It’s fake, facile, foolish and fundamentally flawed. Stephen Bayley on why “fun” is anything but
Humour, wit, gaiety and laughter are all very good. But be cautious, always, of laughing too loudly because, as James Joyce suggested, a loud laugh reveals an empty mind. Then there’s the admirable Greek leventeia: youth, health, nerve, high spirits, quickness of mind and action, skill with weapons, the knack of pleasing girls, love for singing and drinking, generosity – or “a universal zest for life, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything” as Patrick Leigh Fermor described it. That’s very good too.
But “fun”? That’s something very different and darker. The dictionary says fun is a trick and a hoax. A 1685 citation in the Oxford English Dictionary has fun as a verb meaning “to cheat”. Personally, I feel both cheated and threatened by the prospect of “fun”. What a dreadful thing it is to hear someone say: “And now let’s have some fun”. As Dr Johnson knew, “nothing is more hopeless than a scheme for merriment”.
It all goes back to 1133 when Bartholomew’s Fair was established in London’s Smithfield. Originally a commercial cloth fair, it soon acquired side-shows and other appendages of immorality and vice which made it the prototype “fun fair”. Perhaps even a prototype of Disneyland’s sordid retro-kitsch, fun-filled, infantilised fantasies.
In Smithfield you might find fun-drenched comedians, showmen, rope-dancers, jugglers, conjurers, fortune-tellers, giants, dwarfs, wild beasts, costermongers, mousetrap men, corn-cutters, puppets, dancing dogs and mountebanks. When Pepys visited and witnessed the spectacle of a monkey dancing on a rope, he found it “strange”. I think for once Pepys understated.
But these horrors had their equivalent in provincial country fairs with wrestling, Morris dancing, cudgel play, leaping, running, pitching the bar, throwing the sledge and tossing the pike. In Chester, they had great fun on St John the Baptist’s Day with pageants which might include several giants, a dromedary camel, a fake unicorn, an ass, a dragon, several hobby-horses and, on one memorable occasion, “sixteen naked boys”. I mean, spare me.
Bartholomew’s Fair ended in 1850, a victim of the stern Victorian moral certainties which the next year created an altogether more serious and inspiring spectacle: the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations. An epochal event in industrial history, the Great Exhibition was an ecstasy of the Imperium whose influence and stimulus is still with us today. But “fun” it was surely not.
To continue this condemnation of fun, it’s worth looking at the word in current usage. In obituaries, “fun-loving” is coded language for a boisterous, sottish prat. In the seventies there was a fashion for “fun furs”. A fun fur was an engineered pile fabric made of noisome acrylic: the very definition of fake; a fun fur in shocking pink could make a Surbiton virgin look like a hooker in a Siberian oil town. And you don’t have to be a pious old-school Modernist-moralist to find any kind of fakery not amusing at all.
Fun is facsimile amusement: it is the finest attributes of humanity (see paragraph 1 above) regimented and commodified. And then suffocated. There are professional fun consultants who will advise you on your facsimile amusements. One of them offers bouncy castles and other inflatables, buzz wires, crazy golf, a digital graffiti wall, giant snow domes and an all-year-round Santa’s grotto. Remember in Marlowe’s play when Dr Faustus asked Mephistopheles why he is not in Hell and Satan’s sidekick replies, “Why this is Hell and nor are we out of it.”
Severe exercise and hard work are much more fun than fun. The endorphins arising from a sweaty and wheezing 5km run are more pleasurable and enduring than a round of crazy golf.
People talk about “fun for all the family”, and what a spectacle of woe that suggests. Fun for a two-year-old is not fun for a mature human. Unless that mature human actually gets satisfaction from face-painting, flicking fish-fingers and dropping rocks on gold-fish in an ornamental pond. (I write here from what Meghan would call “lived experience”).
In a personal conclusion, I’ll just explain that I am not a Puritan. Years ago I was involved in an ad campaign for Famous Grouse whisky. I suggested using portraits of celebrity grumps: Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, for example. I thought that rather funny. But funny is not really connected to fun. And, on a good day, I am not at all grumpy.
Cromwellians banned the “vain enjoyments” of music, dancing and theatre. I don’t much care for music, dancing and theatre myself, but I do have a hyperactive pleasure centre in my brain excited by whatever I find beautiful, and this includes food, wine, art, architecture, clever conversation, women, pre-21st century poetry, rural Wales, tennis, fast cars, Florence, Venice, Rome and the Côte d’Azur. But not one of these is “fun”. I take my pleasures seriously.
Of course, the other thing the Puritans wanted to ban was Christmas. Like holidays, Christmas is a snare and a delusion: a resonantly empty hoax. It promises pleasure, but is actually a source of anxiety, morbid reflection, family strife, hangover, expense, glut, flatulence, sloth and raised cholesterol. Christmas is fun. Like fun, it is best avoided.
Stephen Bayley was the founding-director of London’s influential Design Museum and is presently Chairman of The Royal Fine Art Commission Trust. Of his many books, a personal favourite is Sex, Drink and Fast Cars.
This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2024 edition of the Idler – out now.
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