In past columns, I’ve lamented the modern obsession with “things to do before you die” lists, which oppress us all not just with the reminder that our time on earth is cruelly limited, but with the further bad news that we “must” watch a thousand films, visit a thousand beauty spots and so on, in order to have lived a full life. What with the continued pressures of a nationwide tour and a house-wide struggle to deal with an eight-month-old, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that I’ve made little progress on the “before I die” lists this year. But in the past week I’ve at least come to terms with one source of cultural authority, by finally watching the first episode of Mad Men, the American ad-agency drama set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which people seem to have been recommending to me pretty much since the 1950s.
I was disappointed: it’s really good. The last thing I need is something else good vying for my attention. If it had been irritating and overrated, I could have stopped worrying about the menacingly large box set awaiting my attention. But I already care about the characters and that means I’m going to have to watch the next episode as soon as I can, and before you know it I’ll be staring down the barrel of three of four “seasons” or however many of the damn things these intimidatingly prolific Americans have already made.
Then I’ll have to succumb at last to The Wire. The next thing will be admitting that I only ever saw about half of The Sopranos, and there you go – my life will disappear into a black hole of handsome people in braces, almost-unintelligibly-fast dialogue and millions of moody shots of skylines. Damn you, American producers, with your inexhaustible knack for the addictive, film-quality drama. You’re as bad as drug dealers, in my book. And you probably wear shades even more.
“What are days for?” Philip Larkin once asked. I’d like to ask the opposite: where can I get some more days? Since I’m not much of a procrastinator, I’ve been trying to work out what keeps stealing my time. I admit I’ve got a family and a peripatetic career, but lots of people seem to manage this and are bang up-to-date with The Wire. After ruling everything else out, I’m forced to cast my suspicions on an unlikely culprit: loyalty cards.
It’s now almost impossible to buy anything without being asked whether you have a loyalty card, whether you would like one, whether you would like a leaflet explaining the benefits of having one, whether you would like a customer service representative to sit down with you for ten minutes to talk you through some of those benefits in person, and whether, after all this, you would fancy going out for a coffee with the staff and ultimately making one of them the godparent of your firstborn.
Boots Advantage Cards, Costa Cards, Nectar Cards: if you signed up for all these things you’d end up with more plastic about your person than the late Michael Jackson, but that’s not my main reservation about them. It’s the sheer time all this takes. What was once a queue of ten people buying simple items in Boots is now a queue of ten people explaining, one at a time, that they’re quite all right without a store card. So if you’re reading this and you’re ever likely to serve me in any establishment: no, thank you. I do not want one of your cards. I’ll still come back, I promise. But let me go for now.
Mind you, we consumers often don’t help ourselves. I was in a checkout queue the other day when it dawned on me that there were four or five of those quick checkout machines waiting in vain for custom. An employee was gesturing at the machines but the other shoppers all rolled their eyes as if sidestepping an obvious scam. “I don’t trust those things,” said one.
“I’d rather deal with a person,” another observed. I went over to one of the neglected robots and was out of there long before the competition had even heard the first “bleep” of a scanned item.
It’s heartening, in a way. We used to fear that the human workforce would be replaced by a mechanical one. What we didn’t know was that the human workforce would be retained to persuade people to use the mechanical one. But from a time-saving perspective, refusing to use these machines makes no more sense than refusing to look up cinema times on a website because you’d “rather hear it from someone who owns a watch”. And speaking of watches, I’m almost certainly late for something. Get out of my way, everyone. I’ve got to get back to Mad Men before I die.