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Time rich/time poor, or soon come, island time
  1. I D Wacogne
  1. Ian Wacogne is a consultant in general paediatrics at Birmingham Children’s Hospital

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When does the bus get here? The answer varies depending on where in the world you are. In some parts of Europe you’ll get an answer accurate to the minute. In others you may hear “Mañana”—tomorrow, which as little orphan Annie observed, is always a day away. In Jamaica the question will be followed by a long, thoughtful drag on a cigarette, a glance into the distance, and then the enigmatic “soon come ...” In the South Pacific, the explanation “island time” is used to cover both lateness and earliness.

Ask the question in the UK and again, the answer depends on your whereabouts. In some places you’ll be regarded as the nutter with whom no one wants to sit because you have broken some sort of silence taboo. Other places the only person who will answer will be the nutter, and you’ll be on the receiving end of a tirade, either about the lateness of the buses reflecting everything that is wrong with the world, or perhaps the fact that spectacles are an instrument of evil, depending on the type of nutter you ask.

Time poverty is not a new concept but is one which has crept further into our over-busy consciousness. It gives us permission to be short-fused and bad-tempered when someone—intentionally or otherwise—slows us down. Lateness is never just a fact of life, but rudeness; a poor speaker at a course isn’t an opportunity to reflect on something else, but an insult to our intelligence; the “did not attend” has disrupted the smooth flow of our clinic rather than give us some breathing and thinking space.

At medical school one year, the dean decided to see each of us for a short interview. Being towards the end of the alphabet I was prepared for him to be running late, and when my turn came he saw me rapidly tucking away a paperback of questionable merit—some nonsense or other. We talked about it for a while, how he would only hear worthy answers like “Ulysses” or “Plato’s Republic” in response to queries about recent books read in interviews. And he told me that he felt it “of Utmost Importance to read ten pages of absolute drivel before going to sleep every night.” (As an aside, some years later, in a strange, sanity straining coincidence, I was following this advice when I came across him as a character, name and all, in the Inspector Morse novel I was reading ...)

People sometimes tell me that they have no time for various trivial things. They fall asleep if they read, they have no time for TV. The difficulty with this—and I know because it is often true of me—is that the fact that you are time-poor conveys itself to everyone you meet. “I’m busy, and by implication terribly important, and can only spare you a certain amount of my precious time.” The real skill—rare enough that I’ve only met a few people with it—is to convey the impression that, despite your busyness, you still have infinite time for whoever you are with. To be in the presence of such a person is flattering indeed, and perhaps gives a hint of why they are so busy in the first place—since it is well known that if you want a job done, you should give it to the busiest person in the place.

On Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya, you cannot buy even a bottle of water without a carefully constructed, and utterly inconsequential conversation with the shopkeeper, lasting a good few minutes. Anything less is regarded as extreme rudeness, and you are unlikely to get your water. My own inconsequential conversations are usually with children in clinics, on subjects like how they are going to fill the void, having finished reading the latest Harry Potter (usually by starting again at the beginning) or how my use of the word “cool” is now hopelessly passé. I’m reminded why I enjoy spending time with children, and I’m forced to adapt to their pace for a while. Maybe one day I’ll be asked about this “waste” of my time to someone with a clipboard and stopwatch. Hopefully I can convince them that by occasionally going a little slower you actually get quite a lot more done. It also makes it more fun to come to work, and takes most of us back to the reason we entered paediatrics in the first place.

I’ve spoken with many people who bitterly regret the time poverty—past and present—in their lives. It is very hard to see how not to fall into the trap, except perhaps sometimes to live our lives a little bit on island time, or to occasionally mutter, under our breaths, “soon come”.

And incidentally, if anyone is wondering, yes this does count as one page towards today’s ten page total ...

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