In our new series, Why I Quit, writers, activists and celebrities talk about something they have swept from their lives, for the better – or worse
I blame the White Rabbit: “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Pocket watch in hand, glasses perched on nose, the furry figure’s anxiety reinforced the authority figures in my daily life – parents, teachers – whose control over my tender years convinced me that being late was a crime, a sin, a failing, a fault. The one sure way that a child could incur the wrath of adults. And it could have unpleasant consequences, too: a detention or an outing cancelled. So “hurry, hurry” has always been the mantra driving my way of life, making sure I didn’t miss the train, the curtain-up, the opening speech – life itself.
In later years I realised I didn’t have to obey this inner drive. What made the difference? As I ventured cautiously on to the underground in the weeks after a hip operation, I found everyone rushing. What’s more, they were all rushing at exactly the same pace, keeping up a regular rhythm, keen to get there, wherever “there” was. Someone like myself, treading slowly and purposefully, was simply an obstruction. People swerved and pushed past me: irritated, rude, hurrying to their train, hurrying through life. Not me. I am now the person who takes the lift at railway stations, who defers to pushy people elbowing ahead in the shopping queues. I arrive early for trains and flights, just so I don’t have to hurry. I take pleasure in browsing the concourse, surveying the magazine stall, checking the departure schedules.
The Welsh poet WH Davies nailed the problem: “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare?” Yes, plenty of care and not enough time, that’s the truth.
How is it that so many of us load our lives with cares? Is it through choice or necessity? In my case I confess to both: I can scarcely pick up a magazine or watch a television programme without wanting to try out that recipe, visit that seashore, rearrange the furniture. Off I rush to buy those ingredients, book the train and shuffle the cushions. None of this is necessary. So it must be choice. But it doesn’t feel like that. It has to be intrinsic to my nature, not planned, and not needed, but a choice that is somehow responding to some deep-seated drive. Hurry up there, hurry along!
As to necessity, well, look around. Urban life is scarcely possible without hurrying to fulfil all that needs to be done. All that washing, dressing, eating, washing up, tidying, cleaning, shopping, gardening, washing – and we haven’t started to earn a living yet. So hurry up! Tumbling into the world, there is all that travelling, arriving, greeting, briefing, ordering, writing, meeting, agreeing, disagreeing (this takes longer). Add on the pleasure element: greeting (different people this time) online, on Twitter, dining, visiting, enjoying, sharing … when will it ever end? Sleep comes as a blessing.
Lately I have formulated some rules to limit hurrying. Is it seriously possible to do less of everything? Cut out some things entirely, and do essential things in a more perfunctory way. Who needs to iron clothes or wipe dishes? These are the fetishes of a disciplined childhood. Indeed much of urban life is organised to help you: online shopping, bulk buying, bulk cooking and freezing, drip-dry fabrics, Deliveroo. But this brings me up against an unavoidable truth.
Somewhere deep inside I probably enjoy all this hurrying. I even enjoy complaining about it. I suspect that it makes me feel needed, wanted, fulfilled. I could, after all, move to the countryside, and live the simple life of a patch of ground and a few chickens. How unhurried that could be. Following the seasons, watching the stars, measuring each moment in the cycles of nature – buds opening, leaves falling.
But wait! Why not plant some vegetables, keep a sheep or two, pick some hedgerow fruit, make some jam. And if I hurry I can catch the one bus a day into the local town, have tea and scones with those new friends and stay on to catch the choir singing in the cathedral.
Yes, I’m afraid it’ll be a hurried life wherever I am.
July 18, 2022 at 11:44AM Joan Bakewell