January is slipping by in summery non-time, and this mole is mapping out intentions, experimenting with rhythms for the coming year. One part of me is trying to disengage itself from the other which, for decades now – over half a century, has heroically, but misguidedly, been chivvying me along to match the ever-speeding pace of the external world.
When did this self-chivvying begin? The England in which I spent my early molehood was cracked and threadbare, exhausted still from the war. Trains were always late if they came at all. You would think my snailishness might have gone unnoticed. But no. Perhaps I had been gazing at the sky or was lost in some rabbit-hole of my own when the teacher called me to the front. She turned me round to face the class and wound a phantom key between my shoulder blades as if I were a mechanical toy. Oh the mortification! I can still feel it in my moleheart. Did I speed up? I don’t think so. But I did realise that I ought to. My inner Chivvy was born.
When we upped burrows and migrated to Bern I had no idea how regular I would need to become. The ancient clock, the Zytglogge, dominates the old town. Everything was exakt. At school, our slates had to be placed in parallel to the desk top and our chalk-pencils lined up one centimetre from their sides. In our six-family burrow we had a communal laundry which had a strict roster. Fortunately the muddiness of a seven day week could be controlled, because Sunday was snipped off. As the fugitive Axel in John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy remarks from the safety of his laundry hide-out:’In Switzerland everything that is not compulsory is forbidden.’ And it was strengstens verboten for moles to do their washing on a Sunday.
It was perhaps the decade that Switzerland was at its most punctilious. Hans Hilfiker’s iconic clock gleamed on every railway platform. It was uncluttered by numbers. The minute hand jerked forward every 60 seconds so that it was never dawdling in the anarchy of whiteness between the markers, but it was the second hand that took pride of place. Red and shaped like a guard’s baton it moved continuously, a fraction fast, so that it might pause for 1.5 seconds just before the hour – just enough time for the railway guard to slice his baton down and the train to begin to glide out of the station on the hour.
And yet, and yet, Bern has had its fill of artists, dreamers and wanderers. It’s inhabitants still gasp at the beauty of the alps on a clear day. Its language has humour and lilts slowly. Bern spawned Robert Walser, the most unpinnable and poetic of wanderers and Adolf Wölfli who created calendars with thousands of days and maps that conflated Bern and China, art, currency and music.
And it was in Bern, as he was travelling along Marktgasse on a tram that Albert Einstein looked back at the Zytglogge and got the first inkling of his theory of relativity. Time was not a fixed thing, universally applicable, nor was the experience of time universal. It varied according to where you were standing.
We may be bound by seasons, by night and day, but who is to say how we mere earth creatures arrange our time? Between 1793 and 1805, some parts of Switzerland found themselves being dragged into the radical calendar of the First French Republic. There were thirty days to a month split into three days décadi of ten days. Each day contained ten hours, each hour 100 minutes, each minute 100 seconds. It was configured by a committee of astronomers, mathematicians, politicians, a naval geographer, a chemist, an actor and playwright and a horticulturist. And so its metric precision was imbued with more than a nod at the natural world. The year began on the autumn equinox and was divided into seasons from thereon. The months had names that reflected the weather. We would now be in plûviose, the rainy season. And today would be perce-neige, or snowdrop, the saints having been dislodged by the secular government. Some days were dedicated to animals and agricultural implements like bale-hooks or watering-cans.
It is time to for this mole to challenge the Ancien Regime of the Chivvy, the rule of the second hand; time to be guided by my own rhythms, my own pace.