Friday, 31 December 2010

loose ends

Looking back, a few of my posts during the past year left loose ends, which I will now endeavour to tie up. You can click on the title if you want to refer back to the original post.

a puzzle
I used to compile word puzzles because the ones appearing in newspapers were too easy to be worth bothering with. Some of these were posted in the early days, when I had few visitors, and I had no idea what kind of audience I would attract. I’m not planning to post any more, but I thought that you might like this one. It’s really just a question, but the answer has to be worked out, which is why I call it a puzzle. I ask only that if you do take a look that you do not post the answer in a comment. If you have the correct answer, you will know that it is correct.

fact or fiction
At the end of my assessment of the reliability of purportedly factual material in books, I described how I came across this sentence in the third edition of a standard university textbook on global environmental issues:
This was captured by John Turner in his paintings of the period.
The author was describing the famous eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 and how the huge quantities of volcanic ash that were fired into the stratosphere affected sunsets around the world for several years thereafter. I commented as follows:
If you think you know what is wrong with this sentence, do leave a comment. My reaction was to delete it completely, which in retrospect may also have been a mistake.
One reader pointed out that Turner had died in 1851, which makes the sentence a nonsense, but nobody seems to have noticed that it is not common practice to include a first name. Painters, like composers and writers, are usually referred to by their surname alone. However, if you do include a Christian name, it’s a good idea to get it right. Turner’s first name was Joseph.

So why did I suggest that deleting the sentence may have been a mistake? I could have rewritten it, because the paintings to which the author referred were painted around the time of the eruption, in 1815, of Tambora in Indonesia. This was four times more powerful than the 1883 event, and in addition to the obvious and predictable consequences, one unexpected byproduct (nothing to do with global environmental issues) was Frankenstein, written the following summer, the year ‘when summer was cancelled’ courtesy of the eruption.

My discussion of probability ended with a description of a hypothetical television game show:
Imagine that…you are shown three locked boxes. You are told that one of the three contains $10,000, while the other two are empty. You are allowed to select one box, and if you choose correctly the money is yours. Let us refer to your selection as box #1. Now, before you are allowed to open your chosen box, the compere, who knows in advance which box contains the money, opens one of the other boxes (call this box #2) to show that it is empty. Now comes the offer: do you want to stick with box #1, or would you prefer to change your mind and choose box #3?

…if you know what you’re doing, you will choose box #3. Why?
If you haven’t come across this before, you may want to work out the answer for yourself, but if you’re interested in the answer but not in the working out, the answer is posted as a comment on the original article.

return to koon garden
After posting some of the photos that I’d taken in a ruined chee tong (spirit hall), I returned to take some more. I decided to add this one to the original post:

I’ve reproduced this photo here so that if you’ve already seen the original post you will not need to return to Koon Garden.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

I call myself…

The habit may not be universal, but large numbers of Hong Kong Chinese have adopted Western Christian names. Not a particularly noteworthy phenomenon in itself, but the choice of names does throw up some points of interest. The practice also seems to have become widespread among young Indian professionals, if my experiences with Indian call centres are anything to go by.

First, a surprising number of girls and women have adopted names that in the West are now regarded as irredeemably old-fashioned, such as Agnes, Florence, Gladys and Mabel. Second, males often take on the formal version of a name, for example Kenneth, Richard, Thomas or William, but if you were to call someone with one of these names Kenny, Dick, Tommy or Billy, respectively, they would not respond, because Kenny, Dick, Tommy and Billy are seen as different names.

Then there are the outlandish choices, one of which stands out in my memory as the most bizarre of all: in the early 1980s, Yamaha employed an organ tutor who called himself Moondoggy Lo. I used to wonder what kind of music he might play at home. Judging by the name, I don’t think it would be music I would want to listen to.

All this makes me wonder what name I would have chosen if I too had had a free choice. Actually, there is only one candidate in the frame. I’ve had the same name for more than 64 years, and I’m attached to it. I believe that most Westerners would make the same choice, because a name is more than a label. Your name is your identity, which makes all the more puzzling a story I read on the website of England’s Sun newspaper over the weekend.

Apparently, a fan of Liverpool football club has changed his name by deed poll to Fernando Torres, the team’s centre forward. I cannot imagine that this fool feels any sense of identity with the new name, and I would expect his wife to continue to call him Shaun. And one can only assume that he felt no sense of identity with his original name either.

That this is also the case with Chinese who adopt Western names I deduce from an experience I had when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 to work at the Outward Bound School here. On one of my first courses, I discovered that there were two trainees in my watch who called themselves Richard. In order to avoid confusion, I suggested to one of them, I proposed to address him as Ricardo for the four-week duration of the course. At the end of the course, he informed me that he preferred Ricardo and that he would not be calling himself Richard in the future.

In my own case, I’ve been called by a few names over the years, but nowadays nobody calls me anything but Dennis. I was Hoddo during my school days (a corruption of my surname) and Razz (short for Rasputin) at university, and I continued to attract tiresome beard-related nicknames (Jesus, Fidel) for a few years thereafter.

However, it wasn’t until I went to work at the Eskdale Outward Bound School in the Lake District in 1971 that I experienced anything new in the way I was to be addressed. I was ‘Den’, which I didn’t like much, but in a cultural milieu where Adrian was ‘Ade’, Alan was ‘Al’, Colin was ‘Col’ and Stuart was ‘Stu’, I had little choice but to grin and bear it. But I was surprised to find names that I’d never thought of shortening being routinely chopped in half.

I had a similar experience working in a warehouse in Bermondsey, south London, in the late 1970s. Again I was ‘Den’, but I expected it this time, given that to a Cockney Derek is always ‘Del’ (cf. ‘Del-Boy’, Derek Trotter, in the BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses) Gary is always ‘Gal’, and Terry is always ‘Tel’. In earlier times, this practice of transposing l’s and r’s may have been more widespread (cf. Prince Hal, later to become Henry V, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV), but in modern Cockney usage Harry is always ’Arry. I’m tempted to describe this transposition as ‘Chinese’, except that, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese are far more likely to confuse l’s and n’s. It’s the Japanese who confuse l and r.

Of course, there are some names that will almost inevitably be shortened in use: Christopher will be chopped to ‘Chris’, David will be trimmed to ‘Dave’, Michael will become ‘Mike’, and Peter will be clipped to ‘Pete’. However, I’m careful to observe whether a new acquaintance prefers the original or abbreviated version of their name. This is especially important with female acquaintances: addressing someone as ‘Elizabeth’ when all her friends know her as ‘Liz’ is going to sound insufferably formal.

It should be noted that a perceived character change takes place when someone shortens their name. Had we been introduced to Anthony Blair as the new leader of the British Labour Party in 1994, he might have been scrutinized more closely, but ‘Tony’ sounds matey and reassuring, and millions were taken in by his glib platitudes and shallow showmanship. And his lies.

So, are there any circumstances under which I might consider changing my name? Yes there are, but it would have to be something extreme, such as having a contract put out on me by the mafia or other criminal organization, in which case I wouldn’t be writing this blog, and I certainly wouldn’t be telling anyone where I live.

Friday, 24 December 2010

call my bluff #2

This post is for those of you who find yourself with nothing to do on Christmas Day (i.e. none of you) and have somehow found your way here. Please accept my sincere apologies. There’s nothing happening here either. However, I have been informed by the management that since we have guests, it is incument on me to provide some entertainment. As you already know, I’m interested in all aspects of language, so I thought a little quiz would be in order. However, I’m not looking for the actual definitions, because I assume that these are all words with which you are completely unfamiliar. Try making up an amusing or otherwise apposite definition instead.
 1: What is a deadie?
 2: If you had been manted, what happened to you?
 3: What is a factaxe (British English spelling)?
 4: What is happening if you mollize something?
 5: What is a notivist?
 6: If you describe someone as duriatic, what are they like?
 7: What is a chipsure?
 8: If you describe something as plingent, what is it like?
If you come up with some good ones, please leave a comment. You can of course be reading this at a later date, but you can still join in the game. For background, you may want to read Call My Bluff, which will inter alia explain the origin of the words I’ve chosen above.

Monday, 20 December 2010

christmas rapping

I don’t listen to rap music, apart from the occasional track by Eminem, Run DMC or the Beastie Boys, so fans of the genre will probably say that I can have nothing worthwhile to contribute on the subject. However, I note that rhyming is seen as a vital part of rapping, and that a rapper will boast of his or her ability to create the most unexpected rhymes and will challenge fellow performers on this score.

This needs to be the case, given that the musical accompaniment is invariably trite and adds little or nothing to the performance. This means, in effect, that the words should be able to stand alone, which is definitely not true of most of the rap music I’ve heard. I will therefore confine my comments to those rap lyrics that do feature clever rhymes and interesting use of words. Take this example:
We ain’t nothing but mammals. Well, some of us cannibals
who cut other people open like cantaloupes
But if we can hump dead animals and antelopes
then there’s no reason that a man and another man can’t elope
But if you feel like I feel, I got the antidote
Women wave your pantyhose, sing the chorus and it goes…

Eminem, The Real Slim Shady.
Overall, this song is an attack on modern pop culture, but I’m interested only in the rhyming involved. First, I note that the first ‘rhyme’ depends on the American pronunciation of ‘cantaloupe’ (the British English pronunciation would rhyme this word with ‘scoop’). Then, after two nondescript rhymes, Eminem switches to assonance (elope…antidote), which the average rapper appears to think is the same as rhyming. It isn’t. ‘Antidote…pantyhose’ is a neat piece of assonance, and a typically abrupt change of scene; the verse ends with another routine rhyme.

The staccato imagery that Eminem’s best work conjures up reminds me of a song released 35 years earlier, and the promotional video that accompanied it. The song was Subterranean Homesick Blues, the singer was Bob Dylan, and the video showed him holding up the key words for the camera, each written in block capitals on a separate piece of paper.
Look out kid
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles.
Dylan rarely uses assonance in this song (‘clean nose…plain clothes’, from the second verse, is the only clear example). But, although Dylan’s is a more overtly political song, the only significant difference that I can see between it and the Eminem track is the musical accompaniment. There is an illegitimate rhyme—‘manhole…candle’—but the rhyming skills evident in these two extracts are broadly similar. The point to note is that in both cases the need to rhyme creates a series of non sequiturs: there is no obvious reason for a given line, other than that it ends with a rhyming word.

And neither artist can hold a candle to W.S. Gilbert, the man who supplied the words to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music. It isn’t often appreciated nowadays, when a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is likely to be regarded as mere light entertainment, that these works were intended as satires on the English middle class. Even The Mikado, ostensibly set in Japan, lampoons the manners and mores of this class. And the barbs are sharper and more to the point:
And the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone
Every century but this and every country but his own.

W.S. Gilbert, I’ve Got a Little List.
However, Gilbert is seen at his best in I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance. The first point to note is the sheer breadth of education required to ‘get’ all the references. Second, every rhyme in this song is a three-syllable rhyme, which requires considerable linguistic virtuosity. And Gilbert was not afraid to invent words if required:
I’m very good at integral and differential calculus,
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous.

I can quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.
The italicized words are pure invention, but there is no difficulty in apprehending the intended meaning. That this song is partly about rhyming can be deduced from the ending of each verse, where Gilbert deliberately backs the singer into a corner and challenges him to find a particularly problematic rhyme. It is worth quoting the whole of the final verse, which is sung at a much slower tempo than the rest of the song, to see how this works. One can sense the inexorable build-up to the most difficult rhyme of all:
In fact, when I know what is meant by ‘mamelon’ and ‘ravelin’,
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by ‘commissariat’,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery,
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy…
Dylan would be more likely to use the word ‘strategy’ than Eminem, although I can’t imagine either of them attempting to find a rhyme for it. This is Gilbert’s solution:
You’ll say a better major-general has never sat a-gee.
‘Sat a-gee’, meaning ‘sat astride a horse’, which is imaginative if not entirely legitimate. And the musical accompaniment, as it is for both the Dylan and Eminem tracks, is bland and does not intrude upon the song. I can envisage such a patter song being sung to a hip hop beat, but I do not believe that any modern rapper is capable of performing, let alone writing, anything similar. For this reason, I say, without equivocation, step forward Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, nineteenth-century rapper extraordinaire.

Friday, 17 December 2010

bah! humbug

I don’t hate Christmas, but I don’t hold any particular affection for it either: all that posing and pretending, all that false bonhomie. Fortunately, living where I do in a relatively remote part of the northern New Territories, I can ignore it—most of the time. The painful exception is when I have to do the daily shopping. Promptly on the first of December each year, all the malls and supermarkets start playing the hideous music that has somehow become attached to this festival over their PA systems. I do most of my shopping in the local wet market, but there are all too many items that are available only in the local ParknShop. That’s a local joke, by the way; apart from some of its branches in posh out-of-town areas, I’ve yet to find a ParknShop where you can actually park a car. You’d be lucky to find somewhere to park a bicycle at most of its stores.

Even pieces that might otherwise be tolerable lose their lustre when heard over a typical PA system. It reminds me of the bingly-bongly sound produced by an ice cream van. And some pieces would still sound horrible if played by a professional symphony orchestra in a hall with perfect acoustics. The most annoying are those that have been traditionally associated with Christmas but in fact have nothing to do with it: Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland and, worst of all by some considerable distance, Jingle Bells, which is a real turkey. I think that my own personal Room 101 would be a bare concrete cell within which I would be free to move but in which the only sound I could hear would be Jingle Bells playing on an endless tape loop through really tinny speakers.

Not that Christmas songs that actually mention Christmas are much better. I can well do without hearing Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, White Christmas and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at any time of year. On the other hand, perhaps I should be thankful that I am forced to endure this brain-numbing ‘music’ for but a limited season. The local birds are quiet at this time of year too, unfortunately, and the really musical ones won’t be back until March, so I’ll simply have to put up with this unwanted aural assault without compensatory back-up on my walk back home across the fields after shopping.

Not far behind in terms of the level of induced nausea but thankfully far easier to avoid are the various Christmas songs that have been released by popular singers over the years. It is as if once established they feel obliged to offer a Christmas song at some point in their careers, and some of the best singers have produced some of the worst songs. Aesthetic judgement disappears even more completely than the average one-hit wonder.

I’m not going to provide a comprehensive list though (too painful), but mention must be made of Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, Elton John’s Step into Christmas and Wham’s Last Christmas. However, two of the offerings in this category would stand out as worthwhile songs at any time of year: Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas and Fairytale of New York by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. And an honourable exception must also be made of Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? It made an important political statement (and it was a far better song than USA for Africa’s pretentious riposte).

We are on firmer foundations when discussing Christmas carols, although there are some horrors here too: I cringe every time I hear Away in a Manger, and Silent Night wouldn’t seem out of place at a funeral. On the other hand, it would almost be worth going to church at this time of year for the chance to belt out God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Angels from the Realms of Glory, Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Come All Ye Faithful without someone telling me that I can’t sing, even though it’s impossible to take the words seriously.

Especial opprobrium attaches to O Christmas Tree, which must take the prize for the most banal lyric of any traditional yuletide song. And even though the melody is slightly better, I find it difficult to imagine that a self-respecting socialist could sing The Red Flag with a straight face, knowing from whence the tune of the song he is singing was filched. ‘Middle-class sentimentality’ would have been Lenin’s verdict. And, when I stop to think about it, I can’t imagine that a self-respecting socialist would join the British Labour Party, for which this song is an unofficial anthem, in the first place.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

what's in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet;

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we used to visit my grandmother regularly in Newcastle. Towards the end of the decade, I became aware that ‘darkies’ had moved into the top of the street. I didn’t think much about this term at the time: it was the word that the grown-ups used. However, I slowly realized that by using it I was categorizing people solely on the basis of the colour of their skin.

Some people still use this label, but not Hawley & Hazel. This company used to market a brand of toothpaste in Hong Kong called ‘Darkie’, which had a picture of a black man wearing a top hat and a bow tie on the box, like the performers in the nineteenth-century minstrel shows. However, about twenty years ago, the name was changed to ‘Darlie’, probably in response to complaints, and the image was doctored (by increasing the contrast) so that it was no longer possible to deduce the ethnicity of the model.

Unfortunately, ‘darkie’ isn’t the only word that is regarded as offensive by those to whom it is applied, and coloured immigrants to the UK are not the only targets of such language. However, national and ethnic groupings are the most common focus of derogatory labels, and the English are among the worst offenders. Every nationality that becomes fully established in the English consciousness has an unflattering name attached to it: Chink, Dago, Eytie, Frog, Kraut, Pikey, Yank, Yid (the full list is a long one).

On the other hand, some of those on the receiving end of such English disdain refer to the English by equally unflattering names: Limeys by Americans, Poms by Australians and, best of all, rosbifs by the French. The object in all such cases is to belittle the nationality that is being labelled. And the English aren’t even particularly friendly towards their Celtic neighbours, nominally part of the same nation, whom they frequently label as Jocks, Taffs or Micks, depending on their actual country of origin.

There is a purpose to this name-calling: to emphasize the distinction between the in-group and the out-group. All cultures and societies do this to some extent, and by coincidence every generic term that I’m aware of for an out-group begins with the letter ‘g’: gaijin in Japanese, gweilo in Cantonese, gentile by Jews, gorgio by the Roma, and gringo by Latinos. The mention of Latinos highlights a difficulty in choosing an inoffensive name for oneself: for many years in the USA, it was perfectly acceptable to refer to ‘Hispanics’, and the term is still in use, but it is no longer seen as ‘politically correct’ because of its direct reference to Spain and that country’s colonial history in the Americas.

However, if these were the only examples that I could muster, there would be no point in raising the matter, but some ethnic labels have always been offensive and have been used intentionally for that reason. It is probably impossible nowadays to use the word ‘nigger’ in any context without causing offence to someone: I was pulled up recently in a pub in the UK for relating an experience that I had while working on an oil rig in the middle of the Sahara Desert in 1968. With two other Englishmen, I had asked that lamb be put on the menu from time to time (at least ten out of the fourteen main meals in a week were steak!). Our timid request was rejected in the most peremptory of manners:

“If you want lamb, why don’t you fuck off down to the nigger camp?”

Leaving aside the racial confusion that often affects uneducated people (all the roughnecks and roustabouts on the rig were Arabs, and they had their own living quarters and canteen), what this story illustrates is that reporting a conversation in which a dubious word was used is enough to annoy some people. This cannot be a good thing, because self-censorship is a weakness in any writer.

There is another angle to this tendency to label entire groups: in wartime, giving the enemy a derogatory name dehumanizes them and thus makes them easier to kill. For example, American soldiers were in Vietnam to kill gooks. Had they stopped to reflect that they were actually killing Vietnamese, the illegitimacy of their position might have dawned on them sooner. A similar process is at work in Iraq and Afghanistan now: referring to someone as a raghead makes it easier to kill them without troubling one’s conscience. Kipling knew what he was doing when he introduced his readers to ‘the Hun’, the German army, during the First World War.

Other groups that are often singled out in the same way include homosexuals and people with disabilities, although in both cases considerable progress has been made in my lifetime. When I worked at the Outward Bound School in Eskdale in 1971–72, I once ran a course for a group of ESN boys from a nearby residential school. ESN? It stood for ‘educationally subnormal’, which in those days was the official designation. Nowadays, children like these would be regarded as having ‘learning difficulties’, and they would be educated in mainstream schools, where the unhelpful epithet ‘retard’ is likely to be used by some fellow pupils. However, it should be noted here that ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’ are acceptable, although only when directed at someone whose cognitive ability is regarded as ‘normal’.

Another group whose lot has improved is sufferers from cerebral palsy. The UK charity tasked with looking after the interests of such people used to call itself the Spastics Society, and ‘spastic’ was once an acceptable term, but it came to be used to describe a clumsy person and was thus seen as an insult. The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope, a word so neutral that it would be difficult to work out the charity’s purpose, in 1994.

As program director at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School in the early 1980s, I ran a series of courses for physically handicapped students. These were hugely successful, and as a result I was asked to lay on more by the government’s Sport and Recreation Service. But with one stipulation: they must be advertised as for disabled participants. I argued that ‘disabled’ means ‘without ability’, and that my operating philosophy accepted the concept of a ‘handicap’ but tried to find a way to circumvent the intrinsic disadvantages, but the government functionaries were insistent. ‘Disabled’ is nowadays what such people prefer to call themselves, despite the negative connotations of the word, so that is the term I use. ‘Cripple’ is not and never has been a polite term.

I can’t leave the subject of disability without mentioning the debilitating effects on general language usage of undue sensitivity to what can reasonably be regarded as purely descriptive terms. ‘Blind’ is a case in point. If people who cannot see prefer to say that they are ‘visually impaired’, then who am I to argue? However, I cannot understand why, having rejected the term for themselves, they resent it when someone refers to the blind spot in a car, another relates how he was sent up a blind alley, a third how she went on a blind date, a fourth how he turned a blind eye to illegal activity, and the blind side wing forward for the local rugby team how they had been robbed blind by the opposing side (a common loser’s complaint).

There is great danger in proscribing words merely because they may offend. And I don’t need to quote a fictitious example as a reductio ad absurdum: employees of Brent Council in north London were forbidden to ask for ‘black coffee’ in their staff canteen. The legendary West Indies cricket team of the 1980s had the appropriate response: after beating England 5–0 in one memorable series, they described the result as a ‘blackwash’. That’s the kind of creative language usage I like.

So what should you do if you are the subject of a pejorative label? If you’ve read all of my posts about Hong Kong, you’ll have noted that I often refer to myself as a gweilo. In fact, this would originally have been intended as an insult; there are polite terms, but they are rarely used here. I could be a Sai yan (‘Westerner’) or a Ying Kwok yan (‘Englishman’), but I’ve never been called anything other than a gweilo, or ‘ghost man’, in all my time here. Why should I care? It’s only a word.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

a brief history of time

Lost time is never found again.
Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac.
It is impossible to say when humans first became aware of the concept of time, but the remorseless cycle of day and night must have provided an early clue, especially because it links intimately to the natural rhythm of sleep and waking. At the same time, they couldn’t have failed to notice the waxing and waning of the moon over a longer period. Observation of the seasons would have come later, as Homo sapiens spread into more northerly latitudes. For these early times, the day, month and year that these phenomena represent would have been adequate to communicate any time-related message, and it is unlikely that anyone would have considered how the three are related, let alone what caused them.

However, we do know that by the time of the first city-states, the development of arithmetic combined with crude astronomical observations to make it possible to estimate the length of the month or year in terms of days. The extreme example of this development is probably the Maya of Central America, who were obsessed with recording the passage of time, their central dilemma being that they had two calendars, and the two were never in step.

Meanwhile, a new and entirely arbitrary unit, the week, which has as its sole basis the creation myths of the Middle East, was making its first appearance. It has the distinction of being the only unit of time, other than the day, that imposes a cycle of behaviour on people. Religion was also the driving force behind the impulse to subdivide the day into smaller units (peasants toiling in the fields to support the city’s astronomer priests would have had no need for such fine distinctions).

Bronze Age civilizations of the Fertile Crescent used sundials to perform the task of subdivision, which means that the smallest unit measurable with any degree of accuracy would have been several minutes long by modern reckoning. The same can be said for the various mechanized water clocks built by the Greeks, Romans and Chinese, among others. It is only with the invention of mechanical clocks in Europe that the smallest measurable unit eventually shrinks to a minute. But this doesn’t happen straight away: the earliest clocks were not sufficiently accurate, and minute hands didn’t appear until 1670, by which time pendulum clocks with an accuracy of 10 seconds per day were being built.

John Harrison’s marine chronometer of 1761 improved that figure to one-fifth of a second per day, making it necessary to add yet another unit at the lower end of the measurement scale. The second, once defined as 1/86,400 of a day, has since become the only unit to have been given a rigorous scientific definition, relating to the oscillation period of the caesium atoms used in atomic clocks. However, back in the eighteenth century, when the second first appeared, there was still scope for individuality in the recording of time: every town and village that had a town hall or church clock kept its own time, but the railways changed all that. Not only did they flag up the need for a standardized time; they were also responsible for the concept of a timetable, which has been a constant bugbear for humanity ever since.

How tactless, therefore, of Albert Einstein to prove mathematically that time is relative after all. There is no celestial clock that always has the correct time. There is no such thing as the correct time. Two observers travelling at different speeds will be unable to synchronize their watches, because any communication between them will be constrained by the speed of light.

I wonder who first noticed that time went only one way. I don’t think that, even now, that thought occurs to many people. Time is a dimension of our lives in the same way that the three spatial dimensions of length, width and height are, and we take them all for granted. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, science had explained the arrow of time with the second law of thermodynamics, which can best be illustrated as follows:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

In other words, time progresses from a state of relative order to a state of relative disorder. There is no going back. You can put things back together again after a fashion, but it won’t be quite the same. You’ll be able to see the joins (even if you have to use a microscope).

One of the characteristics of science is that just when everyone else is comfortable with a new explanation, along comes another cabal of scientists to discover some phenomenon or other that cannot be explained by the existing rules. In this case, twentieth-century particle physicists were the culprits, discovering a particle that went backwards in time. They refer to it as a virtual particle. In optics, a virtual image is one that doesn’t exist, so I’m assuming that this particle is also one that doesn’t exist. So how was it detected? This seems to me a paradox worthy of any aspiring ancient Greek philosopher.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, there is much anecdotal evidence that time is relative after all. Ask anyone of my age and they will tell you that the years seem to pass faster and faster as you get older. What is less well known is that there is a rational explanation for this observation. For a 19-year-old, the coming year will represent 5 percent of their life to date. However, in my case, the coming year, if I survive it, will represent just over 1.5 percent of my life to date. In other words, the perceived rate at which the years pass by is more than three times as fast for me as it would be for a 19-year-old. But it does seem a very long time since I was 19.