Leith on life

In search of lost time
January 25, 2012

Last night I dreamed… no, it wasn’t Manderley again. I dreamed that I was on the phone to a call centre somewhere, on hold—for about five hours, I think, though you never quite know with dreams. At the end of it I woke up feeling calm and benign.

My unconscious, if not the waking part of my mind, must enjoy wasting hours connected to hyperspace, listening to bland music. That makes some sort of sense. My relationship with time is becoming ever more perverse. I don’t think I’m alone. Have you noticed how the older you get, and the less time you have, the more you relish activities that take up gallons of it?

One’s interest in cooking tracks this phenomenon. Most of us take little or no interest in cooking as children or teenagers. Food is something to be sliced, slathered and gobbled. As young adults, the same applies: in a university hall of residence a “foodie” is someone who uses tinned tomatoes rather than Dolmio to make sauce for pasta. Did you know that you can cook fishfingers in a toaster? Well, you can.

But then it sneaks up on you. You start to wonder what would happen if you made a pan hot and put a steak in it. You master salad dressing. You poach eggs. You spend three quarters of an hour in the kitchen. But it’s only later that you get into the really time-consuming stuff: stews and braises; lamb you can shred with a fork; stringy cuts of meat made unctuous by slow cooking. I was in my thirties before making stock started to appeal, and in my mid-thirties before spending all day making a loaf of sourdough seemed like a nice thing to do rather than a chore. By the time I’m 50 I’ll probably be making demi-glace.

Cooking is just one part of it. How many teenagers do you know who get a bang out of gardening? I still haven’t got there. The idea of a leisure activity whose rewards are timed in months and years rather than days still seems incomprehensible—sprouting mung beans is still about my horticultural tempo—yet I know it will come. You see it coming to those around you. Likewise painstaking hobbies: oil painting, the curation of collections of stamps, taxidermy.

This is, surely, paradoxical. Children have scads of time. Time gapes and yawns before them. An afternoon, for a child, is as long as a summer and a summer goes on for a decade. They have literally nothing to do. This would be the ideal point in life to invest in nurturing arboreta, reading Proust, getting involved with the slow food movement, or building painstaking replicas of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres out of Swan Vestas with the flammable bits whittled off.

But do you see children doing any such things? No. The little beasts can scarcely focus long enough to make a single potato print before shouting “I’m BORED!”, tipping the poster paint on the floor and demanding Bob the Builder or a box of raisins. They dash from activity to activity like Billy Bunter in a tuck shop trolley dash. They behave as if at any moment some celestial Tannoy is going to call time and separate them from their Play-Doh forever.

It makes you want to shake them (you don’t, obviously; I’m speaking figuratively) and shout, “Look, mush. You’ve got gallons of time. You don’t need to be in a hurry. I’m the one that’s going to be dead in 40 years, and I’m going to be spending most of the available time between now and then picking up your bastard poster paint.”

But do that, and what do children do? They just look at you blankly (or, if they’re a little older, look large-eyed and stricken, mouth the word “dead” and dissolve into inconsolable tears). They don’t get it at all.

I’m not sure we get it ourselves. Adults are mining a dwindling resource. Yet the less we have of it, the larger the chunks we want to dig out. We are more and more interested in things that take up tons of what we haven’t got. We fantasise about spending our retirement doing all those time-consuming things we weren’t able to do during our working lives. And as oldies, when we have the least time of all to spare, we spend hours watching Cash in the Attic.

It’s baffling and a little poignant. When you have the time you don’t have the attention span and when you have the attention span you don’t have the time. Maybe that’s the point. David Foster Wallace’s notes towards his last, unfinished book, The Pale King, suggest that the ability to pay attention to the least stimulating things is a gift; that doing time-consuming, boring things is a form of worship. He wrote: “It turns out that bliss—a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” Well. When I take up gardening I suppose I’ll find out.