Mr Kim Jong-Un, hero of The Interview, last year announced that North Korea’s clocks would shift back by half an hour. This is a fascinatingly Borgesian gesture, apparently based on the notion that controlling one’s own clocks is a serious measure of autonomy and national moral muscle. “Wicked Japanese imperialists” had, according to the curious Mr Kim, “deprived Korea of even its standard time” by changing the clocks during the occupation, some 70 years ago. Just like Newfoundland (and all communities in Labrador ‘south of Black Tickle’), which runs half an hour ahead of the overbearing clocks of Nova Scotia, the last smile on the Cheshire Cat of Newfoundland’s pre-1949 Dominion status. A protest against ‘wicked Nova Scotian imperialists’ erupted in 1963 when an attempt was made to bring Newfoundland clocks into line with Halifax. Mr Kim needs, like Dr Who, to escape from the wrong time-zone (“There’s a good chance that if we can reverse the polarity on this lithium crystal then the magnetic vortex will suck the daleks into a different space-time continuum and the planet will be saved.”)
Some people clearly feel very strongly about time-zones, and global standardisation was very slow in coming. British Somaliland held out at UTC +2:59 into the 1950s, Calcutta UTC + 5:53 and in Ecuador, the capital Guayaquil had clocks running five minutes and seventeen seconds behind the rest of the country until relatively recently. To this day, in China, all clocks run to Peking time, from Xian to Shanghai. Nearer to home, there are hilarious shenanigans that surround the beginning and end of Summer Time in Morocco each year, the Palace at the last minute withdrawing, re-introducing and constantly changing long-fixed dates for Summer Time, with awful and chaotic consequences. And of course the mere word Greenwich smells of cultural imposition (now would that be a micro or a macro-aggression? Ask Mr K, I suppose).
Time is a rum commodity. On the whole it was a fairly elastic business while people lived local and pre-industrial lives, with neighbouring towns thinking nothing much of having slightly different times on their clocks – after all, one couldn’t be at more than one town at a time, and the sun stood overhead at a different moment wherever one happened to be. The railways put paid to that, with a need for precise, integrated timetabling, and telegraph lines running along the tracks. My favourite story about this momentous transition concerns King Leopold II of Belgium, who was determined to synchronize his clocks and his railways, and in 1836 commissioned Adolphe Quetelet to install 47 gigantic brass meridian lines in churches and public buildings across the country. (The technology was the tail-end of a tradition of Jesuit mathematical astronomy that had developed in order to calculate the solstice with absolute accuracy – so as to be quite sure of the date of Easter – but, more crudely, it did pretty well at fixing noon.) Anyway, several examples – at Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp and elsewhere – of this advanced technology were installed at huge expense to harness solstice-calculation to the national railway project. One year later, in 1837, Professor Morse installed the first electric telegraph in London, between the railway stations at Euston and Camden Town, and that was that. Still, Leopold’s brass lines may have come in useful for Easter.
But as Mr Kim reminds us, control of time is seen as a measure of national virility, modernity and unity. By this token, the Islamic world and time have a slightly taut relationship, one which is expressed in metaphor as well as in reality. “Islam was for centuries, in its setting,” wrote Fuat Pasa, a nineteenth century Ottoman statesman, “a marvellous instrument of progress. Today it is a clock which has lost time and must be made to catch up.” We don’t have to accept this analysis (though we may) to be struck by the clock metaphor. Fuat Pasa, like Leopold, made an instinctive connection between the management of time and the modernisation of an empire. To become part of the modern world meant assimilating the ‘modern’ clock, and this Ataturk set about with a vengeance. Charles King (Midnight at the Pera Palace) observes that “as streamers unfurled, and corks popped, marking the start of January 1, 1926, people were stepping into both a new year and a new era. It was the first time all Istanbullus had technically agreed on a thing called midnight.” (And of course this forced symbolic modernisation lies in the background to Turkish religious opposition to celebrating the New Year, and the awful bombing of the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve 2016/17.)
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s strange and fascinating novel, The Time Regulation Institute uses time and its management as an intricate metaphor, as well as synecdoche, for the modernisation of the Ottoman Empire. It is both droll and serious – Tanpinar’s surreal story of a man whose life is defined by clocks, and of an institution devoted to reclaiming lost time, is provoking. The Institute collects fines for watches and clocks “not synchronized with any other clock in view, particularly those clocks belonging to the municipality,” with the curious twist of compounding discounts for repeat offenders. Clocks and watches, interacting osmotically with humans, punctuate the extraordinary story. “The great Almighty,” says Nuri Efendi, the old muvakkit, “made man in his image, and men made watches in theirs.”
In itself this idea isn’t of course new. Any number of historians, most famously perhaps E P Thompson, have seen the mechanical regulation of time as one of the great harbingers of modernity. Tanpinar’s demiurge, Halit Bey, says “Progress begins with the evolution of the timepiece. Civilization took its greatest leap forward when men began walking about with watches in their pocket, keeping time that was independent from the sun. This was a rupture with nature itself. Men began following their own particular interpretation of time.” There has been a spate recently of fascinating books on the standardisation of time and what it has meant in the Muslim world (as well as elsewhere) – Avner Wishnitzer’s wonderful Reading Clocks alla Turca, Vanessa Ogle’s The Global Transformation of Time and On Barak’s On Time, to name only three – the subject is clearly preoccupying us once again.
I have just watched an enchanting short film by Serka Yildirim called The Hands of Time (on Alchemiya, a splendid new Amazon-hosted film channel specialising in Islamic culture and film – plug). It looks at time and craft through the eyes of two Istanbul clockmakers who echo Tanpinar’s hero and his oddly mystical connection with clock-mechanisms. “The most exciting part of the job to me,” says Sule Gurbuz, the young woman clock-maker who voices much of the film, “would have to be the idea that the creator of a 200 or 300 year old clock that I am repairing could come out of his grave to see his handiwork and then say how happy he was to see his clock unharmed – and that he wouldn’t notice that I had mended it using techniques from hundreds of years ago, or that I had even touched it.”
Time is compressed, the interplay of past and present fine-grained and osmotic. It’s very striking that the way these contemporary clockmakers describe their work is so rooted in the past, and so aware of the place of time in the fabric of society. Of the personality of the clock Gurbuz says, “The clock has to show its agreement with your intervention by ticking correctly.” This strange and autonomous life of the clock itself sends me straight back to Tanpinar, central to whose story is a clock of remarkably self-conscious agency called the Blessed One. Tanpinar’s hero, Hayri Irdal, writes a biography of an entirely imaginary seventeenth-century clockmaker called Ahmet Zamani, or Ahmet the Timely. Ahmet begins life as an excuse, a fabricated project to keep critics at bay; and grows under his own steam, self-willed and ineluctable, to achieve a pressing reality all his own. The Life of Ahmet the Timely imposed its own reality on the world around – “My dear friend,” says Halit to Hayri,
You’ll see that your book will be adored. You seem to be under the impression that it contains untruths. But that’s not so. There’s nothing you have done that is not true. Today’s Ahmet the Timely is not a falsification: he is the very embodiment of truth. Do you know what would make him a falsification and a disaster? If he had actually lived at the end of the seventeenth century, if he’d entertained the ideas that we’ve attributed to him, well then that would be a lie. He would be in the wrong age. He would have had to travel through time, which is of course impossible. In matters such as these there is no set truth. It is a question of working with the century at hand and making him a man of his time. Our age needs Ahmet the Timely, and it is only at the end of the seventeenth century that this need can be filled. He is truth incarnate.
Or in Gurbuz’s words, “the creator of a 200 or 300 year old clock that I am repairing could come out of his grave.” In the conflict between Ahmet’s osmotic, relative and plastic reality and the hard-edged objectivity of his critics lies the tension of Ottoman modernisation and the modern depression that comes of cultural dislocation, and to which Orhan Pamuk refers as huzun, “the emotion that a child might feel, looking through a steamy window … not the melancholy of a solitary person, but the black mood shared by millions of people together.”
The film ends with musings on the nature of time and our responsibility. “Time, mostly running away, that is what people believe, but it is the people themselves who are running away,” says Gurbuz, “time is still. We have just been placed inside it.” And we are given a short clip of a mevlevi lost in his sema, his dance, moving to quite another clock. After all, clocks are only efficient approximations (“Although the so-called ‘visible faces of time’ somehow record it, we all know that there is not a single device that could measure time”), and Galileo in the duomo at Pisa, watching his great pendulum swing to and fro, measured its progress not by a clock but by a more eternal rhythm, his own pulse.