The hour cometh for time travellers

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THE actor to play the new Doctor Who has just been named as award-winner Christopher Eccleston - but this weekend it’s not only him who will be experiencing a little time travel.

Tardis or no, we’re all going to be catapulted forward by one hour as British summertime drags us out of bed that bit sooner than we’re used to.

The idea started in 1916 as part of the Great War effort. But as politicians seemed to like the notion that they were creating an extra hour of daylight simply by legislation, rather than having to go to all the bother of moving either the heavens or the earth, they carried on introducing Acts of Parliament to move the clock forwards and backwards each year.

This was supposed to stop when the war was finished as it had been legislated for under emergency powers.

But the idea of legislating our alarm clocks appealed to the government so much that they brought out fresh Acts of Parliament to cover every summer until 1925. By then all that legislation seemed too much bother.

So to save them the effort (and they don’t even start in the morning!) the politicians simply made BST a permanent spring festival.

But by the Second World War one hour was not enough to convince them that we were getting out of our scratchers early enough. It was time for double BST.

From May to August the clock went forward another extra hour making it two hours ahead of the standard Greenwich mean time (GMT). Ordinary BST (GMT plus one hour) was left in place to make sure we got up in the winter.

The exact details of the government papers relating to all this were so sensitive that they were subjected to a 100-years closure to prevent us checking exactly what they thought they were doing with time and the working day.

ALTHOUGH this closure was actually lifted in 2000 there remains a nagging suspicion that not all has been revealed. As most people used the BBC to check their watches during the war, it may be that Dr Who is not the first BBC character to play fast and loose with the dimension of time. He may have been preceded by the BBC radio pips!

The idea of lording it over the tides of time has always been a powerful one. Apparent success always plays on a misconception. Although King Canute eloquently proved the futility of man’s power over time and tide, a Private Member’s Bill as recently as 1995 was called British Time (Extra Daylight). The MP clearly had the idea the parliament could succeed where Canute had failed.

His Bill failed too. But the so-called greatest democracy in the world also likes its workers up and whistling with the birds. Canute’s cousins across the pond show that they are not untouched by hubris with their version of BST - the arrogantly titled daylight saving time (DST), a name you are maybe familiar with through your computer clock adjustments. But don’t worry, the amount of daylight will carry on to be just what it will be regardless of what the hour is called.

All this megalomania, naturally, does not concern the sun one bit as it climbs through the summer sky.

It rises, centres and falls exactly to a plan somewhat older than democracy and one well understood by rural populations for as long as the land has been worked and probably before.

Early societies needed no clocks other than the sun and they knew well enough when it was noon, which, unlike sunrise and sunset, does not vary throughout the year.

It is totally reliable if you stay in one place which, until modern transport, most people did. But moving east or west any sizeable distance alters sunrise, set and noon. Which is why time and travel are, as the good Doctor would tell us, inextricably linked.

But the vehicle (on land - the sea has its own gripping tale) that created the need for a fixed reference point in time and space was not the Tardis. It was the train.

Because noon varies from place to place so the way of measuring it, over a county, varied across the country.

Consequently 19th-century train timetables were even more of a mess than they are today. Although Britain came up with the solution, we had far fewer time zones than the United States, which clocked up an amazing 300 different ones.

The railways in Britain adopted GMT in 1847 and by 1880 so had the government. Using GMT as the basis for all modern time zone calculations over the globe, the whole world now works with what is effectively GMT, or a very slightly tweaked version.

EVEN before there were clocks to legislate for, the powers that be were always fiddling about trying to play God with time. Julius Caesar (at least he was eventually proclaimed a god anyway) gave us a revised version of our year which stood until Pope Gregory (who I suppose could talk to God) gave us a new day - February 29 - to leap up and down about.

This weekend is traditionally a time for change. Indeed it used to be New Year. Julius Caesar moved that to January but once the Roman Empire had fallen it was moved back to March 25 across Europe. Gradually it has slipped back for reasons that are not altogether clear. For, in every other sense, spring is the beginning of the new cycle.

In 1940 the government was so concerned not to get in the way of Easter with the time move it ordered the clocks forward "after the fourth Saturday in February". Springtime for Hitler indeed!

And although on the face of it we’ll get an hour less sleep tonight, at least we can rest assured that we won’t be subjected to the Scottish Parliament’s notion of timekeeping.

Under the Scotland Act, the time is a reserved power. Until they get their building finished they’ve got other things to chime on about.