Melanie McDonagh: Yes, patience is a virtue, but the reward is luxury

Like a good tomato, Kate Middleton shows the virtue of the long wait
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The Independent Online

There's a lot to like about this time of year, and this particular year especially. Easter's here, that brilliant combination of Christian and pagan festival; we have two whole bank holidays linked, for many people, by nine days off; the asparagus is in; and there's a party feeling around the royal wedding. These are things worth waiting for. Except we're not terribly good at waiting for things.

Patience is one of those virtues, along with chastity, that we don't really see the point of. But its rewards have one very good exemplar right now: Kate Middleton. The girl mocked as Waity Katie has found that patience pays off. She came to know Prince William in her first year of university; on Friday, at the age of 29, she marries him.

It's a triumph for the principle of biding your time, putting up with short-term hardship (if endless polo matches and the public sympathy of the pundits can be described as hardship) in order to bag your prince. If she is looking for a motto to go with that interesting coat of arms her father bought last week, the Latin equivalent of "hang on in there" ("per angusta in augusta?") would do the trick nicely.

Camilla and Charles, I suppose, are a less edifying example of the same principle. Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary defines patience as "a minor form of despair, disguised as virtue". That's probably how it seemed for them in the immediate post-Diana years. Actually, the Prince of Wales has had a lot to be patient about, one way or another: he's had to wait longer for the throne than anyone, what with the Queen, thank goodness, showing every sign of imitating the longevity of her own mother. What must be worse, no one else seems in any hurry to see an end to his ordeal; Edward VII must have felt much the same.

The roots of patience, the word, lie in the Latin for suffering, and in our culture, deferred gratification is just that. For the Twitter generation, the rule is instant communication, quick-fire opinion, one-click shopping. It doesn't like its revenge served cold, so much as piping hot. Yet most good things are worth waiting for, and trying for. Easter only has a point if it has been preceded by Lent – if you have been pigging out on chocolate for the past 40 days, then your Easter egg isn't going to taste as great as it does when you've Given Things Up. It's true of the seasons in general: if you anticipate Christmas by starting the celebrations with office parties in November, it somehow makes the 12 days of Christmas, starting on 25 December, seem like a bit of an anti-climax.

Nature is not in step with Twitter either, unless you're talking real birdsong. Trying to get the fruits of the season before the season itself – think of the vile, air-freighted strawberries you get when you can't wait for June – never really works. Which brings me to asparagus. You think that if you put some in the garden right now you might just get a late crop this year? Dream on. Asparagus needs two, even three years, before it starts to crop properly. Sow it now, and go away. Like all good things, its season, when it comes, is fleeting. After a month or so, it's gone. And imports from Peru don't count.

Gardening is in itself an exercise in patience. You put things down, and it takes for ever for them to come up unless you want mustard-and-cress. Wisteria, which is looking fabulous now, takes years to come to maturity. Our modern idea of gardening would be more on the lines of Jack and the Beanstalk: chuck the seeds out of the window, and lo, there's a beanstalk in the morning. The 21st-century version of that, admittedly less in evidence, post credit-crunch, is the buying-in of mature plants and trees for our little plots, or our workplace atriums, rather than growing them from seeds or cutting. It's expensive, and it's cheating.

That rush for gratification is one reason why we eat quite badly nowadays. A tomato left to ripen outside on the vine is, in taste, sublime. And that's because it's been left to develop its sugars in the sunlight, rather than untimely ripp'd from the vine and left to ripen in lorries and warehouses. It's one reason why Italian tomatoes are so very much better than ours: they leave them longer in the sun, simple as that.

The Slow Food Movement is all about patience, enduring the wait for what we want until the time is right. And it's not only lunch that may take several hours. It's about letting ingredients mature over time: cheese or ham that takes months and years to come to its best, wine that can take a decade, two decades, to mature, bread that takes 24 hours, not minutes, to prove. Patience is a cook's friend, yet one young woman who works for a well-known food magazine told me wistfully that all their recipes had to be do-able in half an hour or less. And this was before Jamie Oliver's 30-Minute Meals. It was with a kind of pang that I read one recipe the other day from Alice B Toklas, Gertrude Stein's companion and cook, who stole it from a grand French lady. It involved marinating a leg of mutton for eight days, and injecting it daily with cognac and orange juice. Eight. Days. Overnight is as much forward marinating as I do.

The principle behind virtue ethics, from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas, is that we are not patient by chance or nature. We "grow" it, as they say. We become patient by being patient, by practising forms of patience until it becomes habitual. Aquinas thought of patience as an anti-depressant: without it, in adversity we'd succumb to sadness, to depression. "A man is called patient", he says "... because he behaves himself commendably in suffering present hurts without inordinate sadness." In other words, we should put a brave face on, or simply put up with things, above all, annoyances from other people. Texting is a kind of counter-exercise in patience; it must diminish your capacity for it. Remember that line from Viola in Twelfth Night: "like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief"? It's the smiling that's the hard part.

Aristotle describes all virtues in terms of a perfect mean between one extreme and another: he placed patience as a mean between crabbiness and weediness. The sole thing to be said for the traffic jams of the Great British Bank Holiday Getaway is that they offer us abundant opportunities to exercise this virtue. There's the fine example of the people stuck in that fabulous traffic jam in the film The Italian Job who made the best of it, right down to the altar boys playing cards in the back seat of the car. Endurance is something most of us can just about manage on a good day; cheerful endurance is harder. The prisoner in The Count of Monte Cristo who spent years patiently scratching a tunnel out of his cell only to find that it only took him as far as the next cell, was a model to us all. He didn't utter one bad word when he found out.

Any kind of excellence takes practice, and practice takes patience. Malcolm Gladwell, the fashionable author-cum-social scientist, put a figure of 10,000 hours on the amount of practice you would have to do to become a virtuoso in any field. Unfortunately it's not all that it takes; God knows how many parents are making their children practise the piano for 20 hours a week for 10 years on the basis of Mr Gladwell's prescription. But that perseverance over time, at the expense of other pleasures, brings us right back to the association of patience with suffering. Catholics, faced with a minor annoyance, used to be told to "offer it up", which was also a training for dealing with bigger, harder things later on.

"I am extraordinarily patient", said Margaret Thatcher, not entirely joking, "provided I get my own way in the end." Patience is a way of holding out for good things, for our final objective, anything from getting on in politics, marrying a prince, eternal life, a wisteria in flower or a chocolate Easter bunny, preferably from Fortnum's, with really thick chocolate ears. In the case of the bunny, at least, it's worth the wait.