‘What are days for?’ writes Phillip Larkin. ‘They come and they wake us, time and time over…’ I’ve thought about this poem a lot over the last eight months as the structures that we once created to make orderly sense of the vast nebulousness of time, seem to be unravelling.
Over lockdown, without the usual markers of a day – leaving the house for work, taking a break for lunch, getting home, or the sense of a working week being in any way distinct from a relaxing weekend, many of us felt trapped in a pandemic purgatory outside of real life. We tried to give some shape to the experience – clapping for the NHS on a Thursday, Zoom quiz on a Friday, PE with Joe every morning but nothing could keep the hours and the minutes and the days from spilling out. The only thing I felt I had to show for the passing of this thing we call time was my one-and-a-half year old daughter turning two, learning new words and growing taller.
Otherwise it felt like I was on a long-haul flight, drinking wine and eating at strange times, unsure when night ended, and morning began. It was as if I’d pre-emptively stopped my watch so I could pick up on a new time zone when I finally arrived, except I never did.
Even without the strangeness of 2020, which seems to have at once sped by and dragged endlessly, the way we consume time is changing. For a start the European parliament voted to scrap the twice-a-year custom of changing the clocks by an hour in spring and autumn by 2021. Member states would be able to choose whether to remain on “permanent summer” or “permanent winter” time.
Seasons too are out the window, and not just because global warming is messing with the thermostat. The fashion world recognises that the way real people shop doesn’t mirror the rigidity of its Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter and Cruise Collections and with the theatre of fashion weeks currently waiting in the wings until social distancing is less of a limitation, the entire system is being reconfigured to resonate with the realities of our world today.
During 2019, Apple Watch sold more units than the entire Swiss Watch industry, which is suffering a steep decline. This goes to show that being aware of the time of day is no longer enough. Without documenting how we’ve filled that time with messages received, calories burnt, or miles walked – the fact it’s five past nine is largely irrelevant.
Interestingly, Christian Marclay’s The Clock was one of Tate Modern’s most successful recent exhibitions. The art film spans a 24-hour period and comprises a montage of thousands of film and television clips which specify the time of day. The work suggests the comforting, universal familiarity of time but also the fact that it is a construct, as real and unreal as the moving images Marclay has pieced together.
Meanwhile we continue to binge watch TV on our own schedules. The anticipation of waiting for a new episode to drop each week, feels quaint and old fashioned, even though streaming was only introduced in 2007. Oh, we don’t wait for anything (except new music from Rihanna and a Covid vaccine) anymore. We can order everything we want, from food to designer fashion and have it delivered in a matter of hours.
On-demand culture has radically disrupted how we experience linear time, but there are some things we can’t control in the same way. It still takes nine months to gestate a baby – though thanks to egg-freezing and other medical developments that old ticking biological clock is less of a menace. And try as we might to beat it, mortality is, y’know, still a thing.
What is changing is how we view ageing. The beauty industry has woken up to agelessness as preferable to ‘age-defying’ and as expectations change as to what a fifty-year-old, sixty-year-old and septuagenarian should look and behave like thanks to people such as, J-Lo, Madonna and Jane Fonda respectively, the entire notion of ‘old versus young’ is also up for grabs.
Indeed, the pandemic has accelerated a shift already well underway, with working from home eschewing an archaic nine-to-five structure which was devised by factory owners in Victorian times and is no longer fit for purpose.
If we think of time as masculine – forward thrusting and linear, perhaps all this suggests that we are moving into an era more ruled by feminine energy with its spaces and curves.
Online, time doesn’t constrict us as it does in real life, but one way or another we remain preoccupied with it (it can’t have escaped your notice that the year’s most popular new social network is called TikTok). In his poem, Phillip Larkin asks, ‘where can we live but days?’ And it’s true, time, really is all there is. So we might as well enjoy it as best we can.