Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Summer Time Blues

This weekend, we had the annual ritual in Britain of "putting the clocks back".  No, we hadn't hidden them anywhere (though wouldn't that be a great idea?): they had simply all been set to "British Summer Time" (i.e. GMT +1 hour) during that other great ritual, "putting the clocks forward" in March, and needed restoring to GMT. It's a hassle.  For a start, clocks tend to be mounted inaccessibly high on walls, and getting them off and back onto the wobbly nail is a hazardous procedure.  Twiddling that knurly knob on the back through eleven hourly cycles does nothing for anyone's fingertips.  And is it a superstition or a law of physics that the hands of a clock may not be turned backwards?

Worse, every digital clock in the house (and every year there are more) seems to operate differently.  Some have smugly adjusted themselves in the night.  It's uncanny -- I'm sure we have never told our kitchen radio where we live. How does it know? Perhaps it's because it is permanently tuned in to BBC Radio 4.  All the other digital clocks use utterly different, completely counter-intuitive combinations of simultaneous button presses to adjust the time.  Our bedside alarm, for example, requires the correct button on the top to be held down, while a right-hand multi-function button on the front is used to change the hour, and a left-hand button is used to change the minutes.  It couldn't be more wrong.

Some clocks are so inaccessible or so arcane that they are never changed.  There's at least one in every household.  The digital dashboard clock in our Renault, for example, is both inaccessible and arcane, and has been on Summer Time ever since we bought the car in 2005 (not to mention 7 minutes fast).  You get used to it.

The change is usually expressed and experienced in bed-hours: you either get an extra hour in bed, or lose an hour's sleep.  If you are not mathematically-inclined, it can be surprisingly hard to work out which change has which consequence (and that's why I am late for school today, sir).  The actual purpose of Summer Time is obscure: it appears to have something to do with children in Scotland, though why they need to lose an hour's sleep in spring is never explained. It may have something to do with one of those old Celtic festivals, like Samhain or Bellan Sebastihain.

I discovered an interesting thing this week, though, that I hadn't known before.  Apparently the general cultural relaxation that occurred around 1968 found temporal expression, too.  It seems Harold Wilson and his cabinet were hanging out (probably sharing a reefer or two, the way everyone did in 1968), and someone said, "You know what? I cannot be arsed to change the clocks back again this year, man! It's, like, such a hassle!"  And Harold said, "Yeah, you know what would be, like really, really cool?  We should pass a law saying, hey, people, no-one ever has to change the clocks back ever again, ever!  Like, NEVER!!"  And everyone round the table said, "Wow!", and that's exactly what they did.

Apparently the "experiment" with so-called British Standard Time (i.e. permanent summer time) lasted from 27th October 1968 to 31st October 1971.  I was amazed.  Back then, it seems, even the government felt free to play with your mind!  It made me think: how had that affected my own adolescence, given I was aged 14 in 1968?  Had it been like, for example, life within the Arctic Circle, with six months of permanent daylight followed by six months of permanent darkness?  Was that why I had developed the urge to stay up all night and to stay in bed all day?  Might it not after all have been my own moral failing, as alleged by my parents, but the fault of the government?

Now, if you had to point at a single recent span of time when British culture (or, at least, popular culture) seemed most galvanised, creative, and vividly alive, might you not point at the years 1968 to 1972?  No?  Well, perhaps you're right, and it only seems that way if you did happen to be 14 in 1968.  But wouldn't it be something if -- just as the ability (nay, right!) to sign on the dole and learn to play the guitar was said to be one of the stimuli behind Punk -- a slightly weird government experiment with time gave us the heyday of British rock?


Graham Dew said...

I remember that experiment, or more to the point, I remember the end of the experiment when the dark ages returned and for the first time noticed that winters were dark. My Dad said it was to make life easier for Scottish dairymen, which sounded as daft to me then as the reasons for keeping winter time today. Personally I'd keep winter time changes if only the UK would align itself to CET, but that will never happen in this europhobic country.

But the biggest messer with time in this country is not the government, it is the BBC. For me, the end of the night time news means it is time to think about bed. I've lost thousands of hours of sleep ever since the BBC news switched from 9pm to 10pm. The ITV News at Ten was strictly for night owls only. Right, up the wooden stairs to bedfordshire...

Mike C. said...


You would think it would make more sense to use GMT in summer, then put the clocks back an hour in the winter!

As a night-owl (even one forced to get up at 6:30 a.m. most days), the idea of getting ready for bed before 10:00 p.m. is almost incomprehensible to me...