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01/08/2014

Something Understood: Procrastination

Wednesday 10 July 2013, 17:40

Samira Ahmed Samira Ahmed Broadcaster

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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 the Industrial Revolution, with its demands of mechanized productivity and maximized profits, what 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.
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 counterpart 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.”

Editor's Note: You can listen to Something Understood - Procrastination from Sunday 14 July

Clock

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.

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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.”

Listen to Something Understood: Procrastination

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 1.

    I was going to comment, but it can wait.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    Lots of time thought and effort put into last two programmes. Thank you.

    Procrastination:

    Procrastinated about getting angry when the IR lost my tax form last year. Poor man who answered my call sounded tired and worn out, so glad I stayed cool and wrote a stiff letter to one of the tax high-ups. Burst out laughing when I thought about how I would declare the compensation that I received from the IR on the next tax form :)

    Not sure what subjects – or areas - ‘Something Understood’ is permitted to cover (and I am aware from reading the R4 messageboard comments that many listeners dislike the programme). How about an edition devoted to the psychology of radio listening? Is there a stereotypical radio listener? Do radio listeners possess a more sensitive aural acuity? Are they more willing within their professional and personal lives to listen to the views of others?

    These are just ideas, but one could interview Ms. Sarah Daniels - like to know if she predicted that ‘Cross My Heart and Hope to Fly’ would affect male listeners more deeply than females (more men than women wrote in to Feedback when it was broadcast). I liked Dr. Ruth Padel’s sensitivity with the girl who got upset at the criticism of her poem during Dr. Padel’s visit to Cardiff – can’t think of any poems devoted to radio listening, but I’m sure Dr. Padel could help out.

    Lots of early radio receivers were defined by numbers – 19 set, 52 set, R1155, R1392, RA17, AR88……..whereas commercial sets were given names…….Zenith Trans Oceanic, ‘My Lady Catherine’ (Vidor), ‘Sky baby’ (Ever Ready)………..some of the history behind the naming of radio receivers would be interesting (but one would have to be very careful with the acoustics of these interviews)

    Some songs:

    Introduce the programme with Van Morrison/Paul Durcan ‘In the Days Before Rock ‘N’ Roll’…………’I am down on my knees at those wireless knobs’

    Talk about the history behind Hilversum, Athlone and AFN……….

    Neil Young – ‘Harvest Moon’……’Come a little bit closer hear what I have to say……..’ ’when we were strangers I watched you from afar’ the broadcaster/listener relationship could be discussed here.

    Possibly invite Mr. Morrison or Mr. Young to appear on the programme and talk about the importance of radio within their lives? I suspect a quirky programme like ‘Something Understood’, broadcast on an unfashionable radio station such as R4 would attract them!

    Other songs with radio connotations:

    ‘Canned Music’ – Dan Hicks and his Hot licks

    ‘Radio OK’ – Kissing the Pink

    ‘Overnight Sensation’ - The Raspberries

    ‘Radio Romance’ - Kursaal Flyers

    ‘6 Days on the Road’ – Flying Burrito Brothers (record an interview with a US lorry driver, describing the importance of radio within his/her life on an East/West coast run)

    ‘The Circle Game’ – Joni Mitchell (a quick chat about sine waves and their relevance within our lives :) )

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    Thanks Lawrence, really glad you've enjoyed the last two programmes. The format comes under Religion and ethics, but as you observed, there all kinds of ways to explore that in interviews, readings and music. I've very much enjoyed trying to explore new ideas with the producers. Katherine Godfrey (procrastination) and Rosie Boulton (Keeping the Past Alive) and Caroline Hughes (Threads and When Certainties are Tested). Just starting work on one for September and the producer Jo Fidgen's had an intriguing idea for it...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 4.

    I can never get enough of Something Understood and usually listen to the programme both times on Sunday. I particularly liked the discussion on Procrastination: we grow up accepting the one-sided negative explanation of it being the thief of time! I recognise that so often I need to give myself time to ponder and consider the best way to respond to a crisis. It is therefore interesting to read the additional information regarding Kennedy and the Cuban Misile Crisis.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 5.

    "I am aware from reading the R4 messageboard comments that many listeners dislike the programme"
    Oh dear, I hope that isn't the case! I adore Something Understood. For me, it is the single best radio programme available. (How I wish we could download them as podcasts!)

 

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