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28/03/2017
BBC Radio 4

    Something Understood: Procrastination

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    By chance, this Something Understood about procrastination got delayed - scheduling issues, not a scripting crisis though. So here it is only 2 weeks later than planned.

    The idea came from a discussion I had with author Frank Partnoy, a former Wall Street Banker who’d written a book about it as a “useful art”, and the actor Samuel West about playing literature’s most famous procrastinator, Hamlet. Why and how had procrastination, putting off action or decision, become a sin? Producer Katherine Godfrey found a first reference to it in the Book of Common Prayer and the word itself dates from around Shakespeare’s time.

    Are the Victorians really to blame? Was it the Industrial Revolution, with its demands of mechanized productivity and maximized profits, that cemented the idea that we should never put off what we could do today?

    In the programme, I take a detour via some famous fictional delayers. As well as Hamlet, we have Richard Rodney Bennett’s playful soundtrack to the film Billy Liar. And from Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s Edward Ferrars, who hardly looks like a hero to modern readers. You may remember that he never gets round to telling sensible Elinor that he’s still secretly engaged to someone else whom he doesn’t actually love. Apparently this is out of “duty” and “honour” as said fiancée is socially inferior to him. Hmm.

    Lest it seem that this is a female attack on men avoiding honesty, rest assured we have Leonard Cohen to cheer things up. I look at how the human instinct to put off annoying tasks confounded a roomful of economists in the story from India of Joseph Stiglitz’s box. Plus we share some modern insights into the joys, as well as the frustrations, of procrastination in the creation of great fiction – from Kurt Vonnegut to Game of Thrones.

    Samira Ahmed recounts how university essay crises brought a Peanuts character to mind.

    But the heart of our programme is found in a pivotal moment of history in the early 60s. In researching the use of delay in statesmanship, Katherine and I found contrasting stories about President Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

    Dr King, writing from Birmingham prison in Alabama in 1963, challenged some well meaning white Christians who told African Americans to wait; to just show patience, instead of marching for civil rights:

    “More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

    By contrast, historian Robert Caro (in his book The Passage of Power) reveals a moral use of delay just 6 months earlier during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We didn’t have space for this reading in the final edit, but it’s a fascinating counterpoint to Dr King, when you listen to the programme:

    “The next day, Thursday, one of the nine other Russian ships, the Bucharest, was still steaming toward the quarantine line. Because it was a tanker, it almost certainly didn’t carry any missiles or other armament, but, as Robert Kennedy recalls: “there were those on the Executive Committee who felt strongly that the Bucharest should be stopped and boarded, so that Krushchev would make no mistake of our will or interest.”

    John Kennedy assured them that the Navy would stop and board one of the ships. Just not this one at the moment, he said. He would make a decision by nightfall, he said. But that evening, “after further heated discussion,” Kennedy made a final decision to let the Bucharest proceed to Havana.

    “Against the advice of many of his advisers and of the military he had decided to give Krushchev more time. ‘We don’t want to push him into a precipitous action - give him time to consider. I don’t want to push him into a corner from which he cannot escape.’”

    Over and over again, Kennedy delayed a decision to take a step that would require force and might be met by force – and therefore might escalate into the war that would destroy mankind. Over and over again, he tried to give Krushchev more time to think – until on Friday night, a cable clattered over the State Department teletype, a long, rambling message from Nikita Krushchev. It contained an offer to trade: in return for America’s pledge not to invade Cuba, the missiles and the Russian technicians and soldiers would be withdrawn. And it contained also “very personal” sentences about the Russian premier’s own fears that mankind was on the edge of the abyss of nuclear war... That message “for the first time,” Robert Kennedy said, gave his brother hope that he was not the only one of the two leaders who was trying to pull mankind back from the abyss.”

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