About Time

station clock

I’ve written several times about Frank, the elderly gentleman who rather unexpectedly came to live with me last summer. And since I mentioned him in Christmas Chemistry he has passed another milestone and is now 96. With increasing age there’s no reduction in his enthusiasm for gin and tonic or chocolate biscuits but both his eyesight and hearing have continued to deteriorate. It’s no longer possible for him to see his clock even with a magnifying glass so we recently bought him a talking watch. He has a love-hate relationship with this well-meaning device. On good days it helps him to pace his way through the daylight hours and the long nights, but there are many occasions when he mishears what it says, and is surprised. His tendency to nod off at regular intervals adds to the disorientation, and his response to being told the time is always a polite but incredulous, ‘Good Heavens’.

We’ve probably all had the experience of coming out of a deep sleep and wondering where we are and what day it is. It happened to me recently when I was having a weekend away in Manchester and for a moment I felt quite panicky. Unlike Frank, though, I was able to reach for my watch and to look out of the window, and this put my position in time and space into perspective.

sleeping cat

I’ve been doing research for my next book recently and one of the many things I’ve been thinking about is time. And I realise how I’ve always taken it for granted. Every March I’ve obediently put my clocks forward and then in October I’ve turned them back again. As though it were decreed by nature. But of course, it’s not and the path to our current consensus on time has been jagged.

When people worked on the land they had little need to organise their lives by the clock. They would rise with the sun and go to bed when it got dark. Time, if it was needed, was measured by a sundial in each town or village. But as soon as people started to work in factories and mills, things changed. Their lives were ruled by the clock. Being late for work could lead to dismissal and they weren’t allowed to go home until the hands on the clock proved that it was the end of the working day. This was not always predictable as many unscrupulous factory managers manipulated time for their own ends, turning the clock back to get more hours out of their exhausted workers.factoryBut the main change in time observation came with the railways. In the beginning there were different local times all over the country. In Norwich, local time was a couple of minutes ahead of London, and in Barrow it was thirteen minutes behind the capital. This hadn’t mattered much in the days of horse-drawn coaches as they travelled relatively slowly but trains carried people around at previously unimagined speeds and now these time differences caused confusion. People risked missing trains and appointments and with train drivers working to different times there was a danger of collisions.

From 1840 the situation began to improve as some railway companies started using ‘London Time’ which was determined by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. But it took about eight years before all the railway companies were setting their station clocks to this. Also, people were resistant to giving up their local time and so in many places the station clock would have two different minute hands, one displaying the standard time, and the other displaying the local time. Initially stationmasters used books of tables to work out the correct time for the station clock, but from 1852 the problem of standardisation was overcome.The electric telegraph was introduced and could quickly transmit the time from Greenwich to wherever it was needed. In 1880 the chaos was resolved once and for all when the Government passed an act that established a single time zone throughout the country.

steam train.jpg

Daylight saving is another innovation that has affected clocks and William Willett, a builder, is generally credited with promoting this idea in Great Britain. In 1907 he published a pamphlet putting forward his ideas. He argued that bringing the time forward in the Spring and Summer would improve people’s health by giving them more daylight for outdoor recreation, and stressed that the increased opportunities for rifle practice may come to benefit the nation. He also argued that the people of Great Britain could save £2,500,000 a year because they would spend less on electricity, gas, oil and candles. He acknowledged that the changes might cause confusion in our dealings with other countries but with unswerving imperial confidence was sure that when they realised the benefits, they would be quick to copy our example. With daylight saving, he enthused that a man (he didn’t mention women) will have gained two whole years of daylight by the age of fifty.

oil lamps

Willett aimed to gain eighty minutes of daylight and proposed moving the clocks forward by twenty minutes for four Sundays in succession in April each year. These changes would be reversed over four Sundays each September. He urged voters to send postcards to their MPs asking them to back this rather complicated scheme. It took until 1916 for a version of his idea to be adopted but sadly he didn’t live to see it. The system we use now when the clocks change by just one hour, and all in one hit, was introduced as a way of cutting domestic coal consumption leaving more available for the war effort.

As a child I could never remember which way the clocks went but when I was a teenager, an old lady named Phoebe used to say to me, ‘Spring forward, fall back, dear’. It’s a helpful reminder but there was one occasion when it didn’t work. Molly was about three weeks old and the whole household was in a fuddled state of post-baby chaos. Somehow we managed to put the clock forward instead of back and my then-husband set off dutifully for communion. Unfortunately he arrived two hours early and must have seemed very eager as he waited by the church door at 6am.

church door

And now today as daylight saving begins, I know which way to put the clocks. That’s an improvement. However, there’s no improvement in the level of general mayhem in my household. Whatever time it is, the response is likely to be the same—a polite but incredulous, ‘Good Heavens’.

frank drink

Occupational Hazards

european flag

Here in the UK, the news is dominated by whether we should leave the EU, and it’s likely to remain that way until the referendum takes place on June 23rd. Inevitably, we hear a great deal about immigration into Britain. But it’s also the case that there are many Britons who choose to live in other countries within the EU and it’s unclear what will happen to their residency rights if we decide to distance ourselves from Europe.

This problem is likely to affect my elder son, Will, who has lived happily outside the UK for over four years. Currently, he’s based in Riga, the capital of Latvia where he teaches, edits and writes about Eastern European culture, history and politics. The city has a rich heritage and is particularly noted for its Art Nouveau buildings. Before moving to Latvia, Will lived in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, another Baltic state.

estonian flag

Through this family connection I’ve learned a lot about the Baltic countries. But generally when I tell people where Will lives, the reaction is polite interest and a blank look. Emma, my elder daughter, found the same when she went to visit her brother in Estonia a couple of years ago. She’s a sensible kind of girl and before setting off she rang her bank to let them know she’d be using her card abroad for a few days. ‘I’m going away for the weekend,’ she said. ‘Lovely—’ said the customer service assistant. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Estonia,’ replied Emma confidently.There was a long silence… ‘Which country is that in?’ asked the assistant. ‘It is a country,’ said Emma, patiently. Another silence—even longer this time. ‘We’re having trouble finding that,’ said the assistant. He was no doubt very proud to work for the bank that has ‘The World’s Local Bank’ as its tagline.

tallinn 1.jpg

I managed a visit, too, a few months later with my younger daughter, Molly. And I was intrigued to find out how this small country has fared since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and it regained its independence. The Old Town is a World Heritage Site and that’s where we stayed amidst the cobbled streets and red-roofed buildings painted in pale shades of beige, green, blue and yellow. All of the Government buildings and embassies are at the top of a small hill and as we stood outside the Estonian parliament building, I couldn’t help but share Will’s enthusiasm. It is indeed impossible not to warm to a country whose political headquarters are based in a building resembling a pink and white birthday cake.

estonian parliament building

The Old Town is well-preserved and charming but from high above the roof-tops we could see the concrete bulk of the Soviet-era tower blocks. And wherever you go in Tallinn there is no escaping reminders of its brutal history. There’s a museum dedicated to the history of the KGB and Molly suggested innocently that as I’m a careers adviser I might be interested in the Museum of Occupations. The truth, however, is nothing cheerful like the ins and outs of what an ergonomist does, or how an orthotist is different from an orthoptist. Estonia’s history is dark and it has been invaded and occupied so many times that a whole museum is devoted to these traumatic events. Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and the Russian Tsars have all claimed Estonia at different times and even the name of its capital city translates as ‘Danish town’. A brief, glorious period began in 1920 when it gained its independence and the economy grew strong. Then in 1939 the Soviets crossed the border and it all went wrong again.

estonian forest brother

This first year of Soviet occupation was called the Year of Suffering and in one night, ten thousand Estonians were deported to Siberia. One third were children. In 1945 the Russians took formal control, dragging the small country into the Soviet Union. An astonishing number of young men and women took to the woods and lived in underground hideouts. There were about ten thousand in Estonia and more in Latvia and Lithuania. They called themselves the Forest Brothers and their mission was to ambush Russians and fight for freedom. They believed that the West would rescue their country from its plight, but this never happened and the last of the Forest Brothers was captured in 1978. During this period about 70,000 Estonians tried to escape to the West. Many travelled in fishing boats and were drowned. It was another century and another conflict but it’s an all too familiar story of people risking everything for a safer and better life.


Refugees crossing the Mediterranean – January 2016. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe

And this leads into the third link in my chain interview project where each interviewee passes me on to someone that they think is interesting. It’s a surefire way to some fascinating conversations and I’m loving learning about things outside my normal range of experience. Recently I talked to Mala, a young immigration and human rights lawyer. She told me the sobering story of what inspired her to get into this field and describes what it’s like inside a detention centre.