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Time out of mind

Tomek Niedzwiedz

Why is it called Daylight Saving Time? Time is one of the many things, like youth, beauty and opened bottles of wine, that cannot and should not be saved. Daylight Borrowing Time would be more appropriate.

All through summer we took that extra hour of daylight on credit, adding it to the end of the day to give us those long summer evenings. Now we pay the price.

At the beginning of November, when things are bad enough already, an hour of our evening daylight is arbitrarily snatched away and tacked on to the wrong end of the day. Darkness falls in the middle of the afternoon, and half the population sinks into the depressed state called SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder — which is not a disorder at all but a commonsense reaction to the months of gloom and darkness that lie ahead.

The measurement of time has always preoccupied us because we imagine that what we can measure, we can control. This delusion goes back for thousands of years — the most extravagant example of a timepiece being the huge Druidic stone circle at Stonehenge in England.

Early timekeeping was, to put it mildly, was imprecise, depending on devices like the sundial and the hourglass. In the 1600s the pendulum clock was invented (by a Dutchman, Christian Huygens, if you want to know where the blame lies). Once time could be accurately measured, everybody wanted to know the time all the time. Public clocks were set up in every city, and soon pocket watches and wristwatches allowed us to carry time around, so we would know when to commence the cocktail hour, eat, sleep, wake up, and complain about other people not being on time. It was probably the single most oppressive invention in history.

Once time could be measured those in power couldn’t resist the temptation of trying to change it, dividing the days and hours in many different ways, without in any way affecting the total amount of daylight and darkness in each season, or anything else. The French revolutionary calendar of the late 1700s had ten hours per day, each divided into a hundred minutes. It didn’t improve the Parisian weather or prevent the return of the monarchy.

Time is something of a mystery because we don’t know what it is and have no way of controlling it. I inherited an interest in the subject from my father, whose hobby was repairing watches and clocks. Our home was always full of clocks, all ticking away at slightly different rhythms and showing slightly different times. This somewhat time-obsessed environment led me, at age eight, to build my own time machine out of army surplus parts, in a doomed attempt to take control of this infuriating, fluid element. It didn’t work.

So, I always want to know what time it really is. But only one of our many timepieces is completely accurate — the so-called atomic clock that receives super-precise time updates from the atomic clock in Colorado.

I can’t argue with it, or adjust it, or complain that the spring has broken or that mice have got into the mechanism. That’s the real time, and it has an awful fascination. It sits on my desk, silently, relentlessly ticking away the seconds of my life, and yours, silently, relentlessly bringing us ever closer to that event we all dread – the elections.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.