Time and the Bell

T S Eliot  and Proust both pondered over the notions of time and duration – perceived time – and we have all had a lesson in this difference over the past twelve months.  At the height of our most restrictive lockdowns, time seemed to stretch endlessly, as our usual routines and activities were abruptly curtailed and we were obliged to structure days and weeks where the only imperative was to stay within our four walls. 

Living under time’s influence is a problem.  It runs through our fingers, or it drags.  We waste it, save it, make it, mark it and still it flies or stands still.  At school, how I longed for the bell as the minutes crawled by in those interminable periods of subjects I hated, (Maths and Latin).   How quickly the summer holidays flashed past, seemingly over before they had properly begun!

In fact, of course time is just steadily ticking away … or is it? 

It is indeed the ticking that is the problem.  For the purposes of modern civilisation time has been corralled and stuffed into a straightjacket which does not suit it at all.  Older agrarian societies regulated their daily lives by the sun and the seasons, which fitted their lifestyle better than it does ours.

Working as a tour guide I always enjoyed showing my groups of American teenagers the marvellous mid 15th C clock in the Duomo in Florence.  It tells the time of another age, but as long as it is adjusted weekly, it is extremely accurate.  What puzzled the students is that there is only one hand, which moves “backwards”, that is from right to left.  We are so used to the notion of “clockwise” that this already comes as a surprise. 

In fact the clock is indicating the number of hours before sunset and 24 is the first hour of the new day.  This was an important moment in medieval life.  It was the hour of the angelus prayer, the end of the working day and time to come in from the fields before the gates of the city were closed.  The students found it odd to start a new day at sunset until I pointed out how strange it would have seemed to a person living in 1440 to have started the day in the middle of the darkest part of the night when everybody was asleep.  How would anyone know? 

By the way I found a delightful bit of associated trivia: should you ever hear an Italian mentioning that someone is wearing his hat sulle ventitré (on the 23), it means that it is tipped over the eyes to protect the wearer from the dazzlingly low angled rays of the setting sun.

To go back to duration for a moment,  it’s worth mentioning the great advantage of the hour glass, in that it frees you from the numbers – you can apply it to whatever time you choose to measure the duration of 60 minutes without reference to “the time”.

Gradually Europe adopted a standard system of time reckoning –12 hours am and pm twice daily.  The Florentines were reluctant to give up their ora italica until, in 1749, a peremptory edict came down from Grand Duke Francesco Stefano ordering them to fall into line, and the clock face was covered with a new 12-hour version.

It seems that the authorities can do with time what they will and impose arbitrary modifications upon us for their own convenience.  Summer time – the practice of advancing the clocks by one hour between the end of March and the end of October – was first adopted in Britain in 1916 after the German and Austro Hungarians had already done so and in an effort to save coal supplies.  During WW II, the government introduced Double Summer Time with a view to increasing productivity.  My parents were then living in Northern Ireland , where, they said many people completely disregarded this artificial arrangement and continued to work to ‘God’s time’.

I couldn’t resist this American poster from 1918.  In fact the measure was so unpopular that it was abandoned after less than a year, but what I love most is the cheery little figure in the corner promising “an extra hour of daylight”.  It was decided five centuries ago to chop up time into two chunks of 12 hours each so an extra hour is pure fantasy.

There are pockets of resistance even now.  I have frequently been caught out by a note on a church door in Italy informing me that it is operating on the ora solare and not the ora legale and is therefore closed. 

Here I suggest a little break (time out) to enjoy the Everly Brothers’ 1962 version of a very silly song: “When it’s night time in Italy”  composed in 1923 by James Kendis and Lew Brown.

The system was never perfect and indeed it could not be.  A glance at the map of the current  European time zones makes this abundantly obvious.  The vast area operating under European Central Time (coloured blue) is totally at odds with what the sun is telling us, and there is in reality a difference of at least hour or more of daylight between Warsaw and Madrid, depending on the season.

In fact, the straightjacket is frequently imposed for political rather than practical reasons, for example in 1942 General Franco moved Spain onto Central European Time to follow Nazi Germany with the result that today the country lives by the sun rather than the clock, which fact explains their legendary late meal times and strange working hours.  In 2013 a Spanish parliamentary commission declared that for decades the country had not been in the correct time zone and should revert to GMT.  So they want to be more in line with Europe by moving out of the European Central Time zone!

France should clearly be in the same time zone as Britain, as indeed it was until 1940.  Under the German Occupation, l’heure allemande was imposed on France, that is Berlin time, GMT plus 1, with a further hour added in the summer.  This too was resented by the rural population, who tended to keep their clocks set patriotically à l’heure ancienne.  At the end of the war the plan was for France to revert to GMT in two steps on September 16th and November 18th, but in fact the second step was never made, leaving France de facto on CET.  Furthermore France made no change to summer time until 1975 when it was brought in as a response to the oil crisis.  I had been living here for a few years by then and I well remember the outcry and grumbling about the change which has rumbled on ever since.

Towards the end of October every year the chat around the zinc, the bar area of a café, is usually all about the passage à l’heure d’hiver – generally a chorus of moans and groans about what a pain it is and how it was foisted on an unenthusiastic and un-consulted population.  This time around, with the cafés either closed or no bar-leaning allowed, grousing about the move to winter time was subsumed into the prevailing gloom.  So it is possible that the significance of the EU’s surprising decision to allow each member state to decide whether it does or does not change the clocks twice a year may have escaped the notice of the general public.  If so, we are all potentially in for a surprise come March 2021 … or, in fact, probably not.

In 2018 the EU invited residents to fill out an online form giving their opinions on daylight saving, or summer time. The question received 4.6 million responses, (two thirds of them from Germans, who were probably the only citizens paying attention).  It was an unprecedented success for this type of consultation, although still involving less than 1% of the European population.  Whilst in no way denying the validity of German engagement with the question it must be said that the survey can hardly be called representative.

84% of respondents wanted to abolish the change to summer time and Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission declared:

“I will recommend to the commission that, if you ask the citizens, then you have to do what the citizens say.  The people want it; we will do it” – a statement that looks OK on paper, but which can lead to all kinds of trouble, as recent events in the UK have amply demonstrated. 

But then came the lovely EU fudge, as a spokesman quickly clarified Juncker’s statement:  “That is his way of expressing the fact that there will no longer be an obligation for the changing of the clocks twice a year.  The union will let member states decide.”

Democracy at work – I notice that not everyone is paying attention!

Each Member State had until April 2020 to choose whether to remain permanently on their previous “summer time” or their “winter time” with their decisions to be implemented in March and October 2021 respectively. It was an obvious recipe for total disaster!  To quote a specialist in the matter, Patrick Martin-Grenier: “in Germany the question was decided without consulting their Danish, Dutch or Czech neighbours, who prefer winter time. The French prefer summer time. Moreover, southerners prefer summer time. And finally, for political reasons, others like Estonia refuse to be in the same time zone as Russia. We are still far from agreeing on the solution.”

Can you imagine the consequences for European transport and freight networks, business dealings and so on?  Total nightmare.

So it could perhaps be seen as a rare positive side effect of the pandemic that governments had much more pressing matters to occupy themselves with in 2020 and so far no member state has made any pronouncement as to their choices in the matter of time and its disruption.  For the time being (!) the tsunami has been averted.

IMAGE CREDITS: https://www.theflorentine.net/ http://www.societedespoetesfrancais.net/

4 thoughts on “Time and the Bell

  1. My mystified interest in physics and quantum theory has made me realise that some learned people are questioning what time is and even whether it exists at all.

    And I love clocks – the clockwork sort. I have 4 to wind every Sunday.

  2. I love the whole piece, beautifully written as ever, but what a telling example of the ‘will of the people’ trap. The first requirement for democracy is a well-informed electorate, but you are absolutely right that they also have to be paying attention.

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