Counting Down

28 10 2009

[You can listen to this episode here, or subsribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ in the iTunes Store.]

Tony Blair is to become the first President of the European Union. At least, that’s what we’re told by people who claim to know these things. Equally, other people, who curiously also claim to know these things, insist that Tony Blair could not possibly become the first President of the European Union.

Of course, this is one of those issues where the appearance has nothing to do with the reality. Whatever negotiations and campaigns go on over the next months to find a President, nobody will be particularly concerned about competence. There appear to be a number of people in the running for the glamorous but impotent position of European President. They are a collection mainly of former Prime Ministers – their competence (or incompetence) at running stuff can be pretty much assumed.

Underneath the talk of ‘best man for the job’ will be an altogether more infantile desire on the part of every country involved to get their man in. What a coup it would be for a British politician to take the honour of being Europe’s premier citizen?

Of course, it doesn’t actually make any difference at all, but secretly everybody thinks it’s very important. This slightly childish streak to international relations is nothing new…

This week marks the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the decision to make Greenwich, in London, the home of time. The decision was taken in 1884, at the International Meridian Conference. Delegates from twenty-five countries joined together in Washington, at the invitation of the U.S. President, Chester Arthur.

The task of the conference was to make some sense of timekeeping across the globe. The invention of steam power and the telegraph were making international communication, travel and trade increasingly important to the global economy. So, there needed to be some form of unified timekeeping system that could be shared by everybody.

For this system to work, it required the establishment of one point from which all time and distance around the world could be measured – a meridian. And it was here that the patriotic instinct kicked in. There were four realistic contenders and they were, predictably, London, Paris, Washington and Berlin. A fifth option put forward by the French, who knew they had little chance of winning with Paris, was for a neutral meridian.

Looking back, the French solution was probably the most sensible. Unlike the parallels of latitude which work from the earth’s rotational axis, the prime meridian must be determined arbitrarily. It would make more sense to plonk it in the middle of the Atlantic than in any partisan, and man-made, city.

Nevertheless the issue of locating the meridian inevitably dominated the days of debate at the conference. One correspondent explained the atmosphere as being so tense that “smoke came out.”

In the end, London won and Greenwich was selected as the site of the Prime Meridian. Not only was Britain at the peak of its imperial power (in fact this was regarded as irrelevant to many of the delegates), Greenwich had been a major hub of shipping for centuries and accordingly most navigational charts already used the grassy banks on the south of the Thames as a starting point. The case was bolstered by the fact that the U.S. had also adopted the Greenwich timekeeping system for its national railway system.

And that is why, if you go to Greenwich, you can stand on the little brass strip which denotes the split between east and west, point zero, the home of time.

And that is also why we all refer back, if unwittingly, to that place every time we tell the time. This weekend marks the start of half-term for most schools across the country, and so for the past week or so we have been counting down to a very important time – 3.15pm on Friday 23rd October.

I suppose many people will say that it’s just the same with everybody else, and there are clock-watchers in every profession. A fellow once told me that he had worked in an office where, every day, the whole staff would finish off their work, pack up their things and stand by the lift for a whole fifteen minutes waiting for five ‘o clock to come round.

In fact counting down to things is often more important than the actual thing itself. I don’t know how many shopping days there are until Christmas, but I’m sure somebody will have counted them.

The greatest count-down of them all, though, must surely be on New Year’s Eve. Millions of pounds, billions worldwide, are thrown at ten seconds of hysteria every year. Weeks beforehand, plans are hastily thrown together. In the run-up, it seems nobody has the capacity for any conversation other than ‘what are you doing for New Year?’

Then as the day arrives, the bunting goes up, the fireworks are set and the lakes of alcohol guzzled down – all in preparation for the big countdown.

At the time we get wrapped up in it all, and it seems to be perfectly rational behaviour, but if we take it out of context for a second then the absurdity of it all comes clear. What exactly are we counting down to? What are we expecting to happen when we get to zero?

The answer is, of course, nothing. We are counting down to nothing. Nothing will change or happen as we enter the New Year. But if it makes us happy, and it certainly seems to do that, then who am I to stop it all.

This week I was tickled to see a number of bloggers, as ever short of anything truly significant to proselytise, counting down to the appearance of Nick Griffin on the BBC’s Question Time.

Far too much has been said already about whether that man should have been invited on that show. In fact, I cannot have been alone in seeing some irony while watching commentator after commentator fill the airwaves with complaints about how much airtime was being given to a fascist.

Well, the blogs counted down, the protestors made their noise but ultimately the cameras rolled and bile flowed. Mr Griffin is an educated man, and on the whole an articulate one, but that evening was not his best. As somebody who rather fancies themselves as a bit of an historian, the most offensive parts of Mr Griffin’s contribution were the outrageous misinterpretations of the British story.

Britain is a fiction. It is a collection of kingdoms and principalities, of traditions and legends, of people and places. They have been brought together by centuries of historical to-and-fro.

Mr Griffin suggests that we could go back to the ice-age, and ask the first settlers on these isles about what being British meant to them. You could try, but I’m not sure that would get you very far.

If you really want to know about Britishness, go to Greenwich. Very quickly the myth of an imperial power imposing its inherent greatness upon the globe falls down.

The British story is much more attractive than that. Greenwich is not the home of time because it is British. Greenwich is the home of time because that’s where the map started.

 

Tony Blair is to become the first President of the European Union. At least, that’s what we’re told by people who claim to know these things. Equally, other people, who curiously also claim to know these things, insist that Tony Blair could not possibly become the first President of the European Union.

Of course, this is one of those issues where the appearance has nothing to do with the reality. Whatever negotiations and campaigns go on over the next months to find a President, nobody will be particularly concerned about competence. There appear to be a number of people in the running for the glamorous but impotent position of European President. They are a collection mainly of former Prime Ministers – their competence (or incompetence) at running stuff can be pretty much assumed.

Underneath the talk of ‘best man for the job’ will be an altogether more infantile desire on the part of every country involved to get their man in. What a coup it would be for a British politician to take the honour of being Europe’s premier citizen?

Of course, it doesn’t actually make any difference at all, but secretly everybody thinks it’s very important. This slightly childish streak to international relations is nothing new…

This week marks the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the decision to make Greenwich, in London, the home of time. The decision was taken in 1884, at the International Meridian Conference. Delegates from twenty-five countries joined together in Washington, at the invitation of the U.S. President, Chester Arthur.

The task of the conference was to make some sense of timekeeping across the globe. The invention of steam power and the telegraph were making international communication, travel and trade increasingly important to the global economy. So, there needed to be some form of unified timekeeping system that could be shared by everybody.

For this system to work, it required the establishment of one point from which all time and distance around the world could be measured – a meridian. And it was here that the patriotic instinct kicked in. There were four realistic contenders and they were, predictably, London, Paris, Washington and Berlin. A fifth option put forward by the French, who knew they had little chance of winning with Paris, was for a neutral meridian.

Looking back, the French solution was probably the most sensible. Unlike the parallels of latitude which work from the earth’s rotational axis, the prime meridian must be determined arbitrarily. It would make more sense to plonk it in the middle of the Atlantic than in any partisan, and man-made, city.

Nevertheless the issue of locating the meridian inevitably dominated the days of debate at the conference. One correspondent explained the atmosphere as being so tense that “smoke came out.”

In the end, London won and Greenwich was selected as the site of the Prime Meridian. Not only was Britain at the peak of its imperial power (in fact this was regarded as irrelevant to many of the delegates), Greenwich had been a major hub of shipping for centuries and accordingly most navigational charts already used the grassy banks on the south of the Thames as a starting point. The case was bolstered by the fact that the U.S. had also adopted the Greenwich timekeeping system for its national railway system.

And that is why, if you go to Greenwich, you can stand on the little brass strip which denotes the split between east and west, point zero, the home of time.

And that is also why we all refer back, if unwittingly, to that place every time we tell the time. This weekend marks the start of half-term for most schools across the country, and so for the past week or so we have been counting down to a very important time – 3.15pm on Friday 23rd October.

I suppose many people will say that it’s just the same with everybody else, and there are clock-watchers in every profession. A fellow once told me that he had worked in an office where, every day, the whole staff would finish off their work, pack up their things and stand by the lift for a whole fifteen minutes waiting for five ‘o clock to come round.

In fact counting down to things is often more important than the actual thing itself. I don’t know how many shopping days there are until Christmas, but I’m sure somebody will have counted them.

The greatest count-down of them all, though, must surely be on New Year’s Eve. Millions of pounds, billions worldwide, are thrown at ten seconds of hysteria every year. Weeks beforehand, plans are hastily thrown together. In the run-up, it seems nobody has the capacity for any conversation other than ‘what are you doing for New Year?’

Then as the day arrives, the bunting goes up, the fireworks are set and the lakes of alcohol guzzled down – all in preparation for the big countdown.

At the time we get wrapped up in it all, and it seems to be perfectly rational behaviour, but if we take it out of context for a second then the absurdity of it all comes clear. What exactly are we counting down to? What are we expecting to happen when we get to zero?

The answer is, of course, nothing. We are counting down to nothing. Nothing will change or happen as we enter the New Year. But if it makes us happy, and it certainly seems to do that, then who am I to stop it all.

This week I was tickled to see a number of bloggers, as ever short of anything truly significant to proselytise, counting down to the appearance of Nick Griffin on the BBC’s Question Time.

Far too much has been said already about whether that man should have been invited on that show. In fact, I cannot have been alone in seeing some irony while watching commentator after commentator fill the airwaves with complaints about how much airtime was being given to a fascist.

Well, the blogs counted down, the protestors made their noise but ultimately the cameras rolled and bile flowed. Mr Griffin is an educated man, and on the whole an articulate one, but that evening was not his best. As somebody who rather fancies themselves as a bit of an historian, the most offensive parts of Mr Griffin’s contribution were the outrageous misinterpretations of the British story.

Britain is a fiction. It is a collection of kingdoms and principalities, of traditions and legends, of people and places. They have been brought together by centuries of historical to-and-fro.

Mr Griffin suggests that we could go back to the ice-age, and ask the first settlers on these isles about what being British meant to them. You could try, but I’m not sure that would get you very far.

If you really want to know about Britishness, go to Greenwich. Very quickly the myth of an imperial power imposing its inherent greatness upon the globe falls down.

The British story is much more attractive than that. Greenwich is not the home of time because it is British. Greenwich is the home of time because that’s where the map started.

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