BRIAN BETHUNE tells how the once-speed-addlcted Carl Honoré became the guru of the slow movement

August 1 2005


BRIAN BETHUNE tells how the once-speed-addlcted Carl Honoré became the guru of the slow movement

August 1 2005



BRIAN BETHUNE tells how the once-speed-addlcted Carl Honoré became the guru of the slow movement

STRIDING ACROSS BUSY thoroughfares in a city where absolutely no one obeys traffic lights, or gliding over the ice in a dilapidated arena, Carl Honoré doesn’t seem any slower than his fellow Londoners. The transplanted Canadian’s home is as chaotic as any young family’s, and he has trouble finding his car keys for the drive to his weekly, late-night hockey scrimmage. But a closer look turns up anomalies in the life of a busy freelance journalist. There’s no watch on Honoré’s wrist. He no longer works weekends or eats at his desk. And, even as play starts in an eagerly anticipated soccer match on TV, he remains

in an upstairs bedroom, reading to his sixyear-old son, Benjamin.

A nice touch, that, since it was a nowmythic encounter with a kids’ publishing phenomenon called One-Minute Bedtime Stories that prompted Carl Honoré’s road-toDamascus conversion into the Apostle of Slow. “I just dreaded the slow bedtime routine,” Honoré recalls. “Just couldn’t wait to get on to the next thing I had to do—supper, emails, whatever. When I was in that lineup at the Rome airport five years ago and read that article about boiling classic fairy tales down to 60-second sound bites, I thought, eureka!” Then, a last, saving burst of rationality struck his time-obsessed mind: “Have I gone completely insane?”

Honoré flew home in a thoughtful mood, weighing the benefits of speed (Internet, jet travel, the wealth generated by turbo-charged capitalism) and its costs (stress, family communication via fridge notes, the environmental damage wreaked by turbo-charged

capitalism). By the time he landed, Honoré had a new mission: to find out if anyone was doing more than complaining about the frenzied pace of modernity. And, if possible along the way, find a cure for his own addiction to speed. The result is his book In Praise of Slow (Vintage Canada) which, since appearing last year, has spread its message across the world like a computervirus, becoming the defacto link among the various slowness-advocacy groups he was among the first to publicize.

There were rebellions against the fast track going on everywhere, Honoré discovered. Researching them and, once In Praise of Slow was published, talking them up at workshops and lectures, has occupied much of Honoré’s time ever since (Slow is now in 20 languages). In mid-July, he was a featured speaker at the prestigious TED Global (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Oxford, sharing the podium with the likes of Cambridge University biomedical pioneer Aubrey de Grey. Honoré hasn’t

missed the irony of slowness having sped up his life. “People do ask me if I’m a bit of a hypocrite. I answer, ‘No, I’m a martyr to the cause.’ Yes, I am busier now than before I wrote Slow, but it doesn’t feel like it.” Honoré, 37, and his wife, Miranda France, 38, a travel writer and literary critic, still live in London with Benjamin and three-yearold Susannah, so life on the surface has changed little. “But there’s a clear before and after. I control my travel now. On weekends we used to have things skedded; now there’s always one day open for spontaneity. For years I felt out of control, getting through

life rather than living it. I think lots of people feel that way.”

Honoré has collected an abundance of anecdotal and official information to detail how “time sickness” has become a major malady of our time. He ticks off, in no particular order: the growing tendency of employees (including a quarter of Canadian workers) to not take their full vacation entitlement; acquaintances who no longer read poetry because it yields its meaning too slowly; the emergence of job stress as the leading cause of workplace absenteeism in Britain; watching a father kick a soccer ball

with his son, all the while talking on his cellphone; the acceleration of pastimes that should be unhurried by nature, with things like instant gardening and speed dating.

It all adds up to far more than a problem for individuals. In her recent book, No Time (Douglas & McIntyre), Ottawa writer and scholar Heather Menzies points with alarm to what she calls the Attention Deficit Society. Stressed individuals mean stressed institutions, Menzies warns, and a consequent inability to come to terms with real societal prob-

lems. For his part, Honoré consulted various thinkers not only on why our socio-economic situation pushes an ever-faster pace at us, but also on why we love speed. There’s the ecstasy of it, of course, the way moving very quickly triggers the brain’s release of two chemicals—epinephrine and norepinephrine—that sex also prompts. And then there’s the transcendence speed provides. Honoré writes how Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell told him that speed is a first-class distraction from the knowledge of our own mortality. Only

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then did the journalist start to look for balanced responses. What he wanted was a prescription for a life lived at what musicians call the tempo giusto, the right speed.

Slow food, one of the first reactions against high-speed life, attracted Honoré’s attention from the beginning. As a teenager in Edmonton, the son of a doctor from Mauritius and his Scots-born wife, Honoré had always found the family’s evening meal “the big human moment of the day.” It’s one he and Miranda had let slide in London. “Before having kids we sometimes ate take-away in front of the TV. We never do that now. We always cook—just doing that melts stress— and I find I taste my food more and get more pleasure from my family.”

IN FACT, a slow food movement, dedicated to preserving traditional foods and building on the back-to-the-land ethos of the sixties, began to emerge in Italy almost two decades ago. Food writer Carlo Petrini was enraged by the arrival of a McDonald’s right beside Rome’s famed Spanish Steps in 1986. He issued a manifesto against “the universal

producers of everything from hams to fruits— and more than 125,000 visitors.

That Italians should revolt in favour of a gastronomic dolce vita is hardly surprising, but even in North America the movement has made strides. U.S. farmers are leading a successful campaign to maintain the turkey breeds that ruled local Thanksgiving markets before the rise of factory farms. In Toronto, chef Jeff Crump, founder of Slow Food Ontario, leads groups of children in a dual-track cooking class: they make Kraft Dinner and then a slow version of macaroni and cheese. The taste test is a foregone conclusion; Crump hopes the kids will take the lesson to heart. Slow food, the movement argues, is not just for well-heeled epicures— local produce is often less pricey than imports, and meals made from scratch are usually cheaper than prepared versions.

Slow food has been joined by slow cities (movements to keep residences, workplaces and shops within reasonable proximity), slow medicine (a reaction against technological and drug-centred healing that is open to traditional medical philosophies), and

program, designed as an alternative to paying a fine for ticketed drivers, was a huge eye-opener for him, demonstrating that speeding on short trips does almost nothing for a driver but add to his stress levels— a three-kilometre drive at 130 km/h saves only 52 seconds over the same trip at 80 km/h. Honoré thinks he will always have to work at it, but at least, he says, “my speedaholism is tamed; I can’t remember the last time my wife had to tell me to slow down.”

The journalist is less sure that the tempo giusto musical movement, one of the more intriguing anti-speed rebellions he encountered, has a future. Tempo giusto claims that— in accord with our lust for speed—we have over the past two centuries gradually increased the tempo at which we play classical music, at an unknown cost to composers’ original intentions. In 1876, Franz Liszt commented in a letter that it took him “almost an hour” to play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106; today, pianists rattle through it in 35 to 40 minutes. Honoré listened to Uwe Kliemt, a German tempo giusto adherent, play Mozart’s Sonata in CMajor, KV279, a work

folly of Fast Life—our defence should begin at the table with Slow Food.” Slow food now claims 83,000 members in 50 nations. The Italian branch boasts of having saved 130 “dying delicacies,” from Ligurian potatoes to a breed of Sienese wild boar. In 1999, the movement gathered half a million signatures in a successful campaign to convince the Italian government to exempt traditional cheesemakers from modern industrial hygiene standards. Its biannual food fest, Salone del Gusto, attracts 500 artisanal

slow leisure (everything from knitting to literally doing nothing).

Honoré has even attended a Speed Awareness Program for British drivers, a go-slow concept that he viewed with as much interest as he did slow food. But from the opposite perspective. Once an inveterate speeder (he sheepishly admits to getting a ticket in Italy while on the way to his first slow food meal), Honoré is reluctant to say he’s now fully cured: “It’s like alcoholism, it’s never really gone from you.” But the awareness

Honoré knew well from a recording by Daniel Barenboim. It seemed odd at first, but soon began to sound richer, more textured and melodious. Kliemt’s version ran a shade over 22 minutes; Barenboim’s is finished in 14. But tempo giusto can expect little help from a classical establishment with backlists to sell, nor from a public that has come to expect virtuoso, mainly uptempo, performances.

It’s not just the classics that have accelerated. In pop music, Honoré points out, the

20th century “was all about boosting the beat,” from ragtime through rock ’n’ roll to techno. In 1976, a book titled How to Make a Hit Record advised wannabe pop stars that 120 beats a minute was optimum for a dance track; by the 1990s, drum and bass music was humming along at 170 beats per minute. Moby’s 1992 single Thousand clocked in at a head-splitting 1,000 beats a minute.

Nothing has brought Honoré more attention, however, or more blushing questions, than slow sex. For all their sex-saturated culture, modern Westerners spend very little

deceleration”—essentially extended foreplay.

Every day, Honoré reports, 12,000 people navigate through the Internet’s cascade of porn sites to reach, home site for the burgeoning discipline that promises to channel sexual energy not only into finer, better sex, but also into a more perfect spiritual union with your partner. Despite the awful warning example of pop star Sting—who has yet to live down his public ravings a decade ago about his tantric sex life—Honoré was gamely determined to investigate and write about it. He and Miranda

ask, in a giggly way, but they do ask.” The normally voluble Honoré pauses a moment while he ponders just how much of his—and more importantly, Miranda’s—private life he’s prepared to martyr to the cause. “We’re not tantric, but we do have a slower beat now. Maybe that’s true for everyone who slows down in everything else—sex takes care of itself.”

FOR SLOWNESS advocates of all stripes, the enemy or, as Honoré politely phrases it, “the principal opponent,” is “the corporate


time at it. Decent sex, like decent food, seems to be among time sickness’s earliest victims: a large-scale 1994 study found Americans devoted a sad 30 minutes a week to making love. Too much work and busy schedules clearly act as cold showers. The “official” slow sex movement is as Italian as slow food (indeed, a perfect example of how one slow movement cross-fertilizes another). Alberto Vitale, a marketing consultant from the same Italian town, Bra, where slow food was launched, established slow sex in 2002. He now runs a website ( and gives talks in local social clubs about the joys of “erotic

attended a workshop held in an old warehouse in North London, along with a crosssection of reassuringly normal Londoners.

Honoré was pleasantly impressed with all of it: the long period spent blindfolded, exploring his wife’s hands, the sensory session with tastes and sounds, even the exercises designed to strengthen the pubococcygeus, the muscle running from the pubic bone to the tailbone that in tantric sex is the key to more intense orgasms. All that was easy enough to write about. Talking about his tantric experience, in terms of personal payoff, is naturally a lot harder. “People do

world and its ideas of how work must be.” We can try to drive slower, to avoid eating on the run or sending emails at midnight— we can even aim for making love seven hours at a stretch à la Sting—but if our economic structures do not permit that approach to life, how will it happen? Especially, Honoré notes, if we internalize the demands of the workplace, and accept that it has priority over other aspects of our lives.

We seem to have done just that. Forty years ago, government bodies worried about how we’d cope with the abundant leisure time experts saw on the horizon. A U.S.

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Senate subcommittee even predicted a 14hour work week by 2000; in 2005, a 14-hour workday is more likely. One in four Canadians now racks up more than 50 hours a week. And that doesn’t count commuting hours. Devices from laptops to cellphones that were supposed to free us by expanding our horizons, actually enchain us. If your office can phone you in the middle of a wilderness canoe trip, sooner or later it will.

also suggests that misery loves company. “American journalists in Europe focus on work life to the exclusion of anything else, reacting with glee to any problems with the French 35-hour week, for example. They can’t seem to bear the idea that Europeans work less but still have a high standard of living—and a higher quality of life.” Honoré, ever the optimist, sees signs of hope in the sort of working arrangements

have often asked for an audio version of In Praise of Slow— “so they could listen to it in the car,” the amused author explains, “because they didn’t have time to read it.” Honoré points to the intriguing fact that his book is attracting a lot of attention “in countries on the cusp of going First World: China, Brazil, Croatia, Thailand, places like that.” He thinks that’s because “people there are worried about what they see here—and

But working hard is not the same as working smart. According to the Geneva-based International Labour Organization, French workers are more productive than Americans, even though the latter work an average of 350 hours more a year. Overwork is associated with stress, absenteeism and even suicide—Honoré cites a recent Canadian poll in which 15 per cent of the respondents said job stress had caused thoughts of suicide. So why do we do it? Part of the reason is we want much of what it brings—the income, the status, the social network, the feeling of self-worth. That alone can seduce many into workaholism, which increases the intensity of those good feelings, argues Menzies in No Time. But it’s also true, as one workaholic she interviews says, that many people have found it prudent to make themselves as indispensible as they can in an age of downsizing, as a hedge against being laid off.

The modern workplace contains more work to be done than in years past, fewer bodies to do it, and very little trust. “The fear factor is huge,” notes Honoré, who

some corporate employees have managed to carve out for themselves. He cites Karen Domaratzki and Susan Lieberman, two Toronto executives at Royal Bank headquarters who’ve been sharing a job—and promotions—since 1997. They work three days a week, overlapping on Wednesdays. Each has three children, and has found the reduced workload a domestic godsend. The 40-per-cent pay cut is bearable, cushioned by the fact each has a high-earning husband. That’s the stumbling block, of course. Most work-life balance solutions so far are only for the well off and the highly sought-after. Real change for the rest of us, says Honoré, will probably require government intervention.

Sometimes Honoré thinks the love of speed is sunk too deeply in our cultural DNA for any large-scale change to occur, at least in the developed world. Here, many who respond to his message do so in a culturally determined, speed-besotted way—they want to slow down as quickly as possible. At events promoting his book, audience members

they hope they don’t have to take the entire modern package.” And Honoré is heartened by readers’ responses. “I’ve been a journalist for 14 years, and no had ever told me before that what I’d written had changed their lives. Kingwell’s right—a lot of our hyper-accelerated lives has to do with putting off the big questions. You know you’re paying a price but you’re in denial.”

One guiding principle Honoré has learned is that “nobody has two burnouts.” He seems as far away from a first one as an in-demand professional can be. Having read to Benjamin as long as the boy liked, having caught the rest of the soccer match and found his car keys, Honoré—six foot five in his skates—is now teetering against the boards in the Streatham Ice Arena. He’s serenely indifferent to the fact that the arena, the selfstyled “temple of hockey in south London,” is an appalling dump of peeling paint and cracked protective partitions, that the Zamboni has broken down and that his Streatham Chiefs teammates are restlessly looking at the clock. “I do have an idea for another book, and a lot of publishers panting for it,” he allows. “But,” he shrugs as he finally gets to hit the ice, “I’m just too busy.” ITO

ON THE WEB Read an excerpt from Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slow.