Last night I surprised the hedgehog – again. I’d got used to him, or possibly her, turning up at the cat-feeding hut at around nine o’clock, when dusk fell. I’d got into the ridiculous habit of assuming nightfall to be at nine o’clock. That was the way of the world. I can be a bit vague sometimes. It’s not forgetfulness, it’s having an artistic nature.
At six or thereabouts I snapped on the outside light to go and feed the birds – still not quite registering that it was dark – as I should have done because, hadn’t I just snapped on the light? – and the birds would all be asleep. And there was the hedgehog, or rather the hedgehog’s bottom, poking out of the cat-feeding place. Inside the cat-feeding place its snout was deep in a bowl of Whiskas. Luckily, hedgehog’s hearing is even worse than mine. I tiptoed into reverse and he/she didn’t notice me.
But it set me thinking. Are we not the only animal that regulates its daily routine with the help of a range of complex timekeeping devices? How do animals manage without them, and how would we manage if all the clocks were suddenly stopped – or abducted? I have in mind, you see, an unmanned alien spacecraft, one of those saucer-shaped items people are always saying they’ve seen. The spacecraft skims low over the earth, scanning for life-forms to beam up, dissect and study. But it makes a mistake. Because it is a metallic life-form, and all the life-forms in its entire galaxy are also metallic, it ignores biological entities and beams up instead – every single clock, watch or other timekeeping device. Suddenly, Earth is timepiece-free. If you are a writer, by the way, I give you this plot for free. I suspect it will only make a short story but you never know, you might manage to streeeeetch it into some sort of novella.
Having always more or less disregarded clocks and watches, we are now forced to consider – urgently, since the spaceship’s ‘sweep’ took only a few seconds – what we needed them for in the first place. Or did we actually need them?
Clocks of some sort have been around for a very, very, very long time – for as long as human beings found the need to measure periods of time shorter than days or lunar months. These, of course, could be observed from the sun – the coming of light in the morning and darkness at night – and the moon, going through its monthly waxing and waning cycle. So there were sundials and water-clocks and hour-glasses – those things with two bulbs separated by a narrow ‘neck’, and sand running from one to another. When the ‘sands of time’ ran out, an hour, near enough, had passed. If you needed another hour you just turned the hour-glass up the other way and the sand started flowing again. Excellent device, and aesthetically pleasing. A miniature version used to be used to time boiling eggs.
Clocks became more and more sophisticated and accurate. Human beings can’t resist improving things, and then improving them even more. It’s in our nature to tinker. These wonderful new clocks made navigation easier for ships’ captains. As time went by, people arrived on time for church with the help of a clock rather than a chiming bell. Then there were railways, and people caught their trains on time because they had clocks and watches; the trains ran on time for the same reason: the timetable had been invented. Factory workers in the newly-industrialised cities had once been summoned by a ‘knocker-up’ or ‘knocker-upper’ who scuttled past their windows, banging loudly on them. Now he was replaced by alarm clocks. People began to get anxious about time. They worried about missing their trains and being late for work. If they clocked in even a minute late at the factory door, that day they would be docked fifteen, or thirty minutes’ pay. Time controlled people. Time punished them.
So if all the clocks were stopped, or beamed up by aliens, maybe we would be happier? Chaos to start with, no doubt. People would shamble in to work whenever they felt like it – all people, not just important people. People would leave whenever they’d had enough. Or if it was a sunny afternoon and they felt like sitting in the park eating sandwiches. Hallelujah!
I think I might try it, you know. Not now, with winter approaching and even the daytime chilly and damp. As I look out of my window, now, the sky has gone that saucepan grey it mostly is in Britain, beyond September. It’s starting to rain and raindrops spatter against my window. And the wind’s in the telegraph wires, so there’s more, and worse, to come. In a minute I will draw my curtains, as the over-the-road neighbours already have. No, I shall wait for summer, for a long, inviting day when the sun is shining. I shall turn all the clocks to the wall. I shall turn off my mobile phone and resist the temptation to just check my emails or just post a quick little something on my blog. I shall leave the TV off; I shall switch off the microwave with its glowing green numbers. I shall make myself some sandwiches and a flask of tea. I shall take a book and drive out into the country. I shall not listen to my car radio because every hour it would inform me that another hour of my life had gone – somewhere. I shall listen to the birds. I shall know the time, well enough for my purposes, because the light will change, fractionally, continually. I still have that skill, from childhood. All of us have that skill – it’s just looking. I will watch the sun and know that when it is directly overhead it’s noon, as near as makes no difference. And I shall come home when I’m tired, not when my watch tells me to. Ah, it all sounds so Perfect Day. Someone on YouTube describes it as ‘beautifully depressing’