We want it and we want it now, but patience still has its own rewards

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It was the kind of situation most parents find themselves in, sooner or later. My son had a suspected wrist fracture, and we were at the local hospital checking it out. A sign in reception said the waiting time for non-emergency cases was three hours. A display screen overhead explained that, once a nurse had made an initial assessment, the case would be given a priority rating, one to four. We sat back, confident we must be high priority and would be seen before too long. We weren't. There was only one doctor on duty, and it was three hours before we reached her, bang on cue. Three hours, but it seemed like an eternity.

This isn't going to be a rant about the NHS (a service in which I continue to believe, even if it served us badly that night). What struck me afterwards, and has struck me recently in other public reception places, is how unused most of us are at being made to wait, and how useless we are as a result. I'm bad enough myself. My son - pacing the floor and muttering angrily under his breath - is even worse. That night he had an excuse: he was in pain. But even if he hadn't had an injury, he'd have been in pain, because of the delay.

The British, who once prided themselves on being a patient nation (and on being patient patients), have become impatient. Waiting means dead time, and we want to live what little time we have. Waiting means the dentist, or the job interview. Waiting means bureaucratic inefficiency and the suspicion that those in power are abusing us. It's not that people in previous ages enjoyed waiting. But they were, inevitably, more accustomed to it. And they weren't dangled the promise that's been held out to our age - that gratification can be immediate; that time need never be wasted or killed.

Flexitime is part of this. Once there were restricted times (pub opening hours, say, or Saturday nights) for pleasure and leisure; now most of these have disappeared. Greater mobility is a factor, too; the knowledge that we can travel from A to Z and skip all the boring bits in between. No more slow boats to China. London to Paris in three hours! London to New York in four hours! And none of that nasty business of having to feel you've gone a long way.

But it's the computer that has done most to create the instant world. The jargon used by those who sell PCs may be impenetrable to the uninitiated, but the key point about all that increased capacity, those bigger and bigger hard disk drives, those enhanced megabytes, is that they get us where we want to be faster: speedier access to information, reduced number of keystrokes, no hanging about. Time is money. What we pay for is instantaneity, or as near to it as we can come.

This is why private health-care schemes have flourished: not because those who pay think they're getting a better service, but because they will be treated more quickly. This is why e-mail and faxes threaten to make those who communicate by post look like Flat-Earthers. This is why, so recent research suggests, the time that office workers consider it acceptable to have to wait for a lift is shrinking year by year. The lure of instantaneity makes the rule of the queue hard to bear - hence a phenomenon like road rage, the revenge of the impatient on those they hold responsible for impeding them.

Now, it seems, it's only the poor who have to wait. The gulf between Western and Third World nations isn't (as it used to be) that we have television and radio and they don't; it's that, even where they do have the latest technology (Microsoft, CNN, Kalashnikovs), it's not a technology which can eliminate the waiting in besieged cities or refugee camps - the waiting for food, for water, for the chance to go home.

Once, waiting was a normal, expected activity, not a mark of suffering. One famous image of the First World War is of men patiently lining up to volunteer in 1914. The dominant image of the Second, which Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland helped popularise, is similarly immobile: Londoners huddling on Underground platforms during an air raid. Read the poems and journals of those two wars, and the story isn't of action but of inaction - of hours spent hanging about in tents, or in the trenches, waiting for the signal to go over the top, or for the codeword from the powers that be. Britain after the end of the Second World War, still enduring rations and privations, was a culture of extreme docility, with deferral and deference the norm. You knew your place, and that place was the queue. Politically, the ethos was of everyone working together to build a better peacetime world - which meant pretending not to see the string-pullers and queue-jumpers who weren't doing their bit at all. Spiritually, the ethos was of not expecting too much in this life, since God would reward us in the next. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is in part a satire on such servility. Godot, like tomorrow, never comes.

Those of us who were children in the Fifties and Sixties grew exasperated by the forbearance of our parents. We thought they'd been fobbed off, were too easily satisfied. We didn't believe it when we were told that such and such was "worth waiting for". We didn't trust the theory that things taste less sweet if they come too easy, "on a plate". We hated having to hang about - for the rain to stop, for friends to be "allowed out" to play, for the telephone box. We were impatient. We wanted it now.

Our own children are even more impatient. They have grown up with remote- control switches, and fast-track expectations, and an illusion of instant access and success. Telling them they have to wait, teaching them that they can't have everything, we hear ourselves boring on like our own parents , but without their conviction. When we were told we could have strawberries only around Wimbledon time, it was true. Now it isn't true any more. The old rhythms of the earth - each fruit to its appointed season - have been discarded.

Our kids, money allowing, can have most things, most of the time.

Perhaps this is the point of holidays: to regain some kind of humility by reminding ourselves that you can't always get things when you want them - that you sometimes have to wait. Several million people will have spent a good part of yesterday in suspended animation, waiting in airport lounges for their flight to be called or on motorways for a traffic jam to clear. And now they've reached their appointed destination, these same millions are going to spend the next fortnight hanging around still further: for the hottest fun-fair ride; for the tide to come in and fill the sand- castle moat; for the island ferry; for the last few malingerers to climb back on the sightseeing bus; for the waiter to bring the meals that were ordered what seems like several decades ago.

This is what is called winding down. It's true that most resolutions made on holiday - particularly those about adopting a less stressful lifestyle - are forgotten within a few days back at home. But holidays (even bad holidays) do have the advantage of dropping us somewhere we're forced to be at rest. Resting isn't the same as waiting - which can be the most unrelaxing inactivity in the world. But the patience that both demand is a necessary and almost forgotten virtue. For what's the great hurry, after all? There are only a limited number of things in this life we can hope to achieve, and we won't achieve those if we never raise our head from the tracks.

Spiritual grace may be hard to attain in a motorway queue, or on the beach, let alone in the doctor's reception. But we all have to start somewhere, and there are precious few places left now where there's no choice but to wait.