I can’t do it. Be late, I mean. I’m not saying I’ve never turned up after the appointed time, never had to apologise for missing the hour, although I’m hanged if I can remember when it happened, and if it did, there will have been an external cause, like a queue of cars, or a late-running train.
Nor am I chronically punctual. I am chronically early. I catch the worm before even the larks are up. In fact, I am so bothered about missing a deadline, of any sort, personal or professional, that I meet it well in advance. If I say I’ll be somewhere at nine, that’s me you’ll find hanging around at seven. If I have to teach at eleven, that’s me arriving at half-ten. It goes right back to my teens, and probably earlier. For instance, the No. 14 bus used to go from Cleadon (my parents’ home) to Sunderland from a bus-stop about 5 minutes away, three times an hour. The journey took about 17 minutes.
But what if any of the component parts of this journey were not functioning? The bus might be late, for instance. Or I might underestimate the journey time to the bus. Or the bus might be held up (obviously not in the highwayman sense, although there was once a great Spike Milligan sketch, about the time that aeroplane hijacking became in vogue for terrorists, in which Milligan, as a bus conductor, was confronted by a passenger who said ‘Take this bus to Cuba’. Milligan gave a little sigh, and started to pump out the strip of tickets. At intervals during the show, we were returned to the same bus, in which Milligan continued to crank his handle, and the bus had begun to fill up with colossal quantities of ticket).
To avoid the potential catastrophe of lateness, I would set off early, giving myself twelve minutes to make the journey to the bus-stop, and aiming to catch the earlier bus, in case of any hiatus on the way, and assuming it would arrive later, in any case, than advertised. And then I would run to the bus-stop. What would almost invariably happen was that I would catch the bus before the bus before the bus, which was running late, and which shot like a rocket to Sunderland to make up for lost time. Aged 14, and having arranged to meet a date outside the Odeon in Sunderland (her name was Fereleth, and the film was Elvis’s less-than-masterpiece, ‘Roustabout’), I once arrived a full hour before I was due to meet her. Sunderland between the hours of six and seven was a silent place: all shops shut, the streets clear, nothing to do but hang about and let my nerves get more nervous, which is what nerves do if you give them nothing better with which to occupy themselves.
It follows, I am afraid, that I am very intolerant of those who leave departures to the last minute (or, to be fair to them, to the appropriate moment at which to leave). I skulk by the doorway, tapping my foot. My brain starts to get cold sweats. My paranoia about missing the hour comes across as impatience. That’s because it is impatience.
Imagine if I had been with Scott on his journey to the Antarctic wastes, or leading the army sent to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum, or obliged to circumnavigate the world for a bet in eighty days. The course of history and fiction would doubtless have been very different.
And as for the Ancient Mariner and his Rime, there wouldn’t have been any question of listening to an old codger of a sea-salt witter on about albatrossicide and its dire consequences. I would have been in my pew, waiting for ‘Here Comes the Bride’ to strike up, several hours earlier.