A six-month-old foetus, writes Sarah Norgate, is immersed in time. Its mother's heartbeat, the rhythms of her voice, peristaltic echoes: all offer regularities that start tuning a new human's senses to patterns of interval and duration. And immersed in time is how we remain, until our time runs out - at 90 or so in the affluent West, if we're lucky, but sooner in sub-Saharan Africa.
This informative first book by Norgate, a psychologist, looks at how we relate to the fourth dimension, from the millisecond precision of a tennis player returning a serve to the personal narratives we each build, which can extend over several generations. She samples time in different cultures: the main contrast here is between the clock-driven, diary-governed, synchronised lives that derive from the discipline of industrial work and more event-focused (if less eventful) agrarian regimes, and the "timeless" philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism. She also finds time for charming variations, like the Amerindians of the Aymara, for whom the past lies in front and the future behind.
The book, short enough to suit time-poor readers, is an agreeable blend of psychology, neuroscience, sociology and anthropology. It is well supplied with interesting observations about babies, prisoners serving life, drug-users, politicians, the terminally ill, drivers judging whether to run an amber light and urbanites trying to negotiate ticket barriers. Unexpectedly, Dubliners live the fastest lives, but Switzerland does have the most accurate public clocks.
This could have been a bit of a hodge-podge, but is saved by a unifying concern for inequalities in relationships with time. Our cheap clothes come at the expense of the truly time-poor, sleeping just long enough to resume their sweatshop labours. More subtly, our shift to 24/7 services - "the colonisation of the night" - requires an expanding army of shift workers, enduring stress and ill-health.
The framing of time as a political issue adds punch to the wider reflections on how we experience it. Norgate holds back from a classic Marxist analysis, though it strikes me that time would translate fairly well. But she makes a good case that the rich have more time, and more control over how to use it, even as they make most noise about how they can never find enough hours in the day.
Jon Turney leads the MSc in creative non-fiction writing at Imperial College LondonReuse content