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The misery of a full diary

Have we forgotten how to be spontaneous?

11 March 2017

9:00 AM

11 March 2017

9:00 AM

On a Friday evening in May 2018 I am going to see the Broadway show Hamilton. We had to book the tickets two weeks ago. Fair enough, you might say — some theatre tickets sell out long before rehearsals have begun. Nonetheless, it seems a madly long way off and what if I forget about it between now and then?

This week I’ve tried to pencil in the cinema with a group of friends — no one was free until April — and Saturday supper with a couple: they couldn’t do until July.


Jenny Coad discusses spontaneity with Isabel Hardman:


This is far from unusual. My diary tends to be filled weeks in advance and there is little room for unexpected pleasures without a shamefaced untangling of best-laid plans. Most of us are masters at unpicking things that sounded like a nice idea at the time. The builder is in. The children are poorly. I’m stuck at work.

All of which makes me wonder if we are over-organising our lives for no good reason at all. Being busy for the sake of it. Whatever happened to spontaneity? Even free time has become a thing we cling to, written in bold, desperate caps: KEEP FREE.


When was the last time a friend phoned at teatime and changed the course of your evening? Well, that would have been so nice, but you spent days filling in an online doodle calendar some weeks ago and you’re committed that night, so sorry.

‘Fancy a drink after work?’ ‘Love to, but are you around three weeks on Friday?’

It is rare to leave weekends entirely clear simply to take advantage of whatever might come your way. And if you do, it might be because you want to do nothing at all.

We should give our diaries and ourselves a break. Of course plans have to be made, dates marked, babysitters booked and diaries co-ordinated. My sister and boyfriend are both junior doctors, working to constantly changing rotas with weird hours and weekend shifts. If we didn’t carve space out in advance, I might not see them at all.

Quietly-made plans are drip-fed to my boyfriend, who has a fear of overfilled weekends. I tell him if we don’t pin down anything we won’t be able to eat in that restaurant, see a talked-about exhibition before it ends, watch the latest film in our local cinema or catch up with equally busy friends.

It’s exhausting. And it seems to be a distinctly British affliction.

A friend who moved to Santiago in Chile last year doesn’t know what she is doing from one week to the next. Her South American friends laugh if she tries to corral them into a social commitment. ‘If I organise something a week ahead of time or even a few days ahead, people think I’m crazy. They don’t seem to have their lives planned out the way we do at home. “What if you agree to go for dinner and then, on that day, you don’t fancy it?” they ask.’ Well, quite. But the cult of cancelling is another topic entirely.

Is she short of things to do, people to see, places to go? Not at all — she’s having the time of her life. And I don’t think that’s just down to sunshine and pisco sours. It’s the sense of liberation and opportunity.

An Italian colleague who moved to London from Sicily told me in amazement that she has to book playdates for her children weeks in advance. ‘I didn’t understand it at first,’ she shrugged.

We don’t always regret our well-made plans. But I can’t help feeling that in living like this we are missing out. As Mr Knightley exclaims to Emma, who is disappointed not to be able to count on his presence at the spring ball: ‘Why not seize the pleasure at once? How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!’

Spontaneity is exciting. Vanessa Bell drew her friends Molly MacCarthy and Marjorie Strachey at what they referred to as ‘spontaneous play’. The resulting photographs are on display at the Vanessa Bell retrospective in Dulwich Picture Gallery. Being models, they look graceful and, being naked, very unconstrained.

That sort of spontaneity is not for every-one, of course. The Bloomsbury set were nonconformist spirits leading what most of us would consider wild lives. But maybe we could take a cue from their approach and relax our feverish timetables a touch. So ditch the list of engagements, plan to plan less, and let’s do something in August.


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