David Rooney reviews a new work by Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift.
Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales 1300-1800
Oxford University Press 450pp £35 ISBN 978 0199278206
Until the Concorde fleet was grounded, south London received a time signal every day at 7.10pm, give or take a few minutes: the roar of the supersonic aeroplane as the in-bound service from New York passed overhead. One might have called it as regular as clockwork, if one remarked on it at all. According to Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift’s book, such aural signals punctuating our lives with clock-time have been part of everyday life far longer than many historians have admitted.
Their work reveals the long life of clock-time as part of daily existence, countering the view expounded most famously by E.P. Thompson in the 1960s that the industrial revolution in the late-18th century had ushered in a hitherto-unknown sense of temporality and timeliness (‘an alien intruder’) into the lives of ordinary folk. ‘Too narrow, and too contextually specific,’ Glennie and Thrift say. Instead, in their revisionist approach, the ‘cacophony of bells’ in medieval England and the timed clatter of mail coaches in 18th-century streets had been known and understood as complex disciplinary time cues for generations before the factory clock brought its own discipline.
The authors set out a strong theoretical pitch for their work and repeat it often. We must treat clock-time as ‘a complex of practices, rather than as an object in itself’, they say, and their approach is sophisticated and refreshing. But the work’s strongest characteristic is its use of historical evidence. Not only is the range wide (from recipe books to sex diaries, with much in between) but the authors’ approach to it reminds us that in reading historical sources what one sees depends on what one is looking for. As Glennie and Thrift eloquently demonstrate, the questions to which we subject evidence are rarely the same ones the evidence was written to answer.