When will state-sponsored clock-twiddling end?
When the clocks go back this weekend, they should stay there
A Victorian child saw time and seasons differently from those of today. As Robert Louis Stevenson put it: ‘In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candle-light. In summer, quite the other way, I have to go to bed by day’.
But soon it would not be so simple. P.G. Wodehouse, a Victorian who lived on well into the modern era, had an eye for the absurd and plainly disliked the meddling with clocks which governments had begun to do during the First World War. He mocked it more than once in his inter-war novels, which are almost free from any other contact with the real world. In ‘Leave it to Psmith,’ he complains:
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And in ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’ he makes Bertie Wooster complain — during a disastrous attempt at diplomacy with the appalling Madeline Bassett — that sometimes darkness is exactly what you want, but the government will not let you have it. ‘What with all this daylight-saving stuff, we had hit the great open spaces at a moment when twilight had not yet begun to cheese it in favour of the shades of night.’
I bet Wodehouse’s modern readers are puzzled by these references, while his original enthusiasts saw the joke instantly. For us, the incessant fiddling with the clocks by the government is normal, but we do not understand it. For Wodehouse and his generation, it was the other way round. They understood it because it was abnormal.
I am with Plum Wodehouse. The more I think about state-sponsored clock-twiddling, the stranger it becomes. Once it was a fad like Esperanto or Volapuk, pursued by querulous fanatics and about as successful. But the Great War gave plenty of scope for futile gestures, and when the German Empire thrust its clocks forward in April 1916 in pursuit of victory, the faddists saw their chance and panicked our Parliament into following suit. We have been stuck with it ever since, sometimes even enduring double summer time.
Most people have no idea what it is for, and few even know which way the clocks should go in autumn or spring. Some genuinely believe that by pushing the clocks forward, we actually increase the amount of daylight — a belief even Madeline Bassett would have thought far-fetched. I have yet to discover any serious evidence that it saves fuel, makes us work harder or wins wars. After all the Germans, who pioneered it, lost two. These days it is generally defended on the grounds that if it is lighter later we will spend long sun-washed evenings painting landscapes, running energetically or performing Shakespeare, when of course we will either go to the pub, watch TV or play with our phones as usual.
And indeed if it is lighter later in the evening, it is also darker later in the morning. Stevenson did not write ‘In autumn I get up at night’ because he didn’t. Before the clocks were changed, October mornings were light. Now they are dark in southern England till almost eight. So I do get up at night in this season, as I have a long journey to work. Others do it because they have small children and sleeping late is a forgotten joy.
Members of today’s equivalents of the Drones Club, Urban Bourgeois Bohemians, know nothing of this. To them, dawn is a strange, inexplicable glow in the night sky, which they might occasionally observe on the way home from a party. And if the morning is unknown territory to you, it is easy to see why you might want the afternoon extended for an hour to suit you. The trouble is that those who believe this tend to dominate the worlds of politics and the media. So they have had their way now for a century of pointless folly. It is time for a peasant’s revolt, or at least a commuters’ and parents’ revolt. When the clocks go back on Sunday to where they should always have been (i.e. actual physical time), they should stay there. If you hate mornings so much, then please buy some decent curtains.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday
Of course we should stop mucking with the clocks, but let’s keep summer time, not winter time. Who needs sun in the morning when civilised people are sleeping; let’s have it in the afternoon or evening when it would be useful. There’s nothing more depressing than it’s getting dark at 4pm.
I quite agree, William. I look forward to putting the clocks one hour forward and in my view they should stay there. Dark winter evenings depress me.
What amazes me is the lack of logic which has been applied to this activity. We have approximately 52 days to the day with the least daylight – e.g. 21 Dec. Then, for some ridiculous reason we must wait, not 52 days – which takes us to mid Feb, but all the way to the end of March, a further 45 days, YES 45 DAYS!!, making 97 days of more dark evenings before we can enjoy lighter evenings. WHY, for heaven’s sake?? Whose crazy idea was this?
It’s only one hour after all. Let’s put the clocks forward and leave ’em there!! But if we can’t do that at least put them forward one hour on Valentine’s Day, as logic would dictate.
Winter time should end in mid February.
‘Dark winter evenings depress me’. You remind me of the old woman who, in the days of the USSR, lived on the frontier between the Soviet Union and Poland. When the boundary rectification commission came by, they told her ‘Your house is exactly on the new revised border. We really don’t mind whether you stay in Poland or the USSR, so it’s up to you.’ She thought for a moment and said ‘I’d rather be in Poland’. When they asked her why she said : ‘I can’t stand those long Russian winters’. Look , old chap. The evenings *are* dark in winter. Fiddling with the clocks does not alter that.
That’s a 10am sunrise in Scotland.
Agree, if we’re going to pick either summer time would be the better of the two. If we have to stick with two times it would make sense to shorten winter time to November to February.
I hope all these comments about double summertime and putting clocks three hours forward are jokes! Are you all mad or credulous fools? We only shift the light around. I remember double summertime in the UK when I was a child. It seemed to me it was dark all the time. Talk about saving children’s lives walking home from school in the winter! What about walking to school in the morning, where do you think the darkness goes? Up in a puff of smoke?
No Jacqueline, I’m not mad or credulous. It was my geography teacher 65 years ago who explained that clock changes were no advantage near the equator or the poles. However, in middle latitudes 50 to 60 degrees N or S, advantages could be had by synchronising darkness and sleep. This would mean putting the clocks forward 3 hours and that the 1hour or 2 hour advances were at least attempts in the right direction. He also explained that there were good reasons to leave the 3 hour change permanent all year …and … why that would not happen. Aged 15 I understood the lesson completely.
That was summer time in winter not double summer time in summer. But you are right it probably was a mess. If the clock changes stop the summer time in winter (ie all year around) will be the likely preferred choice.
There was also permanent BST in the late 60s that was abandoned due to its unpopularity in the North.
As a seafarer for most of my working life (Military and Mercantile) and now retired, as a yachtsman, I have lived by GMT/UTC/Zulu whatever my Lat and Long. Sometimes the sun was high in the sky at midnight, sometimes not. Whatever the “Metropolitans” think there are good reasons for shifting the clocks, even to Double Summertime, ask the farmers and others who need the light to work safely and efficiently. Ask the Emergency Workers who have to scrape human remains off tarmac in the early mornings in winter. As for the rest of you buy some ‘Blackout’ curtains or a flashlight depending on which is needed for your indoor life.
Why would changing the clocks affect car accidents in winter? Surely if the clocks were fixed they’d be fixed on GMT, so winter would remain unchanged from what it currently is?
Leaving them on GMT for the summer would just mean the sun rose an hour earlier than it currently does (around 5am most likely) and set an hour earlier. Personally I prefer the current system
Incredible comment! Daylight Saving Time does not change the astronomical day by a single second! The change is disruptive and entirely pointless.
I agree, but unfortunately most people are arguing absurdly that daylight saving time should be made year round rather than be abolished. That will leave clocks permanently out of sync with the sun.
But they are always out of sync with the sun except 4 days of the year. Old maps had an asymetrical figure of eight called an analemma that was a figurative representation of the equation of time that showed how the sun’s noon different from mechanical noon. That is to calculate longitude by separating the divergence from a mechanical chronometer caused by change in position to the inherent variances of the sun caused by orbital phenomema. Maritime and naval officers who had to be fairly adapt at some complex mathematical and astronomical calculations who need this information – as well as now antiquated skills such as spherical trigonometry, use of tge quadrant for latitude, observing the angle of the sun on the elliptic and being able to disentangle true north from magnetic north.
Ultimately mechanical timekeeping is an artificial invention of man cerca 13th century to organise the time by regular interverals rather than the changing sun so probably it is best to use it in such a way as serves that purpose best instead of trying to align it to the sun. Is the sun’s exact position so important? I mean, one of the argumnts against the metric system is it is based on non-human physical constants – the metre was one ten millionth of the distance from the North Pole to equator.
In Spain the clocks have been in the GMT/BST+1 timezone since around the time of WW2 – due to Franco’s desire to integrate Spain into Hitlers new European order – despite being further west than the UK and no one really notices too much. Portugal is on the same as the UK.
And even France is – hour after GMT, though it is due south of Greenwich.
Peter, accepting comments, good for you. But Madeline Basset is Not appalling, she is the perfect example of the soppy, feminine, sentimental, delicate, poetic, sensitive, silly, country squire’s daughter. OTT, but a great character, as are all Of Wodehouse’s.
PG gives her great lines, ‘Stars are God’s Daisy Chain’, ‘every time a fairy sheds a tear, a star is born’ and the best, ‘Rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen’
I have found all of life’s truths, and all of life’s character types, can be found in the Blandings books alone. A genius on par with Orwell at revealing the human condition, but in a more fun way.
And I like daylight savings – anything which puncuates seasons is good, less we just snooze from one season into another un-noticed.
Thank you for this. I am not familiar with this work, but your description, especially the “I have found all of life’s truths….” to make it worth exploring for me.
There are some books like that for me.
PG Wodehouse was a writer of silly love Farce, but he was also an exceptionally talented writer, and is said to write some of the most beautiful sentences in English literature. He was referred to, semi-ironically as ‘The Master’ by critics as his work is fluffy comedy, but the depth he sees people, and the exquisite language he can put down make him one of the Greats… although a bit silly stuff…
The whole Berti/Jeeves cosmos is his best known, and worth a read – just try to let your self go back to the time and place as modern writing makes him seem very old fashioned. Also his constant use of Classical References will make you 100% more educated in the higher concepts too.
The Valet Jeeves is an interesting character – a total aesthete, one who lives for high perfection, he remains a bachelor as he is so focused on taking in the best, and Bertie becomes his life work. He is working with Bertie as a pallet to create the Perfect London Gentleman with. A wonderful conceit, and so the not very bright, but chivalrous Bertie, is made live as this theater of the Perfect Edwardian, young and refined, Gentleman as almost Jeeves’s puppet… They have a relation that in biology is called “Mutualism is another form of symbiosis, but both species benefit directly from their interaction with one another.”
I’m OK with “daylight saving”.
Like it or not, those of us in various weather-dependent and seasonal industries (i.e not academia, politics or journalism) need to accommodate urban working hours as well as our own rhythms.
And I’m especially looking forward to my long lie this Sunday.
I did find the reference to urbanites a little strange. When I used to live in a small town in rural Kent and worked in an office in the town centre I probably spent less time in the morning than I do now in a city attempting to battle pass the crowds into the centre. And what time I did spend was a pleasant walk. This seems more a complaint of commuters than people actually embedded into the local economy.
I am half-heartedly on board with the idea contained in Mr. Hitchens’ delightful essay.
As someone working in a tech-adjacent industry, I do not get to see the sun for months of the year, as I leave the house around 6am and return a bit after 4, spending most of the day in artificially lit spaces.
I think if there is a role for government in twiddling with the clocks, it is to encourage traditional industry to adopt flexibility with work times. (This has been done to significant effect in the Washington DC area through exorbitant rush hour tolling on certain highways – in that case merely to ameliorate bad traffic.)
I don’t see a point to keeping schoolchildren and office workers indoors during the best part of the day. I say let’s go to a double-daylight savings time or a triple-reverse daylight savings time and stay there.
With respect, I think I disagree with your point. I am loathe to have the government improve the lot of anyone inside the Beltway (DC area), and if those Deep State boffins spend more time in traffic it means, in theory, that they can spend less time destroying America. The people inside the Beltway deserve to share some of the suffering they intentionally inflict on America.
A bit off topic, but I couldn’t resist.
My dad told me double British Summertime was to do with growing more food during the war.
In all seriousness though, putting the clocks forward and back reminds us of the artificiality of those cords we throw over the world. Latitude and longitude are entirely our invention, as are having twenty-four hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour and so on. I suppose 365 days a year is part of the natural order, but almost everything else bar the tides is made up. Ours, our creation.
I think it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves twice a year that for all our weakness and sense of being insignificant, we named and tamed this world, pole to pole and round the equator.
“I suppose 365 days a year is part of the natural order”
There aren’t 365 days in a cycle of the earth’s orbit. There are 365.242199. Hence leap years every 4 years except a centuries that are divisible by 400. Seems just as much an artifice of man to me.
Also we only have fixed hours due to mechanical clocks. For most of human history there were 12 hours of day equally divided over sunlight and 12 over night, being unequal except during the equinoxes.
And GMT is as it suggests a mean time over the year only adopted in the 19th century. The sun actually changes the time arrives at the noon position in the sky during the year above and below 12 o’clock. And of course this is different in different parts of the UK.
The earth does rotate 365 (and a bit) times as it travels around the sun. Agreed.
My point was only that 365 was not the same sort of number as 60 minutes to an hour or a six day week with one day of rest. French revolutionaries wanted a ten day week and a hundred minute hour. Those numbers are artificial in a way the number of days in a year is not.
My goodness, Ferrusian, we are fascinating fellows 🙂
Here we are, as always, discussing the structures of the world – and all because the clocks go forward and back. For that alone, for the discussions it creates, we should keep doing it.
360 is an amazing number, 12 based. Like the old Foot, and penny/shilling, immensely practical.
Being a Carpenter in USA I could not imagine doing it in Metric cra*, 10 based.
12 is divisible in fourths, thirds, and halfs with whole numbers. 10 based – only half.
in framing layout 16 inch centers is used, 16, 32, 48, and so 4 foot is the material standard – but also 24 inch centers, and again 48 inch breaks, 4 ft. The French gave up on 10 based clocks, and should have adopted 12 based length measurements like circles use.
Old carpentry and building used the 13 know string – a fascinating thing. (gives 12 lengths, inches) one can use it for finding 90 degrees as a right triangle of 3, 4, 5 gives a perfect 90 angle, and so the string finds that like a carpenter square does – and so many other things, angles,,,,
360 can be 90 = 1/4, 180 = 1/2, 270 = 3/4, and naturally our 12, 24, based clock/day length are the same.
Agreed – to all of it. There is quite a campaign to get rid of the Imperial measurement system in the UK. I think it stems from post-Brexit Remainer rage. They want to hurt the people who like tradition, even when there’s no reason: neither fahrenheit nor centigrade are British, but one was our culture and Centigrade was seen as more European.
Road signs are still in yards and miles; pints survive in milk and beer, but pounds and ounces are almost gone. I ordered a gravestone recently and found the whole thing in inches, which was pleasant.
I think the connection to mankind is valuable – I can pace out a field in yards, or touch my nose to one outstretched fingertip etc.
Metres have always been utterly artificial. No one can pace one of those out.
There was a temperature scale invented by Newton which would have been more British if he had propogated it more instead of using it for his own purposes within the Royal Mint.
I have a totally non-rational attachment to Greenwich Mean Time, perhaps because I like the fact that the line is in this country, I also used to like my extra hour in the morning, but unfortunately our new clock-radio automatically changes, so I don’t get my extra hour any more, or at least I’m not awake to enjoy it – it needs to go). As I say, nothing rational here, but also not really important in the grand scheme.
I live, more or less on that line, a mile or two south of the Royal Observatory. You post made me feel like standing up and singing the national anthem
Kindly see my post on Al Murray explaining GMT, etc…..
Bravo Peter Hitchens. The best argument for GMT is truth: noon is midway between sunrise and sunset, i.e. when the Sun crosses the meridian, and thus it is a plain lie to call “noon” a time which is really one in the afternoon. One might also point out that it would be more conducive to common sense if the basic working day were 8 to 4, i.e. symmetrical around noon, all the year round.
When I worked in Kirkenes in Norway, the sun never came up in winter but we still had a time 1200 which we called ‘noon’. What’s the sun got to do with it?
That’s great for people living in Greenwich* but nowhere else in Europe is it possible, given the time zones and differences from the meridian.
(Anyway even if it were the case that there was a place with 8 hours daylight before noon and 8 hours after then why have a sunset at 8pm when you could have one at 9pm. )
* except that’s not true either because of the equation of time.
One of the strange things about Peter Hitchen’s nostalgia about the good old days before the clock change (which I’ll call DST) is that he didn’t even live it. Nor, probably, did anybody else alive today, since it was introduced in 1916, 105 years ago.
In fact generations of our ancestors were happy to change the numerous manual clocks and watches in their houses or miss Sunday service – a serious obligation, but it’s become a terrible burden to us moderns with our devices that do it automatically, before a morning with no such obligation for most.
Peter did experience double summertime, which meant summertime in winter, but that’s not coming back again (unless the clock changes stop since all year summer time is the preferred option for most)
Double DST was abandoned post wwii (except for that dubious experiment in the sixties which was changed back after 2-3 years). This indicates that people would have abandoned DST as well if they didn’t like it, in fact they reverted in both cases not to GMT all year but to DST in summer. Late summer nights are popular.
Anyway DST, having lasted 105 years has lasted about 70 years longer than GMT which was formally introduced in 1880. Before that cities and counties had their own times. On corn street in Bristol the 18C clock at the Exchange shows Bristol time and London time. The two minute hands have 11 minutes difference between them, which is the time it takes for the Sun to move from midday in London to midday in Bristol.
If you believe in “real time” then Midday should be when the day is half over. There should be equal hours before and after noon. In most of the U.K. (and worse for Ireland in the same time zone) this isn’t true at all, even in winter time. Most people live west of the line of longitude that intersects Greenwich. What is “true time” for them? Apparently 12:11 pm is to be Bristol’s solar noon when we stop fiddling with clocks.
( Because of an added complexity called the equation of time solar noon is not clock noon even in Greenwich for most of the year, even winter).
Time zones can be huge. The Central European Time stretches from western coastal Spain, which is about the same latitude as the West of Ireland, to the polish Belarusian border. In Spain, even in winter, clock midday is more than one hour later than solar noon. Yet Peter has said that he is ok with time zones.
Since he is ok with not having solar noon and clock noon coincide anywhere outside Greenwich, then we might as well manipulate clock time to give us later sunsets in summer and reasonable sunrises in winter.
After all those stalwart people born in the Victorian or Edwardian age who were adults when this change came in could do it. So can we.
I like Hitchens on many things, including his aversion to war. He is dotto on this.
As a productive worker who has never been unemployed since leaving university I have almost never seen dawn in summer or late spring and never really wish to. If it happens in June it’s because of insomnia. I don’t know how many workers he thinks are rising in London before 4:43 am. Some are no doubt but I don’t think we can assume that it’s only urban bourgeois bohemians who take a lie in past 4:30. Anyway Peter wants sunrise to be at 3:43 on June 21st so as to facilitate the people who he thinks don’t benefit from an hour in the evening (he disingenuously says afternoon). He probably needs to investigate working hours, and when people play.
And the whole thing is framed as if it’s all a modern invention of the urban bourgeoise. It’s the invention of practical scientifically minded men born in the Victorian era.
I mean we have it easier than our forebears as a goodly number of our clocks change themselves.
PLease see https://www.newenglishreview.org/Peter_Hitchens/Now_is_Not_the_Time/ . Spanish time is especially unnatural because Franco synchronised Madrid Time with Berlin Time, to suck up to Hitler. It is odd that any action by Franco, associated by Hitler, should survive unchanged for so long, but there it is. Neighbouring Portugal tried this in the 1990s, but it was an unpopular disaster so they switched back to GMT.
As a comic aside, Al Murray talks about lat/long and a bit about GMT in an excellent presentation called Al Murray on nations of the world.
In explaining GMT, his riff that “This means the Germans don’t sit down to have their lunch until we say it’s one o’clock….” is one of the best ever!
The big picture is that sleep should be during darkness. The centre of darkness is midnight: the centre of sleep is 3am. For maximum fuel saving, the clocks should be put forward 3 hours permanently.
For us, the incessant fiddling with the clocks by the government is normal, but we do not understand it. For Wodehouse and his generation, it was the other way round. They understood it because it was abnormal.
This reminds me of some other twiddling that I only learned the origin of some years ago. Perhaps other readers can expand. Why is Madrid on the same time as Berlin, you ask? They seem a bit far away, and it doesn’t seem quite logical. Fair play!
What I heard or read was that leading up to WW II, Hitler wanted Franco to join Team Fascism. Hitler sent emissaries–at the time (pun intended), Madrid and Berlin were on different times. Franco, though sympathetic, ultimately decided not to fully join Team Fascism, but moved the clocks in Madrid to Berlin time as a show of solidarity.
Dumb move, no longer necessary, but we still have it! Like so many other government programs.
Let’s stop the insanity!
The main point here is that it doesn’t very much matter what the clock time is. It is impossible to do anything to change daylight hours at any given time of year by a single second! Although course the ‘correct’ clock time most closely matching the sun is GMT for our longitude, the sun being at its highest in the sky at noon. I’d be perfectly happy with keeping the clocks fixed at that.
But the changeover twice a year is disruptive, leads to errors, and of course people (who might be in those safety critical jobs) getting an hour’s less sleep when the clocks go forward. One of the most monumental wastes of effort in today’s world!
If we wanted the time to match when the sun meets noon we’d need to change everyday.
This is a confusion of two issues. The rational agreed time zones, covering about 15 degrees of longitude, which are necessary for such things as rail and air timetables, broadcasting schedules etc, and the politically-driven shifting of a country bodily from the time zone in which it stands to another several hundred miles to the east. Please see https://www.newenglishreview.org/Peter_Hitchens/Now_is_Not_the_Time/
It is also followed by an increase in heart attacks. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-heart-daylightsaving-idUSBREA2S0D420140329
Before the clocks changed, October mornings were in fact very dark. If they did not change in October, schoolchildren would be arriving at school in the dark.
The fiddling should stop but it should do so at the half hour point, not where we are for the wintertide.
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