Harry Mount

Better always to be late than selectively so

A defence of the neglected virtue of punctuality

Better always to be late than selectively so
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‘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). In the new edition of King’s Counsellor, edited by Duff Hart-Davis, Tommy Lascelles, private secretary to George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, tells how cross our future Queen got with her mother for being late on a royal tour of South Africa in 1947.

The Queen has always realised the essential effect of bad timekeeping — that although you, the latecomer, don’t mind being late, someone else (in this case, the royal staff) does mind. So whenever her mother dawdled in unnecessary conversation, the then 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth took to stabbing her in the Achilles tendon with her umbrella to hurry her along. It’s said, too, that the Queen gets just as infuriated with Prince Charles for being slow in winding up conversations and ending up late as a result.

Prince Charles is not the only one. Attitudes to punctuality in Britain have changed deeply over the last generation. To still think of the British as punctual, you have to either be old or not have lived in this country for a long time. Or both. That’s why a British headmaster who stayed on in Pakistan after Partition in 1947 is this week misguidedly looking for a British replacement to take over at his public school in Chitral, northern Pakistan. ‘I should prefer if the candidates were British or people who share the values of duty and honesty,’ says the optimistic headmaster, G.D. Langlands, who has just turned 90, ‘and punctuality — which some Pakistanis are not so good at.’

The change in our standards of punctuality since Mr Langlands left Britain is connected to the boom market in self-importance. It is also due to the explosion in popularity of the latecomer’s closest friend, the one he never misses an appointment with — his mobile phone. Before the mobile, even the most amoral latecomer felt a batsqueak of guilt at not being able to get his flimsy excuse to the old friend waiting by the Tube station gate. Now he can assuage that guilt — and turn up even later — by sending regular updates about his lateness in a series of mini-confessions sent by text — the ultimate confrontation-avoider.

A Cambridge classics don, the father of a friend of mine, says that there’s a bigger difference between today’s undergraduates and those of 15 years ago, than between those of 15 years ago and those of half a millennium before, and all because of the mobile phone. Fifteen years ago, students rarely even had a landline and so communicated by pigeon post, the inter-college postal system. The old tradition of agreeing, a day in advance, to meet at a particular time at a particular place, meant people took the meetings more seriously. They were less likely to be late, spent longer at them, and more people were likely to attend.

A constantly updateable message system — i.e. a mobile phone — means a constantly moveable feast; literally, with people turning up at meals at different stages of the evening, extending drinks when things are going well, and cancelling them if they suddenly can’t face an evening out. 

The same logic applies beyond the world of students. Greater ease in making appointments means greater ease in being late or missing them altogether. Mr White Man’s Time has fallen victim to Mr White Man’s Technology.

Harry Mount’s Amo, Amas, Amat and All That ... How To Become a Latin Lover is published by Short Books (£12.99)