Tatler, July 1997 (London magazine)
"Life's A Bitch" (a regular guest columnist feature)
by Nick Mason
All people can be punctual if they choose to be. Any evening
at the cinema or theatre will prove the point that out of a sample
of a thousand or so people, only about 0.03 per cent will fall foul
of events sufficiently to make them grovellingly, apologetically late.
Regrettably, any social or business meeting that does not involve
the selling of tickets for a predetermined time is more likely to
have a lateness quota of about 25 per cent and, as soon as one's
partner is involved, the ratio of the punctuality-challenged can rise
to a frightening 50 per cent. Exactly why these people are late is a
mystery. It may be revenge, an attempt at a controlling device or a
sad overconfidence in how much they can achieve in the time available,
but it's still maddening, and arouses about as much sympathy in the
punctual as the Bolsheviks felt for the Tsar.
Part of the problem is that lateness has become part of the fabric
of western civilisation. The airlines set a frightful example. What
should be a hi-tech, stainless-steel chronograph of an industry is
little more than a fantasy schedule based on a theoretical world where
passengers don't get lost in the duty free; the crew isn't stuck on the
M25 and the aircraft has actually arrived from New York. When some
passengers are expected to wait for 12 hours attempting to sleep on
horribly uncomfortable seats (if they're lucky), but others can be
refused boarding because they arrived only 30 minutes before take-off,
it is little wonder that the airlines are so anxious to prevent
passengers carrying weapons.
Trains don't even qualify for this discussion since they not only
run late but frequently fail to reach their destination at all. To
be deposited at Watford or Wolverhampton instead of one's chosen
destination is unforgivable. Buses are hopeless, ironically because
of all the people who don't trust public transport and therefore
prevent it from functioning. And using your own car has become a
lottery -- ensuring a choice between a crisis of lateness or an hour
to kill, usually in that limbo period of early closing.
Restaurants have become inured to lateness, and punctuality may
find you herded to the bar by a surprised manager. Gone are the days
when if you were half an hour late the maitre d' would be glaring at
his watch and tutting; nowadays you have to be extraordinarily drunk
and disorderly to get that response. In the good old days the kitchen
closed, the chef went home and that was that. But the cult of the
unpunctual has triumphed; chefs are now working the same hours as
junior doctors. As for those diners who do turn up on time, their
purgatory will be to sit alone, trying to look relaxed while gently
simmering under the pitying looks from other tables. The trick is
to retain a welcoming, but hurt, expression while hissing all those
carefully thought-out resentments just out of the hearing of other
Some occupations are particularly renowned for tardiness. Show
business thrives on it, with rock music taking the major awards.
I recall a Paris recording studio in the early Eighties with a
resigned -- and punctual -- Bill Wyman explaining that Charlie would
be on time, Mick maybe a few hours late and Keith perhaps a week.
Small wonder he quit to concentrate on the restaurant business.
Punctual habits are encouraged by consultants who charge by the
hour. If the clock starts at the appointed moment, it seems foolish
to spend the money being somewhere else. On the other hand, if you,
the client, are being kept waiting, you can fight back. If you are
corralled in a waiting room, I recommend requesting access to a phone.
Start dialing long distance. If offered a coffee, ask for croissants
as well -- with butter, jam and freshly squeezed juice. Try and get
to the copier and the fax machine. Anyone who can capture and hold
these commanding heights should be able to negotiate an early end to
the wait. If this is impossible, a visit to the bathroom to steal the
soap might help. A delay of more than 30 minutes calls for an
accident with the plumbing.
It's time for a change in attitude. It's time both bride and
groom arrived early enough to greet all their guests at the church
door. The dentist should be standing expectantly outside his waiting
room 10 minutes before the patient is due, and the National Health
Service should be advertising the need for hip-replacement patients
to keep the empty beds full and under-employed surgeons in work.
Then maybe we'd have time to solve the mystery of why the more
expensive the watch, the less punctual the wearer.
Thank you to Mark Brown for contributing this article to Echoes!!!