The rum old business of years, and clocks and time

Brighton Flea Market's impressive display of timepieces
Brighton Flea Market's impressive display of timepieces

Time is a slippery, arbitrary, enigmatic element that nobody can quite define.

While young people celebrate New Year with fireworks and parties, older folk are often tinged with melancholy and deja vu. We have seen too many of them go by, and they return with ever quickening rapidity.

In Tennyson’s poem The Throstle (1889), the bird singing its heart out on New Year’s Eve is every young spirit, full of foolish optimism – “‘Love again, song again, nest again, young again’, Never a prophet so crazy!” – while the octogenarian poet responds more warily.

In Thomas Hardy’s similar poem, The Darkling Thrush, dated December 31, 1900, the gloom is painted up: “The ancient pulse of germ and birth Was shrunken hard and dry, And every spirit upon earth Seemed fervorless as I.”

The bird’s song suggests “Some blessed hope, whereof he knew And I was unaware.”

Well, welcome to 2016, and may it prove a decent year. But, as I stood just now admiring the Kemptown Flea Market’s window display of clocks – casement clocks of all sizes, wall clocks ditto, mantel clocks, alarm clocks, fob-watches, dozens of interesting old timers, few of them, by the look of it, in ticking order – I pondered this whole business of years, and clocks, and time.

There are only three temporal measurements with any claim to natural reality. One is the year (the time our planet takes to orbit the sun), another is the day (the time it takes to revolve on its axis), and the third is the month (the time the moon takes to revolve around the earth). And these measurements only have natural reality on this planet at this present time. (I quote H.G.Wells: “There was a time when the day was not a half and not a third of what it is today; there will be a time when the day will be as long as a year is now.”)

The other measurements – weeks, hours, minutes, seconds, centuries – are arbitrary inventions. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks had 10-day weeks, the Assyrians six-day weeks, while the Romans had no weeks. The Romans had relative hours: 12 of daylight, 12 of night, with the daylight hours at midsummer being 75 minutes in length. The French Calendar of Reason, instituted in 1792, had 10-day weeks and days divided into 10 hours of 100 minutes each, each minute having 100 seconds. In 1929 the Soviets instituted a five-day week. The Islamic year, being lunar, has only 354 days. They are currently in the year 1437, dating from Muhammad’s flight to Medina in AD 622. The Copts, meanwhile, are in the year 1732, for the Hindus it is 2072 (or maybe 5117), for the Buddhists 2560, for the Japanese 2675, for the Chinese 4712 (their New Year is on February 8), for the Koreans 4349, it is 5775 in the Jewish calendar, and 6019 in the timeline established by Archbishop Ussher from the putative beginning of the world.

New Year’s Day used to be not January 1, but Lady Day, March 25.

Time is a slippery, arbitrary, enigmatic element that nobody can quite define. “Time is what you measure with a clock,” says Einstein, sidestepping neatly. Thomas Hobbes says: “Time has always been whatever anyone has wanted it to be.” Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It observes that “Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.” Francis Bacon calls time “the author of authors” that “devoureth his children” (Ovid’s “tempus edax rerum”), and compares it to a river “which carrieth down to us that which is light or blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid”.

“What a rum thing time is, ain’t it, Neddy?” observes Mr Roker, in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.