Slowly but surely

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

Carl Honore, internationally celebrated as 'the godfather of slow', enjoys a pace incongruent to his philosophy. He loves deadlines, fast internet connections, ice hockey, squash.

His voice is loud, machinegun-rapid; his delivery, that of 1940s American newsreel announcers. The best-selling author of In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed and Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From the Culture of Hyper Parenting, glances restlessly around his Notting Hill office as he speaks, and his gestures - flared hands, sudden shifts - are equally fluid.

'Everybody has their own tempo,' he says. 'I've always had a fast natural pace, so in some ways I was easy prey for the cult of speed. The virus of hurry found it easy to get into my bloodstream!'

This morning, Honore, 42, is feeling conflicted. 'I'm trying to write something,' he says, glancing at his monitor, 'part of a bigger project, and I feel like I'm wrestling with the demons of creation, and the demons have had the upper hand, but I'm hoping to break through today.'

Struggling with 'the idea of writing a critique of the quick-fix culture', Honor? is addressing the various means used to solve problems in spheres ranging from the political to the corporate and medical, and 'trying to tease out a universal theme that might add up to the slow fix'. The book is in the same vein of his previous works but 'slightly different, so I'm working to find the right angle and tone'.

It takes Honore about 18 to 20 months to write a book, but he's always 'doing other things' simultaneously. The constant interviews are the least of it. His most recent documentary, Hyper Parents & Coddled Kids, concerned what he understands as the global trend of parental overindulgence; his most recent book, Under Pressure, which deals with the same issues, has been translated into more than 20 languages and made the cover of Time in 2009.

Later this month, Honore will address the World Leisure Congress in South Korea. And he's still accepting speaking engagements as the author of In Praise of Slow, which has been translated into 31 languages and was described by The Financial Times as being 'to the Slow Movement what Das Kapital is to communism'.

Honore was voted one of the 10 most inspiring speakers at the TED conference in 2005, and has addressed hospitals, teachers, parents, and the corporate elite (Microsoft, Barclays, Willis, Unilever, Sony, and so on).

'I was ... stunned when my first book became a success,' Honor? says. 'It was the right book at the right time. But as it was coming out, I was already planning to do other stuff - taking my first steps back to journalism - so it was a shock. It seemed to touch a nerve so quickly in so many different places. And not only that, but it just keeps gaining momentum - it's become a kind of touchstone, part of the cultural furniture. The really gratifying aspect is that it has been used as a tool for change.'

Honore, the eldest of three children, was born in Scotland to Pamela, a teacher of French, English and Latin, and Louis, a Mauritian pathologist. The family emigrated to Canada when he was six months old - first to Vancouver, then to St Johns, Newfoundland, and then to the city he considers his hometown: Edmonton, Alberta. From there, he left to study at the University of Edinburgh, graduated in 1990 with degrees in Italian and history, worked with street children in Brazil with his wife-to-be, British author Miranda France, and then began working as a freelance journalist.

In 1993, Honore moved to Argentina to work as a foreign correspondent. In 1996, he moved to London, where he now lives in Notting Hill ('Nappy Valley') with France and their two children, Benjamin, 11, and Susannah, eight. 'But I'm not the sort of writer who works half a day,' he lsays. 'I don't work two hours and then wander around the park. Nuh-uh. Not me!' In the morning, he walks the children to school, showers in his office, works for eight hours straight, and then enjoys a run home.

'I love the busyness of London, but remember my childhood as relaxed, free range. Certainly when you compare it to many childhoods today, where every moment is watched over and managed by adults, I feel like I had a lot of room to roam, and a lot of space and time to be a child. I remember feeling that summers were very slow, a sense of time being expansive. Days and days and days stretching out ahead of you. We had a big backyard; I would disappear into the cherry tree for days on end.'

Honore feels that such moments are immensely precious in the span of a life - 'priceless, really', he murmurs. 'Those are the moments that help define your childhood. They define the memory of who you were, and also your identity. That kind of open-ended, untrammelled, free play is what small children do to knock their brains into shape ... But there is also a glorious romantic magic about it; the soaring, simple joy of being a child. The world that William Blake talked about - seeing the world in a grain of sand, holding infinity in the palm of your hand. That great, capacious sense of possibility, adventure, freedom.'

Today, he notes, many children are too busy racing to violin practice or maths tutoring to hold infinity in the palms of their hands. Hewlett Packard reported that consistent electronic interruptions - e-mails, MSN messenger, and so on - lower workplace IQ far more effectively than smoking marijuana. 'In other words,' Honore says, 'being always on does not turn you into an uber-productive master of the universe; it turns you into Cheech and Chong or Ozzy Osbourne.'

He pauses. 'Forty-eight per cent of children aged up to 12 have never climbed a tree. This is what we've come to. Human beings need a tactile experience of the world, and what we're giving children now is the opposite; we're plonking them in front of Baby Einstein DVDs, and leaving them in front of video games and Facebook. Now, those things may have a certain value, but they're not a substitute for sitting in a tree with a friend for hours.'

Honore says he began to lose control of his time when he started working for a Canadian national newspaper. He began to feel as if he was racing through life rather than living it. Speed, he notes, delivers a superficial experience of the world: life as an exercise in ticking boxes.

Efficiency, he says, has become the defining quality of our culture. Over the years, Honore has observed super-efficient peers losing their sense of anticipation; he still knows 'so many adults who don't look forward to anything'. The richness of experience is lost through constant acceleration, he argues, and in the end, that loss is collective.

'Curiosity opens us to reflection,' he says. 'It opens us up to forging new ways of being alive, of being together, of being human. When we get stuck in fast forward, we develop tunnel vision - we just want the next thing, and that's immensely narrowing, because you end up with more of the same.'

And then, in a flurry of apologies, Honore is gone.