Time Regained

Easter is always a busy time for the Poitiers graffiti artists

Daylight Saving Time began last Sunday (as did British Summer Time in the UK). The clocks went forward overnight, and it was still dark when we got up, but that will change fairly quickly.

This should have been the last year for this. In 2018, the European Parliament drafted a law proposing that 2021 would be the last time that EU states applied the seasonal clock change. They would either now stay on summer time or move back one last time in October and then stay on winter time permanently. However, this is now unlikely to happen this year. Even if we weren’t all too busy dealing with Covid, there are a number of difficulties to overcome. Most northern states would prefer to remain on winter time, while most southern states would prefer summer time. Russia and Ukraine do not want to have the same time zone, and other countries that share borders have concerns. There is a possibility that Ireland and Northern Ireland would be on different times for six months each year. The debate will continue for a while yet.

Here in France, when we were all asked to express our opinion in 2019, the consensus was 59% in favour of staying on summer time. Madame and I voted for winter time, as permanent summer time means that in winter it wouldn’t get light in Poitiers much before 10 a.m. The darker mornings here in France were one of the few things I regretted about our move, and the favoured option would only make matters worse. Poitiers is more or less on the same line of longitude as London, and one could argue that France should have two time zones, with the western half moving to Greenwich Mean Time. Sadly, this ain’t going to happen.

Still, one can get used to anything, and I’ve come to terms with our new situation. The long summer evenings are certainly very enjoyable. As I get older, I need less and less sleep, so I’m usually up at around 5.30 a.m. these days, when it’s dark anyway, regardless of the season.

There is a certain amount of light available each day, and the trick is to use whatever is available regardless of whatever ‘o’clock’ people choose to call it. This was the thinking that led Benjamin Franklin, not entirely seriously, to make the first recorded proposal of a form of ‘daylight saving’. In a letter sent to the Journal de Paris on 26 April 1784, he describes how, having fallen asleep at around 3 a.m., he is woken by noise at 6 a.m. and is surprised at the amount of light in his room. Reading an almanac confirms that the sun will rise earlier and earlier until the end of June:

This event made me think of more important and serious things. If I hadn’t been awake so early in the morning, I would have slept six more hours in the sunlight, and, on the other hand, would have spent six hours the next night by candlelight.

He continues:

Assuming that there are 100,000 families in Paris … In six months between March 20 and September 20, there are 183 nights. 7 hours per night of candle use. The multiplication gives 1,281 hours. Those 1,281 hours multiplied by 100,000 is 128,100,000. Each candle requires 1/2 pound of tallow and wax, for a total of 64,050,000 pounds. At a price of thirty sols per pound of tallow and wax …

I can’t be bothered to work out what that amount is in new money, but it is obviously, as Franklin states:

a huge sum that the city of Paris could save each year!

Instead of clock changes, Franklin proposed:

(1) taxing residents who leave their shutters closed (one louis per window – about 45 euros);

(2) rationing candles to one pound per family per week;

(3) sounding church bells and, if necessary, canons at sunrise to inform all the inhabitants of the arrival of light.

Note that Franklin’s plan was to wake people up earlier and not to shift the hours of watches and clocks.

The growth of industrialisation and an increasingly busy world led to the idea of Daylight Saving Time gradually garnering more support throughout the nineteenth century. Port Arthur in Ontario, Canada was the first city in the world to enact DST, in 1908. However, the idea did not catch on globally until clocks in the German Empire and Austria were turned ahead by one hour on 30 April 1916 – two years into World War I. The rationale was to minimise the use of artificial lighting and thus save fuel for the war effort.

Within a few weeks, the idea was followed by the UK, France, and many other countries. Most of them reverted to standard time after World War I (though not the UK, Ireland, or France), and it wasn’t until the next World War that DST made its return in most of Europe.

The concept has always been controversial, and various countries have seen it withdrawn, adjusted, and reintroduced over the years. Whether changing it would save or endanger lives is always being argued over in the UK, particularly in Scotland.

I must admit that there is a tiny part of me that rather likes the idea of different countries going their own way on this. Now that globalisation is standardising everything, with most European cities looking increasingly similar, a lot of the romance has gone out of travel. A series of progressive time changes across Europe would add a little zest to things. Perhaps these could even be introduced at different times of the year so that one could never be quite certain what time zone one was in. What fun to arrive in, say, Prague at 9 a.m. and see everyone settling down for dinner.

As usual, Flann O’Brien has got there first:

My idea is to have the hours altered so that public houses will be permitted to open only between two and five in the morning. This means that if you are a drinking man you’ll have to be in earnest about it. Picture the result. A rustle is heard in the warm dark bedroom that has been lulled for hours with gentle breathing. Two naked feet are tenderly lowered to the floor and a shaky hand starts foraging blindly for matches. Then there is a further sleepy noise as another person half-wakens and rolls round. ‘John! What’s the matter?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘But where are you going?’ ‘Out for a pint.’ ‘But John! It’s half two.’ ‘Don’t care what time it is.’ ‘But it’s pouring rain. You’ll get your death of cold.’ ‘I tell you I’m going out for a pint. Don’t be trying to make a ridiculous scene. All over Dublin thousands of men are getting up just now. I haven’t had a drink for twenty-four hours.’


Things I’ve learnt this week:

In seventeenth-century England, effigies of Guy Fawkes were stuffed with live cats to make the figure scream as it burned.

A popular Roman hangover cure was deep-fried canary.

It is illegal in China to show TV ads for haemorrhoid cream at mealtimes.