Tuesday 7 November 2006

The times they are a'changing

Every year they come out of the woodwork, as regularly as, well, clockwork. The clocks go back, and various campaign groups pop out like cuckoos to tell us how many kiddies’ lives would be saved if only we didn’t do it; how much more efficient it would be if we were in the same time zone as the rest of Western Europe; and what a wretched, fiddling waste of, er, time it all is. Then, equally predictably, counter-claims are made that the suicide rate among Scottish farmers would soar to 100% if we did any such thing.

This year, the Local Government Association of England and Wales anticipated that objection by suggesting that Scotland could stick with GMT while the rest of us moved forward an hour. True, there are countries that function perfectly well across more than one time zone, but they tend to be ones that span continents, like Russia and the USA, not small ones like Britain. You don’t need to be a resident of Berwick-upon-Tweed to feel your mind boggling at the fatuousness of this idea. Its only obvious advantage would be to provide GNER with an increasingly rare opportunity to put out a good news press release, since it would instantly lop an hour off the quoted journey time between London and Edinburgh.

As a diehard reactionary, I naturally savour an annual ritual that gives me the only opportunity I actually get to put the clock back. I also relish that extra hour in bed. People tell me that sailing westwards across the Atlantic, where one gains an hour every night, would be my ideal holiday. If only it didn’t have America at the end of it.

I’m also old enough to remember the last time we experimented with year-round Summer Time back in the 1960s, as part of Harold Wilson’s efforts to drag Britain kicking and screaming into the white heat of the technological revolution. My recollection is that it was universally unpopular. Certainly, I remember thinking that it was bad enough having to get up and go to school at all, without having to do it in the dark.

The grumblers from the ‘let’s stop fiddling with the clocks altogether’ school are, of course, wasting their breath. Virtually every country in the developed world practises ‘daylight saving’ and, while I hate to lose an opportunity to advocate defiance of our masters in Brussels, putting ourselves wilfully out of step with our major trading partners strikes me as barmy.

That leaves us simply with the question of what should be our base line: GMT or BST?

Greenwich Mean Time, as the name suggests, is the right time for a country located on the 0° meridian of longitude. Historically, every town and village worked out their own time from the sun, and it was only the coming of the railways that required nationwide standardisation. So far as I know, the last bastion of such localism in Britain is Christ Church, Oxford, which resolutely rings its nightly curfew at Oxford time: about five minutes or 150 years behind London, depending on how you look at it.

I think it’s the pleasure created by such little quirks like that makes life worth living. So, instead of moaning, let us rejoice in the biannual ritual of moving the clocks round. Join with me in remembering the childhood excitement at their going back, which heralded spookily dark evenings, gaslights, wood smoke, fireworks, Christmas and snowmen. While their move forward in spring meant long evenings playing out of doors, greenery, sunshine and days out by the sea.

Yes, that may be childlike thinking, but I don’t think it’s actually childish in the pejorative sense. That’s the preserve of people who’ve got nothing better to do than trying to badger the rest of us into changing our customs and practices, usually for the sake of change itself.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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