Right on time

    5 December 2015

    Are you habitually late for social events on the grounds that everyone knows how busy you are and that you will rock up eventually? Besides, you always text ahead to say you’re running late.

    Don’t relax. It’s not acceptable. And if you consider yourself a special case, then consider whether you care about being relegated to the B list. In 2015, party-givers both rural and urban are finding that there are too many names on their lists, and the obvious ones to cull are those of the flaky people they used to make allowances for.

    When recently viewing the guest list for a forthcoming Guinness celebration, for example, I queried the absence of mega-glamorous ‘X’ Guinness. ‘We’ve decided not to ask her,’ said Y Guinness. ‘She’s always so late. Last time dinner was over by the time she came and there was an empty space between Blah and Blah who everyone else had wanted to sit next to.’

    There is a half-baked assumption by those in high social demand that they can arrive late because they have to fit in so many engagements; and that, as with royalty, the other guests should be already assembled.

    Presumably, the Chancellor and Prime Minister are also in high demand on the social scene, but when Rachel Johnson and I arrived early for one Spectator summer party we found ourselves alone in the garden with Fraser Nelson, George Osborne and David Cameron. VIPs turn up on time to things because so many others will be inconvenienced if they don’t. Not just the host, but drivers, nannies, security guards etc. When interviewed (by me) in 2002 about her choice of a Subaru Forester for a runaround, Deborah Devonshire revealed that, most of the time she was sitting in it, the Subaru was immobile. ‘Andrew and I so dread being late for anything that we end up spending hours each week in lay-bys.’

    If you are early, you are wasting your own time; if you are late, you are wasting someone else’s.

    So if a VIP can be on time, why do so many VUPs — Very Unimportant People — swagger in late to dinner parties where soufflés will be spoiled, or to unveilings or celebrations where their late arrivals will disrupt the speech? Being late has become the hallmark of the loser.

    Don’t these people realise that their hosts are beginning to lose patience? One woman confided in me that she would love to have invited a certain chaotic (and impoverished) young couple to her house party in Italy for a week of luxury and planned outings, ‘but I know they wouldn’t get up on time and they would be late back to the jetty when it was time to go back to the mainland’.

    Of course, it can be maddening to be given a false deadline — Boris Johnson was once told he would be on stage at two instead of three for the Althorp literary festival. Earl Spencer had worried he might cut it too fine, otherwise, but think what the giant could have achieved in that wasted hour.

    Then there was the time an arts club in Notting Hill ‘gave’ a gig to a promising young singer. Nell was told she was going to perform at six and we all arrived promptly. At the door we were curiously subjected to full body and bag searches. They were looking for alcohol.

    After many false alarms, Nell was eventually invited to appear on stage at eight. Tough luck for her father, who had offered to buy everyone drinks to thank them for their loyal support in turning up. He ended up with a bar bill of £700 by the time the unexplained two-hour wait was over. This arts club uses this wheeze regularly.

    I’m just talking here about social lateness. It goes without saying that being late for a job interview would be absurdly self-sabotaging.

    Is lateness a sign of passive aggression? No. Idiocy and misguided image consciousness may account for perhaps 10 per cent of cases. Selfishness and solipsism for 20 per cent. But in around 70 per cent of cases it is simply a sign of being disorganised. Says my 21-year-old daughter: ‘Mobile phones have given people false confidence about timekeeping. Because you are looking at your mobile all the time and there is a clock on the screen, you feel you don’t need to check the time, and yet somehow you get clock-blindness. Then you suddenly find you are late.’