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Punctuality - nature or nurture?

Punctuality is much regarded in highly organised societies. There is great admiration for the man or the woman ‘you could set your clock by’.

In agricultural circles there are certain farms where the rhythm of life is metronomic in its adherence to time, where even the cows know what time to come home. On other farms you could find the cows in the parlour at any time of the day or night, in such places they refer to the ‘first and second’ milking rather than the ‘morning and evening’ milking.

My mother had a loose relationship with the clock. In fact when we’d make arrangements to meet our cousins they’d ask if the time of our arrival was set in accordance with Greenwich Mean Time or ‘Aunty Eily time’. It’s hard to blame the poor woman for rejecting the tyranny of the clock; the needs of a clatter of children and a heap of farm work had to be squeezed into every hour and minute of the day.

I remember once, as she hooshed us into Sunday mass after a journey from home that would leave Niki Lauda breathless, a man behind us said, “You know you’re late when the O’Briens are going in ahead of you.”

I think I inherited my mother’s relationship with time. In one of my previous existences I worked in Italy as a tour guide where I dealt with Irish tourists, Italian hoteliers and Austrian coach drivers. I broke the Austrians’ hearts at our various stops along the way. Leading my merry band of tourists from the bus I would arrange with the drivers the time and place for the pick-up. The chauffeurs would invariably raise their Tyrolean eyebrows and ask if the time in question was Irish or Swiss.

I developed something of a reputation for cutting things fine when it came to punctuality, and tended not to disappoint in my living up to the said reputation. That was until the current consort came along. Our contrasting relationship with the clock continues to be the cause of many a skirmish. She claims she was never late for anything until she met me and I admit was never on time for anything until I met her.

In fact, one of the many things she discovered about me after we threw in our lot together was that I have an ongoing minor health issue that is of little consequence once it is regularly monitored. This involves a brief six monthly check up. When she learned I was five years late for my last appointment I was dispatched post haste to Dublin and haven’t missed an appointment since. It was never her intention to hitch her wagon to a self-destructive crock.

Of course, those with a reputation for punctuality are not necessarily virtuous in every other respect. After 20 years in power the only good thing Italians could find to say about Benito Mussolini was that he made the trains run on time.

Closer to home I’m reminded of the moment, on January 16, 1922, when the British Viceroy, Lord FitzAlan prepared to hand over Dublin Castle to the new Irish Free State in the person of Michael Collins. FitzAlan is reputed to have chastised Collins for being seven minutes late. To which Collins is supposed to have replied, “After 700 years we won’t begrudge you the seven minutes.” Many doubt this exact exchange took place since Collins and his colleagues from the Provisional Government were in fact an hour and a half late for the ceremony.

While some claim punctuality is a quality one is born with, others say it’s a habit that requires nurture and a discipline that takes a certain amount of rigour to impose.

It might come as a surprise to learn that the great Mahatma Gandhi was the ultimate stickler for time. He saw it as a precious gift and not ours to waste, believing the wise and disciplined use of time to be a moral imperative. He lived by his watch and obeyed a very strict timetable, a practice he believed kept him free from distraction and enabled him to be completely present to whatever task was timetabled for that moment.

When he was assassinated, among his few earthly possessions was a watch attached to his garments by safety pin and string. The watch stopped the moment he was shot.

I was contemplating all these things when the current consort enquired as to what I was writing about this week,

“Punctuality,” I answered.

“What, pray tell, would you know about it?” she asked.

I was tempted to quote Evelyn Waugh who described punctuality as ‘the virtue of the bored,’ but I didn’t, did I?

First published in the Farming Independent, Tuesday, April 13th 2021

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