On Being Late

Andrew O’Hagan

It can be quite frightening, having to be somewhere by a certain time. We make it more bearable by not giving it too much thought, yet being on time is often judged, particularly by the punctual, as representing one’s ability to hit the mark as a human being. In 2017, Alex Honnold, the American free-climber, scaled El Capitan, a 3000-foot rockface in Yosemite, with no harness and no ropes. What is extra alarming is that he completed this feat against the clock. Honnold says that he had to reach the most difficult part of the climb, known as the Boulder Problem, before the sun got there. The situation is completely unfathomable to me. He set out to perform a superhuman feat to a tight deadline, with the promise that, were he even a little bit slow, he would become a bag of bones at the foot of a precipice.

Some people make an art out of being late: it’s said to be fashionable, but it isn’t. When I began as a reporter, I used to arrive so early that people wouldn’t think to ask if I was the reporter. And even now, when people suggest meeting at 3 p.m., I’ll be there at two, scoping out the building, chatting to the regulars, and wandering about looking for a clue. Being early ought to make you conspicuous; in fact you more often achieve that with bad timekeeping. The person who is late and the person who is early have one thing in common: they are equally unlike the person who is just on time. This person is in a category of her own, a punitive Goldilocks, who wants everything just right. She values her time, as they say, and feels the second hand perpetually reproving. Maybe it doesn’t pay to get too wound up about ‘your’ time. Time doesn’t belong to you. And perhaps letting other people fuss over it can set you free. The early bird can be a nobody, getting lost in preparations. (It’s nice to know where the exits are.) But maybe the only free person is the one you see dashing in late and dropping her papers, harassed in her head but freer in the world. Her clock’s her own. She implies from the start that we’re all out of control and maybe that’s more honest.

In the old days, young people made plans before leaving the house, largely to avoid the poor business of wandering the streets without a clue. We had regular haunts, which made things easier, but, as I remember it, we pretty much kept to whatever plans had been made because in transit you would be out of touch. Today’s young phone-user finds it normal to enter into a daily festival of editing and circumnavigating what has been mooted – he detests firm plans, even firm suggestions – because texting allows him to do it all on the hoof. Being mobile, and having one, means he is in step with his desires, so why would he choose to be enslaved to a thing that seemed desirable yesterday or ten minutes ago? Perhaps timekeeping is now for the birds (or for old birds). ‘I just don’t know if I’ll want it then, or want it any more,’ a young friend tells me. She hates commitment, and the idea of being committed to being on time for something you might not even want is her idea of a nightmare created by parents, with their nostalgia about manners. When a person under 35 texts you to ask if you want to hang out, they mean right now. There’s no point whiffling through your desk diary to see when you’re free, because they’ve never even heard of a week on Tuesday. They mean ‘What are you doing this very second?’ Or ‘Kinda like in 18 minutes. Can you make that 20?’ When this person eventually turns up late, the possibility, the likelihood, the certainty, will have been communicated to death, and being stood up may feel like a loving reprieve.

‘Sorry, I’m late.’ It must be one of the most popular sentences in the world, but what does it mean? Is it, a. ‘I regret having given you the impression that my time is more important than yours, but don’t hold it against me’? b. ‘No offence, but I actually don’t want to be here’? c. ‘I’m feeling quite overwhelmed today and you’re making it worse’? Or d. ‘Into every life a little rain must fall, and I owe you nothing, buster?’ Freud, like everybody else, sees most incidences of lateness as a form of resistance, but what if some late people are just happier when they’re late, rather than hugging their anger? There are as many reasons for being late as there are for being early, and we shouldn’t dismiss the pleasures of lateness just because the pleasure isn’t ours. Just as constant anxiety can constitute a sort of ecstasy, being a disappointment – a reliable failure – might feel to some people like something worth being. Marilyn Monroe once said she couldn’t help being late because it made her feel much better about all the years people kept her waiting. Quite recently, Britain’s top modelling icon kept me waiting at a studio for four hours. She’d fired a famous 1960s lens-man that week and supplanted him with her current boyfriend, then she was late for me and her stylist while the editors of the glossy magazine in New York went ape. I didn’t mind. I had a book with me, and, in any case, I was intrigued by what it would be like to feel fine about keeping people waiting. Eventually I gave up. And as I was leaving, word came from her dressing room that she was late and didn’t know I was there. I must have been more pissed off than I’m admitting because I refused to go back.

Latecomers get all the bad press. Is that because they’re indifferent to fate or because they’re indifferent to other people’s resentment? It’s not Romeo’s boisterousness or gang mentality that hurts the girl he loves, it’s a mix-up about timings. Hamlet’s problem is his own terrible lateness. What’s the hold-up? Drama feasts on lateness, and you might argue that a great deal of it depends on delays, pauses, echoes (form of lateness in themselves) and things not turning up. (Is Godot not coming or is he just late?) I have a friend who’s always late, and she insists she’s helping me understand the modern condition two cappuccinos at a time. She talks a lot about late capitalism and late style, and says Britain is too late for Europe. ‘All our politicians are stuck in 1984 and there’s scarcely one who isn’t too late for 2019.’

‘It’s weird,’ I said. ‘The more devices we have to tell us the time, the later we are. We can’t move for pings and alarms, yet everybody’s late.’

‘It’s the spirit of the age,’ she said.

The same Shelleyan phrase is used by Ben Hutchinson, who wrote a book called Lateness and Modern European Literature (Oxford, £66), which maintains that modernity has less to do with what’s avant-garde and more to do with what’s after-the-fact. He sees a whole rich tradition of lateness, and quotes from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which speaks of a decadent generation, passive and exhausted, seeking – this was the early 1830s – a new way out of the past. ‘The very etymology of lateness’, Hutchinson writes, has snuck ‘into Mill’s diagnosis’. The era is ‘tired, belated’. Ring a bell? We are all, in a sense, latecomers, haunted by a sense of what haunted us before. Is it Britishness? In any event it can’t be long before Keir Starmer begins referring to Derrida’s notion of ‘hauntology’ – ‘a coinage that suggests a spectrally deferred non-origin’ – to describe our current state. Meanwhile, European leaders have concluded that Britain will soon be late for its own future – or funeral.