Whether his little brain be quick or slow,
Man everywhere quakes at the mystery,
And looks up only with a trembling eye.
— Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Pot Lid’
When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.
— Milan Kundera, Slowness
We have all been too quick to make up our minds and too slow to change them.
— Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting
A few years ago, on the morning of a friend’s wedding, I went for a bike ride in the wine country to the south of Dijon. Returning back to the city on a circuitous route, I had one of those rare moments when I experienced flow. It is a memory I return to often, a raft of stillness highlighted in the frenetic maelstrom of modern life. I visualise a gentle incline curving through an agricultural landscape, climbing towards a small village atop a hill. Everywhere I look is yellow and green. Rich perfume wafts from the crops that surround me. At my back is both the sun and a light breeze, inducing pleasurable early summer sensations on my bare legs and arms. The act of pedalling feels effortless. Man, nature and machine are at one.
When I first rediscovered a love of the bike as I approached my forties, there was too much focus on the paraphernalia of cycling, the right kit, the measurement of distance, climbs and, above all, speed. Meandering through my forties, those obsessions have fallen away. I am content with the single bicycle I own now, that sees me through all twelve months of the year. I am more interested in the journey than the destination, and anything that measures has been discarded or hidden away. If I need to know the time, then I have to fish my smartphone out of my back pocket. That device is referred to more often for navigation as I venture down the path less taken, or note-taking as the mechanics of the body free up the mind to craft the phrases and paragraphs that end up in my writing.
Of course, all journeys ultimately have a destination, often a deadline too. These can add a little creative constraint and are often helpful. But the path of obliquity, while moving towards that destination, is often far more interesting than that of directness and speed. The journey can be physical, actually moving through space and time, or it can be mental, venturing into the mindscapes of imagination, reflection and memory. The path tends, therefore, to eventually bend back on itself, leading to home, or to the self. Astride my bike, heading out from Whitstable, I can visit the coast, climb up on to the Downs, head for the woods or find my way to the nearby city of Canterbury. Walking along the beach, I can plug in earbuds and listen to music or interviews. Either option opens up the possibility of physical wandering and mental flâneurie. Both have the effect of slowing and expanding time.
While writing books, I find that I spend almost as much time walking as I do sitting at my desk, chained to a keyboard. Walks along the seafront present me with the opportunity to listen to and absorb the recordings of interview material. They help me shape ideas, discovering ways to express what I have been grappling with while looking at that blinking cursor on the screen. They offer extended periods of reflection, allowing for the creative mash-up of ideas and insights from the different books, articles and blog posts I have read; the fusion of fiction, poetry, art, science, business and sport. The ability to go slow, to wander and ponder, enables the discovery of intriguing synergies and connections. I doubt that stasis, under the pressure of having to write quickly, would have the same effect.
Long periods of slow motion and fluid thinking are punctuated by short bursts of rapid writing, followed by further reflection and intermittent editing. It has a rhythm of sorts, a destination and deadline too. Prevarication is balanced by discipline; Daniel Kahneman’s slow thinking (system 2) counterweighted by fast thinking (system 1). Changes of pace are made to match contextual shifts. But always there is a tendency to gravitate back to the slow pace – reading a book or two, visiting a gallery, going to the woods – allowing ideas and memories to assemble themselves into some kind of meaningful order. All of it corralled by the act of wandering. It is the nourishment of a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of friends and family rather than the quick fix of a fast-food snack.
Much that I write I understand to be in conversation with other ideas, other publications, other people. Unhurried discussion is opened up when we choose to click on that publish button. The writing is always in motion, slowly finding its way to new readers.
To defeat the ill effects of urgency, then, we need two types of tools: those fostering greater awareness of our situational need for closure at a particular juncture, and those that keep the consequences of decisions salient at the right moments.
— Jamie Holmes, Nonsense
If we make the speed of light the constant, then time slows down the faster we move, lengths contract, and masses increase. We enter the world of special relativity.
— Gary Klein, Seeing What Others Don’t
Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.
— Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking
Because of this at this moment I know
something of the future, how it will
give itself to us slowly, its reticence.
— James Sallis, ‘Trying to Surface’