I am a creature of routines. Or at least I used to be. Alarm at five, cup of tea, check the news, rise, get ready, don the dark suit and crisp pastel shirt, choose a tie, make the wife a cup of tea, five minutes’ chat then drive into town, catch the train, get my usual seat facing the direction of travel halfway down the train. Upon arrival, cross the road to Pret, a strong cappuccino and a cheese and tomato croissant. First into the office, settle down to breakfast with only Jennifer, the gasping cleaner, for company as she vacuums around the desks. Discuss her dog, and her difficult husband who has been eased out of his job on reception after years of naps and general rudeness. Check the email, and send at least one as soon as possible to let somebody know how early I arrived in the office. Then the day begins…
Now all that is gone. “I bet you don’t miss the commute,” people both in and out of work remark. I reply, automatically, “No, I don’t,” but really want to say “Yes, I bloody well do”. Not necessarily for the early rising, or the endless train journeys, or the frisson of frustration when the driver says there’s signal trouble, or the rumbling herd hysteria when we are all chucked off a defective train and crowd around the assumed position of the doors of the crowded train which has yet to arrive. I could do without all that. But the rest of it – the delicious solitude of an empty office, the first charge of caffeine, the quiet satisfaction of a routine well-observed – all of that, I absolutely miss.
What is it about routine? Of itself, in all its elements, it probably (well definitely) sounds banal, and even more banal for the endless repetition. For starters, it’s safety. For the period of routine, it overlays some predictability and pattern onto the restless anarchy of life. I seem in control. If what I can control goes smoothly, then there is more chance that the rest of the day will be manageable. And when anarchy erupts, the return to routine reasserts a kind of grip. More than that there is a kind of mystique about it, like the words of a liturgy: everything said in its place, in the right way, at the right time, to ensure the magic happens. My routines are a kind of lucky charm, an incantation which works for me. So no surprise that sportsmen and gamblers and soldiers and people involved in risk and struggle have their favourite routines, invariably adhered to. I heard recently of a legendary motorcyclist who won the Isle of Man TT more than anybody else before or since. A friend of his recalled how strangely meticulous this man could be. If he was served ham sandwiches in which the ham protruded from the bread, he cast them aside: the ham had to be cut just so. No doubt that mania for precision, and routine, was part of the reason he was such a successful rider. Controlling the small things helped him control the big things.
Now, I rise whenever, wear what I want to, have different things for breakfast, live diverse days devoid of pattern or routine. As a result, I sometimes feel disorientated, like a man in the desert who has somehow lost the pathway over the dunes and wanders irresolutely trying to find the way. Yes, it is a kind of freedom, but who wants the freedom to be lost? And where am I to re-locate that delicious snatched solitude, and the first strong cappuccino of the day?