I hate being late, and yet I constantly am. Consider the morning routine. We have a newborn, a four-year-old and a two-year-old, and the general arrangement is that I take both older ones on the school run each day.
Tasks in approximate order of completion: get porridge on, corral two sets of children’s clothes, change nappy, boil kettle for tea, feed cat, scoop cat shit out of litter tray, wash hands, stir porridge, wipe child’s nose, congratulate self on calmness and efficiency, boil kettle again, turn on Today programme, make tea, dole out porridge, suffer 10-minute shouting match over which child gets pink bowl before angrily transferring all porridge to identical white bowls, mop spilt water off table, wipe child’s nose, attempt semi-successfully to shower and dress while children eat, find PE kit and book bag, coax further porridgeeating, attempt to brush child’s hair while child screams and eats porridge, put toast on, dress both children while toast toasts, wipe child’s nose, acquiesce to post-porridge bowl of muesli if I think we’re doing OK for time, spread toast with butter and Marmite, drink cold tea, beg and plead for children to eat toast faster, scream at children to eat toast faster, wipe child’s nose, make appalling face at clock, grab son in headlock and attack mouth with toothbrush while threatening daughter with cancellation of all future Christmases if she doesn’t brush own teeth, hunt for shoes, coats etc, punch wall, respond in negative to request for chewy vitamin pastille, endure wail of outrage, administer chewy vitamin pastille, put coats on, reach door, hear wife calling wishing to say goodbye to children, pull face, troop children upstairs, wipe child’s nose, troop children downstairs, open door, set off for station.
All this runs like clockwork. We have it down. If the porridge is on the heat no later than 7.17am, and we don’t have any major arguments about Special K, unexpected nappy emergencies, homeworkcompletion panics or discoveries that every school skirt my daughter owns is in the washing machine, I stand a chance of leaving by 8.38, which means I stand a chance of reaching the daughter’s school by 9:02, which usually squeaks it. How often does that happen? About one day in four.
The sensible thing would be to start the whole business 20 minutes earlier—yet I am no more capable of doing that than of flying unaided to the moon. Why? Self-sabotage. It was long ago said to me that being late isn’t forgivable: it is a statement that you value your own time more highly than that of others. That feels right. The panic and anger is overwhelming: you rightly blame the universe and you rightly reproach yourself. It’s for this reason that the two great dramas about lateness—Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Clockwise— achieve a sort of existential majesty.
To be late is a profound and disabling part of the human condition. We are all, after all, late in the end (as in “the late…”). Its neurotic flipside—to be early—is a near symmetrical failure. How much of your allotted span on earth is nibbled away in dead time, pacing waiting rooms like a Vladimir of the train station, an Estragon of the dentist’s?
Is anyone so singular that they steer unerringly between the Scylla of lateness and the Charybdis of showing up too early? Just one. In Gyles Brandreth’s diaries he describes lunch with Jeffrey Archer at Sambuca on Sloane Square. “At around 12.55,” he writes, “I saw Jeffrey’s car coming round the square, but it didn’t stop at the restaurant— it went on round the square. In all, the car circled Sloane Square three times, then Jeffrey got out, came into the restaurant and sat down.”
“What was all that about?” asked Brandreth. “What was all what about?” said Archer. The whole driving round-andround- the-square thing, said Brandreth. Archer pointed to the clock above the door. “What time is it?” “One o’clock.” “Exactly. I am never early. I am never late. I am Jeffrey Archer.”