Now is Not the Time

by Peter Hitchens (December 2019)

The Clock, Karl Knaths, 1951



Until the October day when I flew backwards across the International Date Line, I was clueless about time. When I say backwards, I mean that I went, in a very short and chilly journey, from a late Monday morning in Providenya, Russia, straight into the previous Sunday afternoon in Nome, Alaska. When I say clueless, I mean that I had never really thought about what a strange and political thing time is before. In simple physical fact, I had travelled across a short stretch of snow, ice, and freezing water. In the minds of men, including my own, I had done a completely impossible thing, and returned to the middle of a departed day which I had already spent once on earth.


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But what I also held on to was a growing awareness that time and its measurement are very peculiar things. Just as Lord Peter Wimsey warns in The Nine Tailors against the disturbing strangeness of bells, cats, and mirrors, I warn you to be wary of clocks.



In all these cases, it was only politics that made it so. Once, the peoples on either side of the Bering Strait would have held to the same time, fished the same seas, spoken the same language. Now on the two neighboring Diomede Islands, less than three miles apart in the midst of the strait, and divided by the Date Line, you may see yesterday happening if you look East, and tomorrow taking place, if you look west.





Though many countries promptly abandoned the idea as soon as the war was over, the damage was now done. During the Second World War, the clocks were jammed forward even further, which must certainly have made civilians feel they were suffering for victory if it did nothing else.



And people still say that time zones are unimportant and that nobody cares about them.


I am always amazed by the way many insist this matter is trivial, given the attention incessantly devoted to it by politicians, lobbyists, and ambassadors. Once, nations all chose our own times, within reason. In my treasured copy of the Baedeker Continental Railway timetable of 1913, just before the deluge of the Great War, a note on time remarks that there are three times common in Europe, Greenwich time, mid-European time (an hour ahead) and East Europe Time. But this conceals a far greater variety. Travellers are warned that the time in Amsterdam is 20 minutes ahead of Greenwich. Athens has a special time which is simply not explained. And trains in Russia run to St Petersburg time, which is two hours and one minute ahead of Greenwich.


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Something similar ruled in the USA until time was tamed into zones. This, by contrast with most other clock-based politics, made sense. Railways, airline and broadcasting cannot function unless we agree to compromise a little. Of course, they had to. In the days before this happened, in 1883, noon at Washington DC was 12:02 in Baltimore MD, 12:21 in Worcester MA 11:36 a.m. in Columbus OH, 11:18 in Chicago IL, 10:49 in Galveston TX and 9:02 in Sacramento CA. The railroad and the telegraph wire made this arrangement ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as the annual spring festival in which governments force all the clocks under their control to lie. Imagine how it would be if they could do the same to weighing machines and speedometers.



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Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.

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