The clocks went forward yesterday; lightly, we skipped an hour. In UK, we’re on ‘British Summer Time’. We’ve taken this decision to play with time, to control it, in order to award ourselves longer evening daylight. Twenty-four hours later, and a small adjustment is made. We’re already used to it.
The imagery of a stopped or dysfunctional clock is a commonplace but strong one in literature.
Time ticks away; the clock a reminder that for us, it is finite. In her poem A Clock Stopped, Emily Dickinson uses the image of the motionless timepiece to represent the ending of a life, the clock personified: it ran ‘out of decimals’ and ‘will not stir for doctors’.
When ‘the clocks were striking 13’ in the opening of George Orwell’s 1984, this tells us that not only the clock, but all surrounding events cannot be trusted. Truth is controlled, manipulated, facts distorted. Besides, even the very mechanics of the clocks are changed, to 24-hour ‘military time’. Later, waiting for his lover, Julia, Winston Smith observes an ‘old-fashioned clock with the twelve-hour face was ticking away on the mantelpiece.’ A relic.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, time is yet more meaningless. Or at least, non-linear. Clocks are ubiquitous in the book, but largely irrelevant. Billy Pilgrim is ‘unstuck in time’. In his mind, he has gained the ability to travel in time, and through space – though not at will. He is suffering a mental detachment and breakdown, what we’d now likely call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Living on display in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, the native Tralfamadorians ‘play with the clocks’. ‘Time’ is a different concept for them. It is they who decide when the clocks go fast or slow, even when it is ‘day’ or ‘night’. They perhaps have more benign intent than 1984’s Inner Party, but under their control, free will is another illusion.
In Florian Zeller’s 2012 play The Father (Le Père), the eponymous parent, André, loses his watch. Amongst other things, it is a metaphor, for André is also losing certain functions of his mind, his perception of passing hours. He is ‘unstuck in time’, becoming disconnected from reality, in a somewhat different way.
Pip enters Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations to observe ‘that her watch had stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and that a clock in the room had stopped at twenty minutes to nine’. All timepieces were halted at the moment his hostess learnt of her fiancé’s betrayal. Whilst she is able to control time, to remain stubbornly unaware of its passing, Miss Havisham is able to stay, trapped in emotional stasis.
I reflect on these after a glance at my empty left wrist.
I have not lost my watch, nor is it broken. It’s simply that its battery ran out and there is nowhere to get a new one fitted, the non-essential shops being closed for another couple of weeks (if all goes to plan). And I don’t really need it, in any practical sense. Sitting at my computer all day, or checking my phone, or on my Kindle device, not to mention the clocks on the walls, there is easy access to knowing the hour of the day (hence my children’s bafflement that I bother to wear a wrist watch at all).
So. Let’s get things into perspective. Not dying, nor losing my mind – or not, as far as I know, at a particularly fast rate. I have lost some of my ability to plan ahead, move my life forward in all the ways I would like to, but also trust that this is temporary.
Has it really been a year though, this series of lockdowns, new laws? Sometimes it seems more, sometimes less. Someone is playing with time.
One thing though. I stopped wearing my watch a few weeks ago, yet I notice just today that I am starting to check my wrist again, having previously fallen out of the habit. A sense of change is in the air. The Government is trying not to over-promise the end of lockdown, but we’re poised on the edge – of our seats, of our nerves – in anticipation. Of becoming released, moving on.
But will we be going back, or going forward?