x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Creativity begins at home: ask Leonardo or the Greeks

Running can often mean you stand still, so why not stand still and seek inspiration.

Private and public sectors shut down across Greece this week at the start of a general strike that unions vowed would be the largest in years. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo
Private and public sectors shut down across Greece this week at the start of a general strike that unions vowed would be the largest in years. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo

When Leonardo da Vinci was hired by Duke Ludovico Sforza and his duchess to paint The Last Supper, the duke's staff were appalled at the slow rate of progress. Leonardo would turn up for work every day, but instead of splashing on paint, would sit and look at the blank wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery.

In Rome a few years later, his rival Michelangelo Buonarroti was busy trowelling the stuff on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, finishing whole frescoes at a stroke. Leonardo just sat and looked inactive, went home and came back the next day to do the very same thing.

Eventually, the news of Leonardo's pathetic progress reached the duke. He summoned Leonardo and angrily demanded to know what he was playing at. Leonardo replied: "I am thinking."

It took him four years to cover the wall. A few years later, Michelangelo completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Instead of 13 figures enjoying a rather frugal repast, he smeared 1,100 square metres in paint, including the crowning glory The Last Judgement.

Should we therefore conclude that Leonardo was a slacker?

Thinking is necessary in any creative endeavour. A pedant would argue that one can think just as well in an office as on a sofa. But there is one crucial difference. If you sit in the office looking out of the window, thinking while you admire the palm trees and the blue of the sky, people will assume you're not working. If you sit at home, looking out of the window, people won't know what you've been up to, until you file a brilliant column, for example.

The fear remains, however, that if you can't see somebody, you suspect the person is not working. I remember some years ago working in Boston during an appalling blizzard.

At least a foot of snow must have fallen overnight, but fortunately I managed to make it to the office with the help of a colleague's four-wheel drive.

Those less able received a curt email from the boss: "You live in Boston. It snows during the winter. Make sure you can get to the office or you won't have an office to get to".

Some years later, and you would have thought that this approach would have changed. Nowadays we all have laptops, mobile phones and other handy devices to keep in touch with everybody on a permanent basis.

However, Time magazine cites a report by Telework Research Network (I'm guessing, but the name suggests they might be biased) that said: "The issue of mistrust - 'how do I know they're working' - is huge and not easily overcome. Management attitudes that were born in the days of sweatshops and typing pools still dominate."

Time suggested four ways to convince your boss you are working, rather than Hoovering or cleaning out the turtle cage. They are:

Ease into it

Point out the upside

Stay in touch

Cover your bases

Call me old-fashioned, but I'd say these are rather basic, not to say simplistic. Trying to work out whether somebody is working is fraught with difficulty at the best of times.

I sat next to somebody once who for a year did very little except read American websites online and post the most interesting links on her Facebook page, while looking very active in the process.

One could almost argue that the greatest change in working life in the past 10 years is that office workers have been able to loaf as effectively as home workers.

I, however, would disagree with you. Loafing is key to creativity, whether you do it in the office or on the sofa. Some people, including the Romans, thought that walking was the key to unlocking the mind. Solvitur ambulando was their motto, and very often they did.

They also conquered wherever they walked to, so I guess that showed that they were willing to back up the time-wasting with a bit of fighting.

The German filmmaker Werner Herzog was a great believer in the healing and creative powers of walking, as were Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin, two English travel writers.

Chatwin died too young, while Leigh Fermor lived so long that he ended up giving up writing, preferring walking altogether.

Not all walks are successful. One recalls Captain Lawrence Oates, better known as "Titus", who as a member of Captain Scott's abortive mission to the North Pole decided the game was up.

The Old Etonian left with the words: "I am just going outside and may be some time" and headed out of the tent and into a blizzard. He was never seen alive again.

He can be said to have taken working from home to extremes. I'm sure his family would have preferred it if he had been a jobbing broker in the City of London. Greek civil servants have decided that they will go to work, but not do any work. This seems more like the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci.

Rather than berating them for their Mediterranean idleness, we should congratulate them on their creative spirit.

The Greeks were the first to discover democracy, trial by jury and Corinthian columns.

If they are now backing working from home - or indeed not working from the office - we shall all have something to thank them for. We should write off their debts in gratitude.