Like countless others, I’m a serial latecomer. Unlike many however, I’m proud of it. On Wednesday mornings, I stride into my 9AM lecture, late, equipped with whatever caffeinated beverage made me late; spurred on by the lecturer’s disapproving gaze. This routine is like clockwork, but underneath the repeated flustered entries is my subtle rebellion against modern society’s almost ritualistic fixation on time. Amongst friends, I’m consistently and predictably the last to arrive to any gathering. Lateness carries with it a heap of disparaging baggage. Dilatory folk are denigrated, diagnosed with tardiness and the sin of sloth.
Like Lewis Carroll’s famous White Rabbit, latecomers are seen as fidgety and panicked, paradigms of selfcentred thinking. Punctuality, on the other hand, is consistently framed in terms ranging from the heroism of last-minute rescues in movies to the revered timeliness of the Tokyo Metro. Although punctuality in our public institutions is definitely laudable, beneath this dichotomy is a narrative which clothes late individuals with irrationality, negligence and selfishness. But this narrativisation is hardly consistent with the day-to-day reality of young people and students faced with inflexible deadlines and stubborn commitments, which leave no freedom to privilege the things that matter to us.
In TS Eliot’s 1910 poem ‘Preludes’, he sketches a morose picture of a society dictated by time, portraying “short square fingers stuffing pipes” at “four and five and six o’clock.” It’s difficult to not see the connection to student lives, centred around timetables and pulled in multiple directions by the conflicting desires of sleep, social lives and success. Being late is an act of individual protest, a deliberate and radical commitment to selfcare when it is needed most. Last year, after taking a break from social media, I found myself arriving late to many events. The constant demands of our 24/7 social media lifestyle actually make being timely harder to achieve. As a practical work-life balance becomes increasingly elusive, tolerating lateness is merely another means of affording flexibility.
Lateness is also a symptom of our complicated lives, the consequence of one snooze too many on early mornings or a chance encounter with an old friend turning into an impromptu detailed catch-up. In modern supply chain management, ‘Just-In-Time’ or JIT is a principle which seeks to cut costs and wastage by promoting the production or delivery of finished goods ‘just in time’ to be sold. Lean production reigns supreme in the commercial world. But a rigid and blind adherence to JIT has clearly transcended the commercial world into the social, constructing a business-cumsociety where individuals are habitual packages on a mechanised supply chain which traverses work, uni and home.
But unlike JIT, the clutter and wastage in a business supply chain has no parallel with relationships, passions and self-care. All too often, a faultless adherence to punctuality discards more diverse, flexible and proactive uses of our time. Perhaps we ought to recall that although Peter Parker was consistently late in the Spiderman universe, it was ultimately because he was juggling all of his obligations. Like the masked menace, it’s okay if we’re late too.