PEERING through an influenza-induced miasma of misery a few months ago, I had in my wavering line of sight a cheap, battery-powered alarm clock I’d bought at Boots on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow for £5: a square-faced analogue clock with Arabic numerals, 1-12, and a second hand that clicks 60 indefatigable steps forward every minute.
That’s 3,600 steps an hour: 10 times the number of degrees in a circle. Each geographic “degree” is portioned, like the hour, into 60 “minutes” or, for a sailor, 60 nautical miles (at the equator). So I’d drift off and deepen my headache in half-dreams and reveries about ships' wakes and starry skies and the smell of the sea, six clicks to the nautical mile… a totally unsustainable pace that would put me to sleep.
The analogue clock, of course, describes a circle with centre. And along each hand towards the pivot at the centre, the speed of the hand diminishes. And the central pivot marks a localized point, a place. This is a truthful way of representing time: time is a local phenomenon, and moves more slowly towards the centre… stretching things to fit our awareness. An analogue clock locates time wherever it is placed. It becomes a disseminator, not just a denominator, of time.
I remember a very different clock from my childhood. There was a big brass key that unlocked its towering, varnished cabinet. It had twelve positions around its face too, but they were large, deliberate Roman numerals: “I, II, III, IV, V, VI…” and there was no second hand, just a big, swinging pendulum, driven by weights and chains. I would watch as my mother opened the cabinet and re-adjusted the weights to keep the wheels and gears in regular motion.
Every minute there was a metallic churning sound and the long hand would lurch, like a drunk man pushed, one notch forward with a sound like a dropped pot. I never saw the short hand move, but it did. This clock taught me about the hands’ regular return to where they’d been in the first place. And the diagonally opposite “V” and the “X” were the only places without any “I”s, although there were 17 “I”s on the clock face.
All of this was somehow more malleable and relationship-forming, than Arabic numerals with their mixture of shapes and only five “1”s to cover the same span. It aroused in me the same feeling as being offered a second cup of tea by my mother’s elderly aunt, who owned the clock and the big brass key without which time would stop.
The absence of a second hand let time spread out somehow. There seemed to be a lot of time for a lot of things. I’d practice the piano for “half an hour after school” while the big hand went from the “II” of ten past five to the “VIII” of twenty to six. Then I’d feed our dog and go and get washed and dressed tidily for dinner at the “VI”s of six thirty. There was nothing much else to measure time by except the shifting light and the “feel” of things in those pre-television days.
Sometimes, I’d want the clock’s hands to move ahead more quickly: 50 minutes to get ready for dinner usually left me 40 to read books from the dining room bookcase and that's how, when I was seven, I became fascinated with the knights, ladies, schemers and deceivers and sheer magic of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Jacques Cousteau’s undersea Silent World.
I got my first watch — a nice self-winding Omega — for my 21st birthday. But the hands fell off and it had to go to Australia (from New Zealand) to be repaired It came back just before I set sail on a sea draft to Antarctica as part of my compulsory military training… which included learning to count off the minutes through the twenty-four-hour day (a way of telling time that, for some reason, still makes me think of diced carrots).
“Somewhere” in the Southern Ocean my watch stopped. And then I “dropped” it into McMurdo Sound one strange, sunlit, sapphire night while we were watching orcas chase Adele penguins through the crystal clear water. That was 43 years ago this coming January.
Instead of replacing that watch I got quite good at reckoning time and picking it up from public clocks and what people around me were doing (it’s amazing how governed by routines ‘civilised’ life can be). As a journalist, though watchless, I was usually the recommended five minutes early for appointments and I don't recall ever missing a deadline. Deadlines were drummed into us. And my “clock” was the people around me.
For several years we lived beyond the national grid in New Zealand — no electricity or indoor plumbing — and I learned to tell the time to within a few minutes from the lie of the stars at night. The stars are one big pattern that revolves each night around the axis of the earth’s poles but also loafs its way north and south a bit as the seasons cycle. So, with a bit of practice, you can get quite good at reckoning the date (the month anyway) as well as the time.
This is a solar system kind of time: it makes you very aware of the cycling of things, the humanly unstoppable turning of our Earth, unique in its planetary-particular sorts of days and sorts of nights, and its implacability. The primeval human response lies within our genes and being. It is the drum beat of the heart.
Time is local but it also locates us as human beings: as sentient creatures who gaze upwards and find patterns and wonder. Sky-time underlies most of the world’s wisdom traditions, helping people to organise their day-to-day activities around far vaster fountains and shapers of meaning than anyone can govern. Ironically, it becomes the immeasurable “gods” born of wonder who, in the end, give lie to any priest who’d try to usurp their authority.
So there’re ways time can be fundamentally liberating.
At last, I bought another watch from an Alitalia in-flight catalogue. I’d started travelling a lot and was frequently trotting from one time zone to another. When you do that, it gets harder to dead-reckon local time. So I bought that $50 wristwatch that had no numbers, just little silver notches on a black face.
As there were no numerals on the face, I realised that I didn’t have to re-set the hands between time zones (most time zones move apart by the hour). To know the hour I just had to remember which silver slivver was the “top” one in whatever place I was at the time. In Ontario, “top” was the slivver opposite the wee adjustment knob; it pointed up my forearm; the U.K. or New Zealand slivver was the one above the adjustment knob. It Italy, the “top” slivver was the one nearest the adjustment knob. And I got used to reading the "minute" hand’s track from the “12” reference point. It confused friends but I found it easy enough to get used to. I just named the slivvers: Italy, Ontario. U.K.-New Zealand, Bukgaria … and, because it could be all times at once, it connected me with friends around the world.
But I lost that watch in the garden and my time was all local again.
Digital clocks change all of this.
Instead of localizing time, they seem to me to personalise it. In doing so, they erase my sense of place. There’s no centre with these watches and clocks; just numbers racing by as though time was any old dimension like length or height… and perhaps, in far more complicated ways, it is: Einstein’s principles of special relativity declare time and space to be inseparable. And physicists still argue about what time is and even whether it exists.
Digital clocks make me feel very uncomfortable. They misrepresent time as I have come to feel and understand it. They makes one moment equivalent to the next then indiscriminately consign both to a numerically constructed past. With my seventeen "I”s, I knew I could not expect things simply to vanish as if time erased all trace of them. The past was defined by all those “I”s, not erased by them. Where are the “I”s on a digital clock? Where is the centre?
In the Emergency Department of the local hospital I noticed on the wall an analog clock with Arabic numerals and a second hand that swept around the face with a sleek, oily smoothness.
It gave me the transfixing feeling that a snake can give you as it uncoils. It was an utterance without punctuation, a true representation of the kind of time that waits for nothing and no-one; the time that is seamless, that offers no pause or reflection, a lubricated form of unhesitating order, edged with the glint of totalitarianism. I didn’t like it at all.
Then, a few years ago, I went to Bulgaria to write about the bagpiping. The music there is nigh impossible to notate with any sense of accuracy but, if it is notated, it’s impossible to play properly from the score alone because no score can capture the intention and spirit of the music. There's a fascinating book about Bulgarian traditional music by Timothy Rice called May it Fill Your Soul. And it points to one of the ultimate human approaches to time.
|Ivan Georgiev of Plovdiv|
It is about dividing time up into moments of human significance through dance; and dance links all into a relationship that is at once personal, communal and social. Here, there’s a dynamic musical integration of human awareness on human terms.
At first hearing, the music sounded strange to me. It does things that Western music, even jazz, rarely attempts… and then I started “getting” it and it became one of the most exciting human-created sounds I’d ever heard.
Of course, I am not promising that you will hear that music this way, but I am sure such experiences are about, laid like traps of liberation, for all of us. And the more frequently you spring them, the freer you become, and the more you encounter…
One of the many miracles of life is to walk unexpectedly into something that reveals far more than you could possibly have imagined. Bulgarian music was like that for me. You can’t construct such moments intentionally. It’s impossible to put them into words for another person because the words will never have the effect of the experience. But you can be open to them, I think. And they can set you free.
Time is ours to dispose of. Ours to live into. Ours to claim and mould and shape… and dance to.