Saturday, December 02, 2006

Just in Time

As it is with most of us in this day and age, my life has been ruled by the clock for a good many years. Recently, I’ve been able to dodge the issue by taking up a life style where it’s mainly a matter of getting up with the dawn and going to bed at sundown. Time doesn’t matter much.

But having to shuttle to Paris occasionally on the TGV train has changed all that. For as with most European trains, they leave on time and without ceremony. As the clock hands reaches the appropriate hour, the engineer opens the throttle and pulls out of the station. Not much in the way of whistle blowing or shouts of “All Aboard” that enliven the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe as celebrated by Judy Garland.

This no nonsense approach caught out the wife of a friend once. Used to the elaborate ceremony of train departures in the US, she had boarded a train in Zurich and planted her two children down whilst she hopped off for a newspaper. She returned to see the train gliding out of the station, complete with offspring. They reached Geneva before they could be located.

And the TGV is no exception. You’d better synchronise your watches before attempting to travel on this. Arriving at 8.39 for the 8.38 departure, you will be greeted with the sight of the back end of your train disappearing around the bend.

Measuring time was a lot more academic in ancient history. Water clocks were hardly portable, sundials were notoriously subject to interruption from clouds and sand glasses needed a lot of attention. It was the need for an accurate and portable timepiece in order to be able to establish longitude that sparked the development of the chronometer. Dava Sobel’s book “Longitude,” is a marvellous recounting of this – I wish I’d written it.

Even so, personal timepieces and watches remained the “bling” of the wealthy until the coming of the railway. Then, Mr. Bradshaw’s publication made the accurate telling of time a matter of some concern. No longer did you hang about at the milepost waiting for the afternoon coach as Tom Pinch did in Martin Chuzzlewit, you had to be on the platform at the time dictated.

It took the airline industry some time to break this subservience to the clock by hardly ever leaving on time. But the Gestapo of their staff still insist that you show up at the appointed hour so that they can inspect your shoes and underwear.

The introduction of the quartz digital watch would seem to have solved the problem of accurate time keeping and I was surprised to hear that the British Telecom venerable Speaking Clock was still in business. Apparently suffering from a touch of hoarseness, a new voice was introduced on this service which had been in operation since 1936. But I suppose you have to check up occasionally, although why one would need to for travel on the British rail services, I can’t imagine. A calendar might come in handy though.

In the Caribbean, watches are an almost mandatory piece of decorative adornment but are rarely consulted, no West Indian business meeting has been known to start on time and they don’t have any railways, but the Gold Rolex is a statement of one’s success, usually in some clandestine business.

So it is the European rail traveller who would seem to have the greatest need for an accurate timepiece and is, I suppose, the reason that the great British clockmakers are a dying, or even dead, breed. Where, now, are the Joseph Knibbs and the Thomas Tompions? I suspect that their successors have defected to France and have been organising the TGV timetables for them.

Surely the French can’t have managed to create such an efficient rail system all on their own?

But I, for one, am very glad they did.


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