Life in the slow lane is not all it is cracked up to be

Slowness is a question of saving and savouring what is local and special to your own area
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The Independent Online

It is the time of year when even the less meditative of us can catch ourselves wondering what life is all about. On holiday, enjoying a long weekend, a glass of something cold and lightly alcoholic resting in your hand, your defences are down and into the fuzzy vacuum of your mind drifts that terrible, familiar thought. Of course, this is what it is all about. The rest is busy nonsense. Those old hippies were on to something. Turn off your mind, relax and float. Slow down. Take it easy.

It is the time of year when even the less meditative of us can catch ourselves wondering what life is all about. On holiday, enjoying a long weekend, a glass of something cold and lightly alcoholic resting in your hand, your defences are down and into the fuzzy vacuum of your mind drifts that terrible, familiar thought. Of course, this is what it is all about. The rest is busy nonsense. Those old hippies were on to something. Turn off your mind, relax and float. Slow down. Take it easy.

It is an unsettling moment, which briefly seems to threaten the foundations on which you have built a perfectly acceptable life: modest ambition, enlightened selfishness, capitalism of the gentle, caring kind. Fortunately, within moments of taking the first telephone call on your return to work, the old priorities will soon have effortlessly reasserted themselves.

But shaking off hippyish holiday musings has just become more difficult. A movement called Citta Slow, which embodies the principle of enjoying the everyday qualities of life by taking everything at a slower pace, has spread from an Italian town called Bra throughout Europe. Challenging the obsession with hurry and instant gratification, the philosophy of slowness covers most aspects of social and personal life, from shopping to driving, from food to sex, from medicine to bringing up children.

Rather belying these principles, slow activists turn out to extraordinarily dynamic. All over the world, they have won converts to their way of thinking, recruiting towns to the cause of slowness, inspiring books and academic studies. In his recent In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, Carl Honoré quotes approvingly the words of a leading slow thinker from Bra: "The main thing is not to become obsessed with time. In a Slow City, you have the license to relax, to think, to reflect on the big existential questions."

For anyone who leads a moderately busy life, a little of this stuff can go a long way. By the time Honoré has explained the joys of enjoying a three-hour blow-out in an Italian restaurant, has excitedly revealed how a group of Australians who disapprove of others breaking the speed limit now act as "mobile speed bumps" by driving slowly and holding up traffic, and has celebrated the joys of slow tantric sex - "Earth-shattering orgasms are just part of the pay-off" - many readers will be tapping their watches.

But slowism might well have the last laugh. My local town in Norfolk has just announced that it is applying for slow status. "Diss is ready to take a place at the forefront of an international 'good living' movement'," the local paper reported. Professor Paul Knox, an American academic travelling Europe to study slowness in action, has paid a visit, pronouncing that we have "a convivial and sociable environment, subtly creating opportunities for people to bump into each other".

At first I thought this must be some kind of joke. People from Norfolk are already among world leaders when it comes to slowness. We may not be so strong on the big existential questions but few visitors wandering our streets on a market day or waiting to be served in one of our shops would deny that here slow activism has been taken as far as it can possibly go without actually stopping altogether.

Yet it turns out that Honoré, Professor Knox and the good people of Bra may be on to something rather important. A review published this week of business entries of the past decade in the Yellow Pages has revealed that a certain self-pampering slowness has been taking hold. There are 5,200 per cent more aromatherapists than there were ten years ago, 1,780 per cent more cosmetic surgeons, 829 per cent more reflexologists. On the other hand greengrocers have declined in number by 59 per cent, butchers by 40 per cent and hardware shops by 34 per cent.

There are two types of slowness, in other words. A time-saving weekly trip to a large supermarket may be a mind-numbing and anti-social experience but it allows a person more time for a bit of new age cosseting or therapy. On the other hand, a trip to the greengrocer, the butcher and the local hardware shop, selling local produce, acting as part of the community and providing those famous opportunities to bump into one another, will not only be slow but could involve more effort. It is also, as the Citta Slow philosophy argues, an important part of enjoying life.

Slowness is less a question of acting as mobile road bump or taking all day to complete the straightforward business of making love than of saving and savouring what is local and special to your own area. One way to do that is to make a stand against big, moneyed corporate blandness by shopping whenever possible at small local shops - which anyway tend to sell better produce with fewer chemicals and often at a cheaper price than supermarkets.

A high street full of the bells and smells of alternative therapy but no butcher or greengrocer is one where the cult of speed, and the poison of supermarket power, has won a grim victory.

Terblacker@aol.com

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