By Richard Pooley
Several articles ago, in The Perfect Pitch, I wrote that “Less is more” was my second favourite aphorism. A few readers have asked me since what my favourite one is.
“Do it now – it’s later than you think” is the answer. It was my mother’s and her mother’s favourite adage too. I never discovered if it derived from a particular personal experience. My mother lived her life by it. I gathered from her that my grandmother did too. Just as well; both women died relatively young.
I don’t know its origin but it certainly pre-dates the 1949 song, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than You Think)”, covered by, among others, Bing Crosby and Doris Day. Two of the verses nail the song’s message:
Someday, you say, you'll have your fun, when you're a millionaire
Imagine all the fun you'll have in your old rockin' chair
You've got your reservations made, but you just can't get away
Next year for sure, you'll see the world, you'll really get around
But how far can you travel when you're six feet underground?
It was something that I witnessed as a fourteen-year old which taught me the dangers of procrastination. I was on holiday in newly-independent Zambia where my father worked at the British High Commission. Most British settlers - businesspeople, mining engineers, farmers, doctors, teachers, even the colonial officials – remained immediately after independence. But two years on and many of them were leaving, some back to the UK, more down south to Rhodesia and South Africa. One of my father’s jobs was to persuade them to stay. Zambia badly needed their expertise.
It was early January. My parents and I were in the Mkushi district, staying for a couple of nights with a British tobacco farmer who had agreed to host a meeting between my father and other expatriate farmers. Morning because the Rains had started in October* and came regularly almost every late afternoon. The roads could turn into impassable mud. While the men talked, my mother and I, armed with binoculars and our copy of Roberts’ Birds of South Africa, sought in the uncultivated patches of Bush those LBJs (little brown jobs) which we had not yet seen.
During lunch our host, a burly man with a voice used to giving orders, spoke of his own plans. He saw no future for him and his family in a country run by ill-educated locals with Communist sympathies. But he was no racist. Apartheid South Africa was not an option. No, it was either Australia or Argentina they were heading for. The first would be the easiest to settle in: same language, same culture, safe. But the second offered more opportunities for a tobacco farmer to make good money. He and his wife had deliberated for more than three years but still could not make up their minds which country to go to. Anyway, best to wait until after the latest harvest and hope they would make enough money to ease their passage out of Zambia.
After lunch we toured the fields of tobacco, full ready for an early harvest, and the drying sheds where the picked leaves would go next. This was followed by tea on the farmhouse’s covered veranda, looking out across those same fields. The sky darkened with cumulonimbus clouds. Flashes of lightning were ever-more quickly followed by thunder. That thrilling smell of rain, driven towards us on the wind, enabled the farmer to estimate the time the first drops would fall. The servants cleared away our empty cups and plates.
The show started. Twenty minutes later the first act was over. And the farmer’s future looked utterly different. It had not rained. It had hailed. As soon as those large spheres of ice began bouncing off the edge of the veranda and slicing through the nearest tobacco leaves, rendering them unusable for even the cheapest cigarette, I looked at the farmer. He had leapt to his feet and stood, legs apart, arms crossed tightly across his chest, eyes staring at the destruction of his crop. His wife stood up too and leant against him, her face a picture of misery.
The hail turned into rain for the second act. It was all over by the time, two hours later, the couple - soaked-through, mud-spattered and shivering - returned from inspecting the damage. It was a total loss, the farmer reported. By then my father had explained to my mother and me what this catastrophe meant. The farmer had failed to take out crop-hail insurance, believing that the premium was too high, the risk of hail low. So, he would get no return that season on all his investment in labour, seeds, irrigation equipment, fertiliser, pesticides, and herbicides. It was my first lesson in basic economics. It was also a life lesson. By delaying his exit from Africa, the farmer had made it almost impossible for him to do so. The sale of his farm at a time when other farmers were also selling up would not cover his debts. His dream of a new life on a new continent was over.
The coronavirus pandemic has made many people realise what is truly important in life. Good. Let’s not return then to writing over-ambitious ‘To Do’ and ‘Bucket’ lists. Oliver Burkeman, the author of “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It” (Bodley Head), had this to say in a recent article:
“Do at least a little of what you care about now, as opposed to banking on finding time for it in the future, once the decks are clear and life’s duties are out of the way. Life’s duties will never be out of the way.”
Want to write a novel? Write it. I did. It never got published. I can't write dialogue, my wife tells me. But a business book I co-authored has sold pretty well.
Want to give up a high-status job which pays well but doesn’t feel right for you? Look actively for a new one and quit the current one even if you have not secured a new job. I did. I loved my next place of work so much that I stayed in it for much of the rest of my working life.
Want to travel the world? Go travel. Now. I have done so; over sixty countries visited so far, five of them lived in for more than a year.
You only have one life. Live it before it is too late to live it.
* These days the Rains in Zambia start no earlier than November and often in December.