A wait on our minds
Lateness is imbued with glamour for some people, but they face a ticking-off from Marianne Kavanagh
During the week, people who turn up late for anything have the grace to look flustered, like the White Rabbit in fear of execution. But at the weekend, latecomers expect to be forgiven. Like Tony Blair, they smile but don’t look the least bit sorry.
This can be galling if, to be on time, you have left home halfway through the rugby match, abandoned a longed-for cup of tea, or used bribery and corruption to get small children bathed and in bed. You expect a medal; instead you’re rewarded with a cold wait on a street corner.
“What really annoys me are the excuses,” says a friend who wants to remain nameless. “It’s worse than ‘my dog ate my homework’. I don’t want to hear about the baby-sitter’s flu, or the burst water pipe, or the flat tyre. I just wish they’d be honest and say they couldn’t be bothered to be there on time. At least then I wouldn’t be expected to sympathise.”
At weekends, we’re supposed to be so focused on relaxation that we bury our watches under the sofa cushions. “From Monday to Friday, everyone is living by their diaries,” says Jo Aitchison, author of Debrett’s Correct Form. “There seems to be a different set of rules at the weekend. People like to set their own pace.
“But you have to remember that there is no such thing as fashionably late. If you’re invited for dinner at 8pm, you must be there by 8.30pm — and preferably by 8.15pm. If you’re meeting one other person who has to sit on his or her own for ages, you have a window of just 15 minutes.”
The trouble is that lateness is imbued with glamour, as if only those with sad little lives are bothered about being on time. “Punctuality,” Evelyn Waugh once said, “is the virtue of the bored.”
Mobile phones make everything worse. Inveterate laggards keep you informed of their progress, as if this will somehow make up for a Saturday-night dinner slowly reduced to charcoal in the oven. “My sister is always late,” says Miranda, “but updates me with bulletins every five minutes. By the time she arrives, I feel as if I’ve done the whole journey with her.” No one wants to spend the weekend clock-watching. Some events like oldfashioned parties — the ones that drift, in a state of amiable inebriation, into the small hours — never start on time. Any arrangement that involves toddlers also has to be flexible. Small people cannot be hurried and have to stop every five minutes to admire weeds, brick walls and stray dogs. Equally, you have to be realistic. You can’t expect teenagers to turn up for
anything earlier than lunch at the weekend. Their hormones dictate that they lie all morning deep under duvets, like long-buried skeletons. You also have to be aware that early-morning appointments — squash games, communal dog-walking, going to church — are much tougher on some than others.
Dr Simon Archer, lecturer in neuroscience at Surrey University, says: “People have different underlying body clocks which lead to ‘diurnal preferences’. You’re a morning type or an evening type. Evening people have spent the week getting up early for work but still staying up late, and end up with a sleep debt. They tend to lie in at weekends to catch up.”
But once you’ve taken these biological and hormonal differences into account, lateness boils down to habit. Dawdlers always underestimate travelling time, even though everyone knows that on Sundays traffic cones will appear as if by magic and railways will grind to a halt. Ditherers also try to cram too much in before they leave — phoning Australia, putting on six coats of mascara or combing the cat.
There are even those who have got used to the feeling of power that being late gives them. “My husband’s boss thinks the evening can’t start without him,” says a frustrated hostess. “He makes us wait so that we realise how important he is.”
You can, of course, play with arrangements to allow for hopeless time-keeping. “We have friends who are always late,” says a colleague. “So we say a film starts at 7.30pm when it’s really 8.30pm to make sure they arrive when we do.” One friend, who despairs of her boyfriend ever being on time, has set all her clocks 15 minutes fast. But this backfires. “He wanders about looking confused, saying: ‘Is that real time or our time?’”
But you live in hope that the worst offenders will see the error of their ways. “For years, I was always late,” says Louise. “I was for ever turning up flustered and hot, full of apologies and excuses. Then one day I realised that I was putting myself at a huge disadvantage, because everyone was always cross with me. So I made a huge effort to be on time. And I’m much happier as a result.”
The moral of the story is: if you want your friends to have a good weekend too, don’t keep them waiting.
Get me to the church some time: Hugh Grant and Charlotte Coleman being fashionably late in the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Top: the clock at Waterloo Station