Timekeepers: How the World became obsessed with time – Simon Garfield
One of my traits, perhaps annoying to some, is that I constantly look at my watch. I am not admiring it as a thing of beauty – it serves more of a Benthamite utilitarian purpose – but because I find it comforting to know the time. It’s a habit I am finding difficult to kick even though, in my retired state, I am no longer a slave to time. Indeed, for much of what I do these days, knowing what the exact time is is pretty much irrelevant. Wouldn’t it be great to be free of the constraints that time imposes on us and how the hell did we allow time to rule our lives anyway? These are the questions Garfield seeks to address in his engaging, anecdotal and occasionally irritating review of the subject.
Take the watch. Pick up any magazine or so-called serious Sunday newspaper and you will find sophisticated adverts for watches of all shapes and sizes, pretty much all unremittingly ugly in my view, which will set you back thousands and which you will never really own if you buy a Patek Philippe, at least according to their strap line. But why do we buy and wear watches when our mobile technology gives us the time as conveniently and just as, if not more, accurately? Is it redundant technology which has now become just a fashion statement? The luxury watch industry is worth many millions and it shows no sign of flagging. A true mystery.
The limitations of technology imposed time constraints on our listening habits. Because the grooves on a record had to be wound so tight that the needle skipped if the length of the song was longer than 3 minutes, this was the maximum that a song could last until the advent of the 33 rpm disc. Then came along the CD. It was originally going to have a diameter of 11.5 centimetres but the Sony vice chairman at the time, Norio Ohga, insisted it be 12 cm to allow his favourite piece of music, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to be accommodated on one disc. And so the standard with a limit of around 74 minutes of music was set.
If you want a target to point the finger of blame at for our enslavement to time then the railways would do. Prior to their development, time was governed by the church clock and was particular to the local area. Railways required timetables to alert the aspiring passenger when they might catch a train and, if they were lucky, when they might arrive at their destination. This in turn, required harmonisation and standardisation of time. Once the genie was out of the bottle, we have struggled to control it ever since.
Throughout the book you come across facts that are astounding or observations which make you realise you never knew that. Take for instance, the display of clocks. They invariably show the time as ten past ten because that setting makes the clock face appear to smile. And comedian Dave Allen’s great joke about time – “you clock in to the clock. You clock out to the clock. You come home to the clock. You eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock.. You do that for 40 years of your life, you retire and what do they fucking give you? A clock” – is always worth a retell.
The book is a collection of essays and the joins do show at times. The sections on the slow food movement and Charlie boy’s Poundbury estate seem somewhat out of kilter with the general thesis, although they arguably show an inclination to turn the clock back. On the whole it is an engaging read and there are far worse ways of spending a few hours.