extremely interesting discovery. The oldest meaning of this word—and it is a very old word indeed—was not negative at all, as it has tended to become. It is a severely positive, even austere word. It meant originally, 'Freedom or opportunity to do something specified.' " This original meaning of the word leisure, Bobbety Salisbury went on, is important because it underlies the idea that leisure "when properly used is something essentially good." What is certain, he concluded, "is that whatever encourages men and women to broaden their minds, to develop their personalities, to think for themselves and to fake their own line is likely in the long term to be to the advantage both of themselves and of their country."
The 11th Duke of Devonshire, Major Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, M.C., whose famed ancestress Georgiana directed the leisure of much of the intelligentsia and aristocracy of England's Regency, had a less cerebral but equally optimistic view of the problem. "If I were to introduce a motto for the use of leisure hours," said the handsome Coldstream Guardsman, "I think I would say this: If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.
"If you get fun out of a thing, it does not matter if you do it badly. I play tennis and—though alas, I do it no longer—I used to ride. But I do both abominably. I broke the heart of a chap who tried to teach me tennis and I frequently fell off my horse. If I had said to myself, 'You are no good at either, so don't do them,' I should have missed an enormous amount of pleasure. So I say, if you like to do a thing, do it as hard as you can and you will get fun from your pursuits. I think this might be applied to a wider field."
If we ourselves were members of the House of Lords, we would certainly cry, "Hear! Hear!"