‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’ – Douglas Adams.
‘Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.’ – Groucho Marx (but apparently not necessarily said by him – how disappointing).
The week has passed, first slowly, then quickly, then slowly again, as if performing a half-arsed foxtrot.
Seizing the opportunity afforded by a diary window, we spent last weekend in a field in Wiltshire, an endeavour that brought home just how slowly time passes when you cut yourself off from modern life in general, and online communication in particular.
This, by the way, is a good thing.
We were sans electricity for three days, so the only way to charge our devices was to walk the fifteen minutes to the car and go for a drive, charging said devices in rotation on the single available charger. However pleasant it was touring Wiltshire’s empty roads, and however attractive its rolling hills, on balance we thought it more worthwhile to spend our time with the red admirals, yellowhammers and umbellifers surrounding our accommodation, while waiting for the Kelly kettle to heat up so we could hoist a bucket into the canopy and have a shower.
The accommodation itself was a sort of ark, handmade by the proprietor.
It was delightful in every way, even if I regretted not bringing a mandolin, a pair of flares and a moody, distant look so I could pose for the cover of my latest 1970s folk-rock album.
This time spent away from the trappings of modern life inevitably triggered memories of an earlier, less technologically-advanced time, as well as a bout of the kind of ‘in my day’-ing and ‘when I were a lad’-ing that does so much to endear the older generation to the younger. Oliver’s eye-rolling skills, already finely honed, gained an extra dimension of craft in those three long days, as did his tree-climbing and hammock-swinging.
A couple of hundred jackdaws acted as our evening alarm call, moving noisily across the neighbouring field to their roost, their chacking calls spreading through the flock like snooker balls at the break. They were gamely accompanied by a dozen rooks, whose grawings seemed to be either a feeble attempt to assimilate or some sort of protest at the numerical dominance of their smaller cousins.
We ate when we were hungry, slept when it was dark. More than once someone asked ‘what’s the time?’, only to receive the answer ‘I neither know nor care’.
Then we came back to London, and the days since have passed in a blur. This is partly because in normal life there are things to be done, but it’s not just that. At the heart of our relaxation for those three days was a slackening of life’s rhythms, a letting-go of urgency, a denial of the little voice in our heads that told us we had to be getting on with something just for the sake of it.
The trick – and it’s one I am far from mastering – is to apply this understanding of life’s priorities to the day-to-day stuff. Answers on a postcard please. And yes, I do mean ‘postcard’, not email or tweet or dm or whatsapp or snapchat or whatever the latest one is. That’s the point.
It’s not time itself that’s the problem – that, as far as we know, remains constant – but our perception of it. In general we’re not good at gauging, without external help, how much of it has passed. The micro version of this is ‘oh God is it lunchtime already?’ or ‘this journey is taking for ever’ or ‘will he never stop talking?’ On the macro scale it’s ‘oh my God I’m 52 where did my life go I’m such a waster I’m nearly dead and I still haven’t watched a second of 24 what is wrong with me oh sod it never mind let’s just check twitter.’
I’m sure this fascination with the passage of time is a product of middle-age, that extended period of life when you struggle to come to terms with how little of it you have left. Increasingly I’ve found this struggle manifesting itself in the game of ‘Mortality Maths’ (a term apparently coined by Pete Paphides a few years ago).
My favourite example of Mortality Maths at the moment is the realisation that the Ashes series of 1981, the defining cricket moment for so many people of my generation, is now 36 years distant, which is actually impossible, because I happen to know it was yesterday. (Cricket fans: click on all those links. Go on, you know you want to.)
Thirty-six years before that, give or take, World War II ended. Which is actually impossible, because I happen to know that happened millions of years ago.
Thirty-six years, therefore, is both an incredibly long and an incredibly short time. It all depends on where you’re standing.
In an attempt to recapture those heady, far-off Wiltshire days when time was slow and batteries dead, I took myself off this morning for a long walk, attempting to cover as many of south London’s green spaces as I could before the cricket started. It was a long walk. Or a short one. I can’t quite work out which.
That’s time for you.
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