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:
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