Time: Stand to attention, we're on century duty

The BBC has begun to celebrate the millennium with a series of films, documentaries and brief histories of time. About time; Horizon: Longitude BBC2 Shooting the Past BBC2 Century Road BBC2 What Makes Us Tick BBC2 How To Beat The Clock BBC2 Clockwatch BBC2
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The clock is ticking. There are only 355 study days left for scientists to fathom the psychological phenomenon known as millennial angst. Is our anxiety rooted in the inchoate fear that if we haven't been invited to the party of a lifetime by now, we're not going to be? Or is there a deeper worry that the well of time is somehow running dry, that in our haste we are literally killing time?

The Time Season is BBC2's timely reminder that time isn't what it used to be: there's a premium on time that there wasn't, in say, the 18th century. The first lesson you take away from the Time Season is that the study of time is time-consuming. The last year of the millennium is barely into its stride and already you could have spent four and a half hours viewing programmes about time. That's nothing on the four and a half decades John Harrison spent discovering the correct means of measuring longitude. His story was told in Horizon, or rather retold: this was a faithful reading of Dava Sobel's bestselling book Longitude, made no doubt for people who haven't got time to read.

Harrison, a chippy northern carpenter, spent 43 years trying to manufacture a seaworthy timepiece that would allow navigators to tell the time in Greenwich wherever they were in the world, and so plot their longitude. After the first quarter century of working with cumbersome wooden clocks, Harrison concluded he was barking up the wrong tree, and started all over again with watches. You couldn't do that these days. There just isn't the time.

The second lesson of the Time Season is that time is a broad church, with something there for everyone - science, natural history, oral history, observational documentary. Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past, starting tonight, is a drama linked - we'll find out how loosely - to the theme of time. So though it started with a programme about longitude, the season may have a latitude problem. Century Road, for example, is a series about people who live in streets named at the turn of the last century. It's beautifully made, but it's no more tightly about time than, say, People's Century. Or even Sale of the Century.

Other programmes stick to the brief like clockwork. What Makes Us Tick was a fascinating programme about research into the body clock, marred only by one of those hammy voiceovers that talk in a really sinister way. It's not as if the subject couldn't be trusted to be sinister all by itself. Take the ability of adrenalin to slow time down by speeding up our internal clock. Or the discrepancy between horological time and human time. In the early 1960s a Frenchman lived underground for six months without access to either natural light or a clock. He settled into a rhythm of 24-and- a-half-hour days. Apparently this is what we'd all do in similar circumstances. By my calculation, if we obeyed that natural rhythm, every 48 days we'd miss a day. As it is, every morning we get up half an hour early. Which explains a lot.

The metronomic tyranny of the 24-hour clock caused havoc with the sleeping pattern of a totally blind man we met in the programme. He worked out that, excluded from the circadian loop in which darkness and light rotate, his own body was trying to observe a day lasting 24 hours and 40 minutes. He slept patchily because he was always going to bed when an external clock told him to, and not his own internal one. A prescription of melatonin got him back onto the horological straight and narrow. The difference between us and the rest of the animal world is that, unlike hamsters and humming-birds, humans choose to misread their own timekeeping equipment. Disasters such as Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez and Chernobyl are partly attributable to the tiredness of workers whose circadian rhythms have been disrupted by shiftwork.

Horizon concluded that the secret of knowing where you are is knowing what time it is. If only that were always true. In an era when the modish new infirmity is hurry sickness - the worry that there's simply not enough time to do everything, that we're always behind - you know what time it is when you're not where you're meant to be.

In How To Beat The Clock, David Stafford went to Silicon Valley in California, the time deprivation capital of the world. "If you have 10 seconds to spare," said Stafford, a thin grey version of Jonathan Meades, "put it in an envelope and send it to the Silicon Valley time famine relief fund." Executives are so busy here that a new industry has sprung up in personal organisers. Interestingly, given that this is where the microchip comes from, these personal organisers are personal in the sense that they are actual persons. They do your shopping for you, get your car fixed, take your dog for its canine coiffure - all those things executives haven't got time for because they're too busy making money they'll never have time to spend. I predict that the virus will spread to personal organisers themselves, who will take on so much business they'll have to sub-contract it out. They'll even have to hire other personal organisers to take their own dogs to the mutt stylists.

Time is a growth industry. Because we're all so short of it, a bunch of charlatans have written books listing the secrets of time management. Most of their precepts are plain common sense, and Stafford was withering in his scorn for them. Tempus fugit, as they say: time management is for gits.

Perhaps the most endearing of all the programmes in the Time Season is the one that throws up its hands and admits that when it comes to time, no one has all the answers. Clockwatch is touring the most fascinating clocks in Britain. It started in Wells Cathedral, where the oldest mechanical clock in the world is surmounted by rotating knights on chargers. "We don't know the meaning of those people," said one expert. And how about the figurine which chimes the hours and the quarter-hours? "Nobody knows who he is at all." The information is lost in the mists of time.

Comments