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Home | 2016 | May

In search of lost timelessness

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2016-05-10 09:47.

I woke up in the middle of the night last night. A press on the alarm clock lit up: '0:01'.

It took a few moments to parse this odd number into something a half-sleeping human brain could understand: one minute past midnight. It was indeed the middle of the night.

Under normal circumstances I would fall asleep again almost straight after such an awakening, but this time the effort to parse this strange number had woken me up and started me thinking.

This alarm clock is a 'clock radio', so sometime during the night the electronics would listen in for a few minutes to the longwave time signal from the transmitter near Frankfurt and synchronize its internal clock – which itself is already extremely accurate – with an atomic clock, accurate beyond human imagination. When all the signal processing is completed my alarm clock will be a tiny fraction of a second behind this time.

This alarm clock is therefore, for all practical purposes, perfectly accurate and perfectly dependable. When I bought it about five years ago it only cost me about 20 CHF (14 GBP, 18 EUR, 20 USD). It can be reasonably expected to keep working as long as the transmitter is operational and electricity is available.

Readers today will find this all unsurprising, perhaps wonder why I am writing about such trivia. But twenty years ago this cheapo commonplace was cutting-edge technology, ten years before that it was just a dream, not only its astounding accuracy but an accuracy and reliability that was available to everyone. In my childhood in the 1950s such a thing was completely inconceivable.

Hence that midnight moment in which I suddenly realized how special, how unusual our permanent connection to an accurate and utterly dependable time quantifier is. It makes a difference.

Life before time

In my childhood – let's say for the first ten years of my life – I didn't have a watch. In our house there was one clock on the mantlepiece (I think – I can't remember paying much attention to it) and probably an alarm clock (which I don't remember, either) in my parents' bedroom. There were a few public clocks in the town, but, on reflection, I realized in what a relatively timefree condition I lived: I walked to school and back but apart from that had only few occasions to need to synchronize my actions with the beclocked world of others.

Once I was outside the house, measured time simply disappeared. While trying to imagine this condition –  almost impossible in my own thoroughly beclocked state nowadays with a distant atomic clock to watch over my sleep  – I remembered a remark of the German philospher Ernst Bloch, one that I had never really understood until finally, in the middle of last night, its meaning became clear to me: 'Time is a clock without numbers' he wrote, Die Zeit ist eine Uhr ohne Ziffern. As a child in the 1950s I occasionally encountered clock faces but time normally just passed uncounted, even its ticks unheard. At some point hunger or darkness would intervene and drive me homewards.

Inconceivable to me now also how free in time and in space my childhood was outside school. On good weather days – not all that frequent where I lived – I was 'out'. I don't remember telling my parents where I was going, it was just 'out', on the tacit understanding that I would be back for a mealtime or for bedtime. Nowadays my parents would probably be imprisoned for granting me such dangerous freedom. They wouldn't be alone, though: all the parents of my friends would be behind bars with them, because my pals were also just 'out'.

When I was 'out' I could and did go everywhere I wanted – woods, streams (crawfish!), moors, rocky outcrops, fields, farms, canals and any urban place where it was socially acceptable for unaccompanied children to go.

There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander!

[William Wordsworth, 'The Prelude', 5.364-5]

I walked and later cycled everywhere, cycled without helmet, reflective stripes or special clothing – not an act of anarchy, there simply weren't such things.

Rounding off all this freedom: towards the end of this time there was also some proto-pubertal fumbling in woods and glades and groves, but, lacking an instruction manual –  in the role of which Biggles, Sir Walter Scott and the Beano proved to be poor quality helpers  – it was all amusing, frequently frustrating but always harmless.

This childhood may have been free but it wasn't all idyllic – it had many hard edges – nevertheless, it offered immense personal freedom for a child compared with today. A large part of that freedom arose from the inconsequence of measured time.

There was no umbilical telephone cord connecting me to home: for most of my childhood my parents did not have a telephone. When they finally did get one for a short while it was considered to be essentially a connection to the emergency services and was not for everyday use to talk to people. Had I called them at home there would have been uproar. It was kinder to be an hour late for a meal than to waste pennies in a phonebox telling them I was going to be an hour late.

That is what I mean by freedom, a concept that is difficult to reconstruct for younger people in our risk-averse age. Time was largely unmeasured, its hours uncounted, its use without structure or quantifiable utility. For considerable amounts of time I was left to my own devices.

Until timepieces entered my life.

Watch-chains: just the beginning

My first real watch – a Timex, I think it was – put an end to some of that freedom. Before the Timex arrived I had acquired the odd hand-me-down or relic of a watch, none of which ever kept any sort of reliable time so were just impediments. I would 'repair them' just as my father used to, but, like him, with almost no chance of lasting success.

In the public perception of the age watches were, by definition, always to some degree unreliable.

They had to be wound, but not overwound. They had to be set frequently against reliable sources of time such as the wireless pips or the church clock. They would go slow or fast or just simply stop for no discernable reason. They had 'shock-resistant' written on the back of the case, which meant they were unable to resist any kind of shock that they would encounter on the wrist of a ten-year-old boy. Nevertheless, one would shake them, just to be sure they were still going, or perhaps to wake them up. 'Water resistant' implied that the wearer had to avoid even the slightest encounter with moisture.

If you woke up in the middle of the night and looked at your watch there was always doubt that the time shown was even remotely true, so unpredictable were they – at least the cheap ones. Good timekeeping was fundamentally a matter of price.

The Timex also bound me: the excuse 'I didn't know the time' was now no longer valid, I had to think up other excuses, such as blaming the watch. It bound me to it psychologically just as smartphones bind people to them nowadays: I had to consult it frequently, even when the time of day was actually irrelevant for me in that moment. From the age of eleven I was forced to rely on it, untrustworthy though it was, because getting to school now meant bus travel and a full scale entry into the beclocked world of timetables.

A generation later my own children all had watches from a young age, went swimming with them, dropped them, walked on them, played ball games wearing them. They were cheap, plastic, digital and, if they ever did stop you threw them away and bought another one. Those watches didn't go slow or fast, they just stopped, meaning that they never misled you: my precious Timex misled me constantly.

By the time my children had grown up, digital watches with undreamed of accuracy and reliability were being handed out like sweets. Access to reliable measured time was available to everyone. And a few years after that the common man could live a life regulated by an atomic clock, a life measured out in nanoseconds, not coffee spoons.

So now, having recovered some of the timeless and timefree world I had long forgotten I can finally get back to sleep and let it all vanish once more into the mists of the unmeasured time from whence it came. My clock is telling me that it is now '1:12', '17' '5', '9', 'MON' and '19.8°C' and that – like Larkin's telephones in 'Aubade', 'waiting to spring' – in a few hours it would call me back reliably to my chains with complete accuracy.