A fascinating article from the Times.....
August 27, 2007
I’d love to live a more rounded life, but I’m too flat out
Someone said something amazing to me last week. I was trying to arrange a business lunch with an acquaintance of mine – a big-shot record producer, web entrepreneur and social maven – and he said: “I can do any day that week, really. I haven’t got much on at the moment.”
I was so astonished by what he’d said that my mouth went all strange. I gabbled “I, er, er, er, er, better look at the calendar and call you back! Bye!” and then hung up, in some state of discombobulation. Hadn’t got much on at the moment? Any day that week? What did he mean? No one says things like that any more. He was talking like some crazy throwback. He might just as well be saying: “I’m off to catch a zeppelin to Constantinople.”
No one has “not much on at the moment” these days. That’s just a 21st-century fact. Talk to a stay-at-home mum at the school gates – dropping her kids off for the next six hours – and she’ll tell you that her life is currently “a bit hectic”.
People with perfectly normal office jobs are “flat out”. People with slightly more demanding jobs are “not even putting my head above the parapet before Christmas”. Even my dole-scum relatives – whose lives revolve around the sofa, the microwave and the dodgy baccy man – still talk of “fitting things in” and “things being a bit mental at the mo”. Although, of course, for the one on Incapacity Benefit for psychotic and schizo-phrenic tendencies, that’s obviously just a factual statement.
And if you ring up someone “in demand” – a celebrity, businessman or politician – and ask their “people” for some “face time”, they just laugh hysterically and put the phone down.
I think that, currently, you’re allowed to say a single, well-chosen word to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie before being whisked out of the hotel suite. Then their “people” fax you their answer, later.
Everyone is time-poor. Everyone is rushing around. I dare say there are tramps in Central London who are booked up until mid-September. No one will admit that they had quite a quiet week last week. That something got cancelled at the last minute on Friday, and they spent all day on Facebook, popped to the gym, and then went home to play Grand Theft Auto in their pants.
As part of the work ethic bashed into us during the Thatcher years, it has become morally suspect to be anything other than rushed off our feet. Most people would rather develop some disease that makes them smell of fish than admit to sizeable tracts of free time. Being unengaged is worse than being poor, fat, friendless, or having a borderline Asperger’s-like recall of the life, career and great thoughts of Balearic DJ Danny Rampling and his Manumission posse. In that order.
But of course, it’s not the implicit moral superiority that has made busyness so universal. After all, you could claim instant moral superiority simply by reusing a plastic bag, and we’re still being apathetic about that.
No. Busyness is so popular because it’s the magic ticket to doing whatever the hell you want. You have carte blanche to live a wholly selfish life, if you have a full enough diary. And just like some life decision that allows you infinite recourse to shout “And no returns!”, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Take society. You know, you simply don’t need to bother with society if you’re “busy”. Lonely old lady next door? Toddler group that could do with more helpers? Pool tournament need arranging for troubled youths? Obviously somebody needs to go and do these things – and probably quite urgently, judging by that odd, stair-falling sound that came from the old lady’s house last night – but it’s not going to be someone who’s chockablock until mid-Oct, earliest, is it?
Likewise, your family and friends. Obviously in an ideal world you would go and visit your mother every weekend – but do you know what’s standing between me and you, Mum. Munich. Crewe. And this three-day “thing” that’s just too tedious to tell you about. If you plaintively ask me again to come and see you, it will be borderline abuse. I might burn out on your doorstep, and have to go to the Priory.
You can weasel out of rotas with a rueful “I’m snowed under”. The absence of a birthday present can be unarguably explained with an almost cheerful “I’m so busy! I forgot!” Inform people of your busyness early on in a conversation – effectively win the battle of who is the most in demand – and it gives you an almost Godlike ability to dictate the terms of your relationship for the next ten years.
There are people of my acquaintance who established their debilitating busyness so early on that they have never yet had to pick up their own children from school, cook a meal, answer a text message within 48 hours, turn up on time, or talk about anyone apart from themselves.
Additionally, when someone “super-busy” deigns to actually talk to you, you’re apt to feel so pathetically grateful and “chosen” that you eagerly agree with everything they say, try to stop them fiddling with their BlackBerries by repeatedly telling them how amazing it is to see them, and leap up to get their coffee to maximise your time-slot.
In short, being busy gives you nearly every life advantage that celebrity does, but without the hassle of the paparazzi. No wonder everyone is so keen to appear frantically occupied.
Even if they are just on the phones to their mums, lying about how busy they are, and attending to a “poking” backlog on Facebook.