Tales of the City: Midnight? Must be time for supper

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The Independent Online

How do you fancy doing the supermarket run at 9pm, going out to dinner at 1am, and getting a babysitter in from 5am to 8am because that's when you'll be out at your hair appointment? Horrible prospects, but that's how life will be by 2020, according to the Future Foundation.

Its report, "The Shape of Things to Come", looks at what "the 24/7 culture" is doing to our lives, and concludes that we're going to start cramming in more shopping, socialising, housework and going to the dry cleaners between 6pm and 9am. In 16 years' time, 13 million people will be what they quaintly call "financially active" in the stilly watches of the night. I am not talking about prostitutes here, nor about milk-delivery operatives. I mean all of us.

For city dwellers, there's nothing very new about this concept. We parted company long ago with the idea of work happening from nine to five, and the evening being a four-hour adagio movement of the evening paper, family supper, TV, children's bathtime, slippers, Newsnight and the new PD James on A Book at Bedtime.

We aren't like that. We're to be found beside the root-vegetable counter of Sainsbury's at 8pm, wondering if pre-sliced carrot batons would be better than pre-chopped leek roundels in the Gordon Ramsay recipe you'll be giving your guests in an hour. (Have you noticed that dinner parties are getting later? Invite people for eight, and they'll show up at nine, hang around in the kitchen until you shoo them upstairs, eat at 10.30pm and stay till 2am arguing about Michael Moore.)

Cramming in a social life at ridiculous hours has been commonplace in European for years. In Madrid, no grown-up goes out to dine in a restaurant before 10pm. In Ireland, since the price of drinks sky-rocketed, couples leave it later and later to pop out to the pub so they won't get stuck buying rounds for hours. Some don't leave their houses to visit their drinking pals until after midnight.

Now, it's happening here. Me and my friends' teenage children wouldn't dream of setting out for a wild evening before 10.30pm. I get morning e-mails from people saying: "Sorry not to have replied, but this is the only time of day I can think straight," and they were sent at 1.48am. More and more people field phone calls from their American counterparts after 8pm. I know a Kiwi businessman who holds meetings with his senior executives at 3am (midday their time), then takes the afternoon off, his day's work done.

Somewhere between the Sunday shopping and 24-hour shopping revolutions, and the fact that you can buy air tickets on the internet before any travel agents are awake in London, we're dipping toes into all kinds of uncharted temporal waters - walking dogs at 4am, like Kevin Spacey, and starting work on a report as the day is breaking (imagine, we tell ourselves, how satisfied we'll feel when it's finished by nine). We may have to learn new patterns of behaviour: supper parties that start at midnight, afternoon siestas, all-thro'-the-nite car repairs...

The strange thing is, we can all see the New Flexitime coming, and we welcome it, but we don't like it - 58 per cent of the Future Foundation's sample thought the 24/7 world would destroy family life. We aren't going to stop it because we secretly enjoy feeling that our lives are creatively frantic and bustling with can-do energy. We're proud of filling every unforgiving minute, of bragging like Mrs Thatcher that we can get by on four hours a night.

We are all temporal masochists now. We are embracing a world of un-relaxing leisure and un-switch- offable work that will leave us more stressed and anxious than any other generation, and we're conniving at our own exhaustion. It's enough to give you sleepless nights...

Sing a song of po-faced silliness

It's been a while since William Donaldson published The Henry Root Letters - missives supposedly from a member of the public anxious to enlist noted figures to support a series of crackpot causes, and buying their loyalty with a pound note. The responses were condescending, pitying, suspicious, hostile and mostly very funny.

Now that embarrassment humour is in vogue again (see Ali G, Trigger Happy TV, Dead Ringers), a new Root has appeared with The Timewaster Letters (out on Monday from Michael O'Mara Books). They're by Robin Cooper, and they are, I'm happy to say, terribly funny.

Mr Cooper had the bright idea of writing to a number of small but serious organisations, grossly misunderstanding their point and eliciting some wonderfully po-faced responses.

He writes to the Society of Indexers to ask if they want to write a feature article on his unusual living arrangements, in which his clothes are arranged alphabetically (coats on the left, waistcoats on the right) and is rebuffed: "There is a bit more to indexing than arranging items into order," the society sniffs. He writes to the former Archbishop of Canterbury for advice on how to start up "an entirely new world religion".

He tries to interest the Silhouette Collectors' Club in his Great Uncle Ted's collection of royal portraits (they turn out to be finger-shadow shapes). He offers a series of ever more unsuitable ideas to Dorling Kindersley children's books.

The letter to the Aluminium Foil Container Manufacturers Association (proposing that they sponsor his corporate song, which, to the tune of "My Darling Clementine", goes: "Oh my darling/ Oh my darling/ Oh my darling, tell the nation/ It's the Aluminium, Foil Container/ Manufacturers' Association") had me in stitches.

A genuinely funny book is as rare nowadays as a North Korean chat show. Mr Cooper is a real find.