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Timely addictions

11 August 2017


BEING early is an addiction. The buzz it gives you — whether it be a sense of power or moral superiority — is too pleasurable to relinquish. You may tell yourself that you are in control, that you can choose to be late, but you know deep down that you can’t help yourself.

Ian McMillan is an addict, and we heard in I’m Here Where Are You? (R4, Wednesday of last week) about his attempts to kick the habit. Being a performer and broadcaster means that he exists in a world in which time-keeping is a central preoccupa­­tion, and yet meanwhile hav­ing to cope with co-workers who may take a very different approach to time.

A colleague in McMillan’s band is compulsively late; and the pro­gramme concluded with a failed attempt at synchronisation. It is one of the curious features of musicians that they can manage to keep a regular beat for long stretches and negotiate complex rhythms, but they can’t manage to arrive at a re­­hearsal on time.

A cognitive psychologist ident­ified the traumatic origin of Mc­­Millan’s behaviour as a gig in 1982, when he and his band were so late that their arrival was met by ironic cheers followed by stony silence.

By con­­trast, the social psychologist Oliver Burkeman told him that it’s a form of passive aggression, a strategy for pleasing people while at the same time judg­­ing them. McMillan linked his obsession to his father’s Navy up­­bringing. And the only conclusion that was satisfactor­ily drawn from all these theories was that it’s a lot better to be early than late.

Whatever our time-keeping skills, I imagine most of us once in a while dream of breaking out of the mun­dane oppression of time and space, getting behind the wheel of a heavy-goods vehicle, and taking to the road. For souls such as these, the lure of The Compass: On the Black Sea: Truckers (World Service, Wed­­nes­day of last week) will have been irresistible.

Tim Whewell’s documentary took us on a journey across the Black Sea from Odessa in Ukraine to Batumi in Georgia, in the company of truckers from as far afield as Syria, Poland, Russia, and Armenia: men — and one woman — who traverse unimaginable distances with cargoes ranging from dill to dishwashers. We met one Turkish trucker who used to drive from Russia to Saudi Arabia, until the recent Turkish-Russian tensions rendered some borders impassable; and another from Poland who was transporting cheese to Kazakhstan.

I could have spent an entire pro­­gramme in their company; but Whewell’s programme is part of a series exploring this region; and his account moved on to Abkhazia, the region on the eastern Black Sea, which, though not recognised widely as such, is de facto an in­­dependent state. For its inhabit­ants, whose ancestors were forced to migrate in the mid-19th century, the Black Sea is not the exciting, dynamic hub of cultural exchange, but a symbol of evil. The fish feasted on our drowned forefathers, one Abkhaz declared darkly.

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