When I was a kid, we didn’t have a car. We walked or used public transport. A ride in a car, be it a private vehicle or a taxi, was a special event. As soon as I discovered it, I was fascinated by the little gubbins that recorded the distance travelled. I would watch it as the tenths of a mile rolled past and then each full mile.
Gradually, I became aware of other sets of numbers rolling inexorably on. There were clocks, for example. The friendly clock with the numbers 1 to 12 around the dial, and the two hands, disguises the passage of time as much as it reveals it. It presents a primitive view of time, time as an endless circle. A digital clock is crueler, somehow, especially those big clocks on stations that beat out the seconds, clunk! clunk! clunk! They give you a real sensation of the fleeting seconds that will never return.
But there are still other counters. There is the rotation of the earth, our planet, which gives us night and day, hurrying us inexorably through the days of the week to the weekend and then beyond it to another round of work days. Birthdays come and go. When you are young, they seem rare events, anxiously anticipated, but as you become older, they lose their fascination and pass by again and again like the clunks of the station clock.
Then there is the revolution of the planet about the sun, giving us the seasons and the rhythms of nature and the countryside that we city-dwellers tend to forget. Like the odometer in the car, the year numbers tick by as the planet speeds along its dusty ellipse, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007…
As I write, the ‘7’ has already shifted slightly. Peering into the crack, you can just see the top of the ‘8’. Tonight, with a click, the ‘8’ will spring into place and the ‘7’ will disappear until it is next needed in 2017. That is fantasy, of course. Mindplay. There are no 7s and 8s, no celestial odometer clicking away the years. Our dates and calendars are but conceits, imaginings that help us regulate our lives, but are otherwise without meaning.
For some reason, human beings like to measure things. Length, depth, width, height. Distance travelled. The capacity of this bottle, the length of those curtains, the age of the horse, the number of scampi served in a basket for £5.95. Among these, age is a particular obsession: “Man, 23, charged with dangerous driving.” You can’t smoke until you are 16, drive until you are 17, join the army until you are 18. You’re over the hill at 35 but “life begins at 40”.
This too is nonsense. It may be a little optimistic to say “You are only as old as you feel” but there is some sense in it. Why should the number of planetary rotations and revolutions that have occurred since my birth determine the stage of my life? There is more to life than the ticking of the clock.
The earth will hurry on its way tonight, oblivious of human calendars clicking over from 7 to 8 but the people, ah well, that’s another story. Around the world they will be celebrating, dancing, drinking too much, playing mad tricks and, in a word, enjoying themselves. And why not? any excuse for a party is a good one.
Happy New Year, dear reader. May it be a good one for you and bring you happiness in abundance.