A radical protest group looks to put an end to the tradition of timekeeping in Emile Carson’s thought-provoking short story. Illustrated by Ray Oranges.
No one is quite sure how long ago the last clock was smashed into a million little pieces. Most people know the approximate date but since then, it’s been deemed futile to track a time that no longer exists. A select few attempted to keep count, holding onto the minutes by chanting to sixty ‘chimpanzees’, ‘elephants’ or ‘battleships’ before resetting, but in the absence of any equipment remotely capable of timekeeping, that too was deemed futile. The slightest loss of concentration or interruption could cause the exact time to slip, which thanks to inevitable human error, it did, and many of the purists soon began to question the purpose of counting inaccurate seconds in the name of an outmoded tradition.
It all began on the 8th of September. A radical and powerful protest group, who had amassed an impressively influential following, decided that after a few millennia, timekeeping had got out of hand. Where once it was used as an approximate mechanism for ensuring gatherings were attended, and determining when work should begin and end, it was decided that it had been taken too far. Working weeks had now hit the absolute maximum, with seven out of seven days being worked by most people without a second thought. Where only a few decades earlier, five out of seven days was deemed an unjust distribution of one’s time, seven out of seven had become the standard. Full-time quite literally meant full-time. Those who worked any less than seven days a week were considered part-timers. As society became increasingly enslaved by time, the radical group – named Stop All The Clocks (SATC) in reference to W. H. Auden’s poem – had begun smashing up clocks in protest. Although governments and wealthy businessmen had attempted to stop them at first, they became too powerful too quickly, effortlessly recruiting disillusioned workers who, enslaved and exhausted, were easily convinced into joining them. ‘Join in or burn out’ was the party line.
Soon enough, almost every single person involved in the keeping of time had been captured and placed into solitary confinement to erase any memory of the exact day and time. No violence was necessary, they were simply locked in cells with no access to daylight. Even the most skilled of timekeepers quickly lost the ability to recognise what day it was, let alone what hour.
The Shepherd Gate Clock at the Royal Greenwich Observatory was the first to be dismantled, with Big Ben and The Grand Central Terminal Clock following suit soon after. Within the space of two weeks, every public clock across the globe had been dismantled or destroyed. Any that were left standing, mainly for aesthetic reasons, had the hands permanently turned to seven o’clock – a subtle reference to one of the few times of day where the majority of people wouldn’t be at work.
Slowly but surely, the concept of time became increasingly ambiguous. As more and more watches, clocks, computers and phones were stripped of their timekeeping abilities, the perception of time between people became a little hazy. One man’s five minutes was another man’s ten. With so many people still tightly bound to the concept of time, the radicals remained tireless in their endeavours and within a few years, seconds dropped out of general use. Due to the constraints of the sun and the moon, it was impossible to eradicate the concept of days from certain countries, apart from Scandinavia, Russia and certain parts of the USA and Canada where midnight sun and polar night blurred the lines between which day was which. In Britain, dawn, midday and dusk were judged the best times to arrange meetings.
Industry soon took a massive hit. Attempting to plan ahead was tricky since few people could agree on what day it already was. Whilst some people believed they knew the real day and month, human error and Chinese whispers meant that an equal number of others disagreed and eventually, no one could be absolutely sure whether it was a Tuesday, a Thursday or any other day. In the end, work was completed ‘as soon as it’s finished’ or within a certain number of days. At the suggestion of the radicals, arrangements could be made according to the number of ‘sleeps’ between now and then although it didn’t really catch on, especially with insomniacs, night workers and recreational drug users. That said, the radicals were starting to win out. Timekeepers were almost a thing of the past, apart from a select few who were either dismissed as being inaccurate, stuck in old ways, or more often than not, ratted out. Whilst it would have made sense for them to stay quiet, there was little point in keeping time unless other people were going to keep it too. So, in an unfortunate catch-22, they would break their silence, only to be reported, captured and placed in solitary confinement, rendering their timekeeping forever obsolete. After that, few of them tried to keep time and faced with imprecision, gave up on it altogether.
As predicted, society became happier. Stress, although still existent, had lessened in intensity and the old notions of doing something up until ‘the last minute’ or ‘bang on time’ faded into the history books. When people became tired, they slept, and when they became hungry, they ate, no longer bound by universally accepted times for doing things. The strain on healthcare organisations dropped dramatically. Society, as a whole, became more patient. Public transport was no longer able to run to a timetable, so trains and buses only departed when they were full, or full enough. Although this initially caused resentment towards the radicals, some clever propaganda soon highlighted the benefits to people – appreciating your surroundings, conversing with fellow passengers, using the time to think of what made you happy and so on. Global marketing campaigns helped to hit the message home. The leisurely and sedate were celebrated, whilst the brisk were chastised. The multi-taskers and mindless rushers of yesteryear had been slowly outlawed.
The work of SATC was done. Despite being feared in the early days, they were now held up as heroes, the saviours of a civilisation that was going down the pan. Much like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King almost a hundred years before, the tale of SATC’s fight against time went into the history books. It was taught in schools and used as the finest example of the power of social movement.
However, as the generations ticked past, the legend of the radical group that put an end to timekeeping started to fade. Fewer and fewer people understood the relevance of the story anymore. Although a few clocks had been preserved for historical purposes, only a handful of academics had actually seen them. With clocks now obsolete, the story of the war against them had become obsolete too. Time eventually took over and washed the story out of the public consciousness forever.
Not long afterwards, two friends, frustrated with the large percentage of their lifespans spent waiting around, started to devise a system whereby they could divide portions of the day into more exact slots. They created an instrument, split into two sections, with water in one that drained through a small hole into the other. Once all of the water had drained from the first section into the second section, the weight flipped it and the process began again. Each time this happened, the passing unit of time was referred to as a ‘flip’. They calculated that during a day, the instrument would flip 37 times, and that if everyone who had one of these instruments made sure that they were perfectly synchronised, they could arrange to meet at any flip during the day.
Upon the discovery, the press were whipped into a frenzy with every major publication covering the story. The two friends were heralded as trailblazers, pioneers, masterminds. The coverage of their invention was unrelenting and soon after, the public started to adopt the new system. ‘Is this the greatest invention in history?’ asked one publication…and the overwhelming feeling was that it was.
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