Originally published in Idler 62.
Patience, at the risk of sounding like an aunty, is a virtue. It really is. Patience keeps you sane when you’re waiting for a bus and, more vitally, is the key to escaping The Hot New Thing.
The Hot New Thing is a kind of curse. It leaves you forever dissatisfied, slurps the money from your wallet, shatters your sense of perspective, and wastes your time. It is fuelled rather negatively by what the kids on social media call “FOMO,” the Fear of Missing Out. It requires a lot of undignified chasing and “keeping up,” two things that are inherently anti-idle.
The Hot New Thing is also anti-idle in that it requires you to act! You have to tune in at a particular time, get yourself down to a certain place before it all runs out, gobble it up before the world moves on. Meanwhile, what we might call The Good Old Stuff doesn’t require anything of you at all. It’ll just float into your lap when you need it. You’ll be browsing the shelves of a library or flipping through the sale rack, and there it will be.
The Hot New Thing is expensive, not because it’s good but because it’s hot. It’ll be cheaper later on when it’s cooled down. In fact, it will probably be free later because the world won’t care about it anymore, and supply and demand will have relieved it of a price tag.
The Hot New Thing is rude. It jumps the queue. There you are, in your idler’s deckchair, minding your own business and savouring a lovely old Penguin, when suddenly The Hot New Thing pops up and demands attention. Well, I’m sorry but it can wait. You’re not obliged to pick up the telephone just because it’s ringing. Culture is not a whack-a-mole, to be anticipated in a state of urgent readiness and then seized upon and savaged. Life is not about rolling as much claptrap through your system as possible and getting it all safely into the outbox.
Worship of The Hot New Thing would have the world in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Even as it’s happening, what professed to be The Hot New Thing is cooling and The All-New Hot New Thing is on its way. In the cinema, they show trailers for movies due for release in a month’s time or “next summer” or “in the fall,” and you think “Jesus, I’ve only just sat down to watch this one.” The film industry wants you excited for dinner before you’ve even had your breakfast.
The cultural filter that comes to your rescue when you escape The Hot New Thing is remarkable. When you live perpetually five years behind everyone else, only the finest things reach you because history has already had its way. This week I watched two good movies — Birdman and Nightcrawler — because their reputation as films worth watching has remained intact for five years, not through marketing but through evolution. The most popular films of the same year were called Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and Maleficent. Who cares about any of that lot now? What a load of junk! And yet at the time, they were The Hot New Thing. If you’d gone to see Maleficent on its opening weekend like a good little consumer you’d have wasted your time and money. You could have been enjoying the very best of 2009 instead and then, five years later, watching Nightcrawler and Birdman for 50p from a Glasgow Cancer Research shop, bypassing Maleficent, whatever that might have been, entirely.
And that’s just the five-year filter. I recently saw Network (1976) and Some Like it Hot (1962) for the first time. I read Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square (1941) — as recommended by John Newlands in the Idler letter pages — and Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). These were joyful and surely among the finer fruits of the twentieth century, and yet cost not a penny thanks to the public library and a little patience. Good things remain fresh almost forever or are, better yet, timeless. A Beano from five years ago (5p on eBay or free in a dentist’s waiting room) is basically the same thing as this week’s Beano (£2.75). Good things come (there’s my aunty again) to those who wait.
Older books or films or records are too often seen as landfill or yesterday’s news. Worse still, anything with a whiff of “classic” about it might be consumed as some sort of wholesome moral roughage — that terrible feeling of “I really should have read Of Mice and Men by now.” Something old and whose reputation has survived is not necessarily high-minded or highbrow though. Think of Gremlins (1984) or Stephen King’s first five books (1974-1978) or Sherlock Holmes (1887-1927).
Speaking of Holmes, I broke my ethic of patience in 2010 to watch Sherlock on the BBC iPlayer as soon as it came out. I didn’t care for it. Cumberbatch is acceptable as Shirley but at least half the enjoyment of Holmes is the escape from modern life and onto the frosted flagstones of 19th-Century Baker Street, so a modernisation would need to add something extraordinary to make up for all those dreary, managerial skyline shots of the Oligarchs’ London, gherkins and all. Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty is almost as cringeworthy as everyone’s pretending to like it. Today, Sherlock, The Hot New Thing of 2010, is barely remembered and nobody seems to like Cumberbatch anymore at all. It never became The Good Old Stuff. I should have trusted my rule and waited.
You can enjoy The Good Old Stuff in peace without being cast asunder in The Big Conversation. Nobody’s interested in your thoughts about a movie from six or sixty years ago. Unless they are, of course, in which case you’ve got a friend worth keeping.
The wise idler allows things to age a little — to congeal and marinate in time — before letting them in. The wise idler is patient.