Driven by distraction

Sam Neill

29 Nov 2014

If I could have your attention for just one minute please… if you would… all right, half a minute would be fine then, if that’s all you’ve got. If I might ask, exactly how distracted are you? Do you have, like me, the concentration span of a mosquito? Can you get to the end of this article without wondering what leftovers are in the fridge, if QI is on the telly tonight, or if indeed it is Thursday at all?

I ask this because we have some of what ‘experts’ call Attention Deficit Disorder in my family. One son was diagnosed as such, and I am probably somewhat distrait. But here’s the thing — while I accept there is such a thing as ADD, I am more inclined to see it as an Order than a Disorder. And I don’t accept that it’s a new phenomenon, caused by white sugar or X-rays or Atari. I think there have been people like that forever; that’s the way it is.

One theory that makes sense is this — there has always been a certain percentage of the population like this because, as a survival mechanism, the tribe needed some of their number to be like meerkats. Forever alert and on guard, easily distracted out of the corner of the eye by the smallest movement of a predator, they helped keep their group safe. The downside being that they were not much use for other jobs, such as building shelters or even cooking a mastodon.

This, I imagine, is where your Asperger’s caveman came in. If you needed someone only too happy to rub two sticks together for three or four hours to make the fire, there’s your man. And the OCD chap who would keep the fire exactly how a fire should be for days on end. So, not so much disorders as Darwinian imperatives. Of course, too much distraction in one room can be diverting.

ME (stern): Now look, son. This school report of yours. We need a serious talk here. I have to say I am really disappoin-

BOY (blinking): School? What school?

ME (irritated): Well, your school… what’s it called again? You know, the outrageously expensive co-ed boarding whatnot.

BOY (penny drops): Oh, yeah. (thinks) Dad. Is it Su-ba-ru? Or Su-BA-ru?

ME (gritting teeth): No idea. Now this report. Apparently…

BOY (pointing wildly): Aaaaaagh! Dad! Look behind you! Aaagh!

ME: Oh, don’t be bloody silly…

BOY: No, Dad ! Seriously! A HUGE spider!

ME (turning): Oh, come on… Aaaaagh!

BOY: Aaagh!

ME (getting a grip): Its OK. OK. Only a huntsman. Perfectly harmless Australian spider. (Sitting right back down) Right, where were we…

At this point, the boy breaks wind loudly. The room rapidly clears, and the report is forgotten and never mentioned again.

I imagine similar conversations have been had for thousands of years. And, while we’re at it, did you see those marvellous cave paintings on Sulawesi are now dated at 40,000 years old? Staggering.

But it makes sense that some proportion of our population have had some creative impulse for as long as we have made fire. An urge to tell a story by that fire — there lies the beginnings of literature. And theatre — the graphic performance of that story by the same blaze. In the cave our ancestors made their home, the burning branch served as footlights, as well as projecting shadow-play on the walls behind, which in turn became an art gallery of sorts.

Culture, come to think of it, is perhaps the result of a deep need in all of us to be distracted. Distracted from the things that make us fearful — once it was tigers and Neanderthals. God only knows how much distraction we need right now — from Ebola, bloody Iraq yet again, a panicky stock market, the real possibility of a third Bush president: you name it. Has someone switched the recycle button on the news? If so, turn it off right now — we’ve seen it before, we know how it ends and none of it’s good. The telly is, of course, the fire we all huddle around these days. Take distracting comfort there, and while you’re at it be so good as to watch Peaky Blinders— BBC2, I’m in it. Catch up, for heaven’s sake, if you somehow missed it, it only gets better. Or did your smartphone catch your attention? Don’t get me started…

Acting — everyone needs a job that suits, and for the mildly distracted like myself, one could not imagine a better fit. There is always someone saying ‘Cut’ and ‘Let’s move on’. On to the next thing. Perfect. Time to catch the plane to somewhere else. At present, I am working in Malta, and not for the first time. I once counted the countries I’d worked in and it came to over 30. That was a few years ago: allow me a recount. Let’s see now… oh wait, look, the cricket is on. Let me get back to you.


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