Magazine article The Spectator

Better Always to Be Late Than Selectively So

Magazine article The Spectator

Better Always to Be Late Than Selectively So

Article excerpt

'Mr White Man's Time' would be a pretty racist nickname if it hadn't been invented by black Africans. In Ivory Coast, though, it's a term of some distinction. The nickname belongs to Narcisse Aka, a legal adviser aged 40, who has just won the country's hallowed Punctuality Night competition -- and a £30,000 villa -- after he consistently turned up for work on time while his compatriots took a more relaxed attitude to punctuality. As the slogan of the competition goes, 'African time is killing Africa; let's fight it.' Mr White Man's Time might be a little surprised, then, if he came over to Britain for an urgent appointment -- British time, white or black, is not so great any more.

Do you have friends who are habitually late for everything except for things they really want to go to? I have a screenwriter friend I never agree to meet except at my home, and then only if I know I am going to be doing something useful or enjoyable there. That way it doesn't matter if he backs out or turns up half an hour late, as he invariably does, for a drink or dinner.

Offer him a ticket to Arsenal, though, and he's there by the big Arsenal sign at Drayton Park on the dot of 2.45 p. m. , giving him plenty of time to cater to his desires: to buy something to eat, get a programme and settle into his seat before the 3 p. m. kick-off. He applies the same rules to other things he wants to do -- he's always on time to, say, meet an attractive woman, catch a plane to pick up an Oscar, get to the fridge.

At least Mr Aka's compatriots are late for everything, and not just the things they don't want to do: the organisers of the Punctuality Night competition said there was a chronic sociological problem across the board when it comes to punctuality. But it is surely better to have a deeply unreliable approach to all meetings, whether they involve duty or pleasure, than to distinguish between the two, like my friend.

It doesn't take much amateur psychology to work out how the selective latecomer's mind works -- he is happier to force displeasure on someone else than to deny himself a pleasure. Habitual selective lateness is a sort of social code: 'I am so important that it doesn't matter if I'm late or not.'

Some selective latecomers follow an even more wicked form of the code, which goes something like, 'It's actually positively stylish of me to be late, and how dreary and bourgeois of you to mind waiting for me.' I can hear this evil lot sniggering over my shoulder as I write: 'Did you read that dull, pedantic article in The Spectator?

What a horrid little show-off.' To damn a virtue as a smug, small-minded, outdated ritual is an effective game, and you can play it with all sorts of things -- spelling, grammar, thank-you letters.

Punctuality is an absolute virtue, if not a cardinal one. It may not be right up there with faith, hope and charity. Rather it borrows major attributes from grander ones: it shows selflessness, where lateness shows selfishness; loyalty to one person and one appointment ahead of the ever-shifting, whim-driven behaviour of the latecomer.

How gratifying to hear, then, that the Queen is on the side of the bourgeois pedants on this one (and I'll bet those stylish latecomers are exactly the same sort of superior lot who like to show how grand they are by saying how middle-class the royal family is). …

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