What time is it?

Something remarkable happened last night as I was doing my shopping (and before the distressing events in Washington unfolded). A lady came up to me in the street and asked for the time. It must have been years since someone asked me if I knew what time it was. I looked at my watch and said, about 6.30. It felt great.

Walking away, I thought how far we’ve come on the conquest of time. We all have instant access to time. The lady in the street didn’t, and it felt quaint. And charming.

While everyone experiences time, not everyone can keep it. Time used to be the province of chronographers, half mathematicians, half astronomers, specialists who could tell time, keep it and let others know about it. The medieval science of timekeeping feels as arcane and impenetrable now as ever. The year of history, the time of the year, the time of the day, the exact moment, these are achievements which humanity only slowly brought to its credit.

Most of us never keep time. It is always kept for us. The church bell, the mechanical clock, the wrist watch, the LED display on our smartphones/watches – timekeeping has always been an outsourced commodity.

It’s easy to build a water clock, or an hourglass. It marks the passage of time. But it doesn’t mean much without the divisions which we imposed on this precious category of human consciousness.

Time might be a construct, but it was always constructed in relation to nature, the Moon, the Sun, the rotation of the seasons. All past may look the same once it passed. To create history, the record of the past, time needs to be tamed. The chronographer needs to step in.

The thing which invariably puts kids off history is dates, the notches on the surface of time which help us orient ourselves in the virtual space which is the past. Remembering dates of past events, whether regnal years or revolutions, feels oppressive. Time is oppressive enough, why make it worse? But event dates are timestamps designed to help us make sense not only of the past, but also of the present.

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