Friday, 26 March 2010

Pride and Punctuality

I wonder if anybody has ever attempted a study of lateness in literature? The business of catching means of transport is often (unsurprisingly) absent from the pages of fiction; however, it is very rare that two characters who arrange to meet don't meet. You never see a person in a novel sitting disconsolately at a table with half a pint in front of them, holding a phone in their left hand whilst attempting to do the Guardian Quick crossword with the other (and getting stuck on number four down). Lateness has always fascinated me: I can never work out how, or why, somebody can miss an appointment, even allowing for traffic, tantrums, and random acts of God. Imagine if you were late for a duel - your entire honour would be besmirched, and you'd be cast out of society. Or if, instead of going to Gatsby's party, you decided you had to clean the bathroom, and when you arrived there was nobody left. The only instance of lateness in literature I can think of causes violent death - if Romeo and Juliet had arranged their diaries a little better they might have lived to hear the patter of tiny Montagues. Of course there's always the White Rabbit - but he's in a state of constant tardiness, so you could argue that actually he's always on time.

The one thing that rises, phoenix-like, from the ashes of lateness, is that if somebody is late for meeting you, you can wait. And oh what pleasures can be gained from waiting. The art of waiting deserves a treatise in itself. It's practically the only time in a city like London where you can achieve a certain sort of stillness and watch everybody else being late for their appointments.

This week has been mostly characterised by caffeine, the abiding spirit of punctuality. I've been immersed in Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, in which nobody is late, and I've started de Balzac's Black Sheep. If enough people are late I might be able to finish it by next week.


  1. I totally agree about waiting. It is extraordinary how calm and relaxing that time can be, even if you are in a clanging Pitcher & Piano in Streatham. Sometimes I am a bit disappointed when the white rabbit actually arrives and I have to close my book.

  2. Perhaps Godot was cleaning the bathroom.