By Matthew Engel
Financial Times (UK)
September 22, 2007
For as long as I can remember, there has been a map in the ticket hall of Piccadilly Circus tube station supposedly showing night and day across the time zones of the world. This is somewhat surprising given the London Underground's historic difficulty in grasping the concept of punctuality.
But the map has always fascinated me, and still does, even though it now seems very primitive.
This is because it chops the world up equally by longitude, without regard to the reality of either political divisions or the changing seasons.
This, however, is the weekend when it makes most sense. We are now at the equinox, the moment (0951 Greenwich Mean Time on September 23 2007, to be precise) when day and night come into balance everywhere on Earth. For the next three months, as the southern hemisphere tips towards the sun, this changes until the North Pole is starved of light and the South Pole gorges itself, and then everything slowly swings back again.
Isn't this just amazing? Despite all the world's other injustices, everywhere gets the same amount of light over the course of a year. But near the poles it's either famine or feast, whereas, at the tropics, night falls daily with a rather dreary predictability.
Furthermore, this is something mankind has not yet screwed up. No one has warned that by 2100 we are in danger of perpetual daylight; George W. Bush has not yet said the science is bunk; Gordon Brown has not told us this is a terrible thing and that he will save the planet - provided it does not actually involve risking any votes.
And yet time is highly politicized. In theory, the planet has 24 time zones. Actually, there are about 39, and they are still hotly debated. Within the past month, President Hugo Chavez has talked of moving Venezuela's clocks forward half an hour, and Indian scientists have urged their government to do the same.
India is currently the most significant part of the world with a half-hourly time zone -- five hours behind Greenwich. This has a curious advantage for British journalists there worrying about deadlines, because you can get GMT by the simple trick of turning your watch upside down (trust me, it works). Nepal and the Chatham Islands actually have quarter-hour zones, which is really confusing.
OK, I'm not just fascinated; I'm obsessed. I adore those June evenings in the English countryside when it's still not quite dark at 11:00 p.m. I have seen the December twilight in Hammerfest, the world's most northerly town: it comes, gorgeously, in mid-morning with a violet sky merging into the pristine snowfield then -- boom -- a 22-hour darkness closes in before lunch. I have basked in Nairobi at the spring solstice with the sun straight overhead like a gazillion-watt lightbulb.
I fantasize about Galicia, the tip of north-western Spain, which is in the same zone as Hungary, 1,500 miles to the east, and must have midsummer evenings as light as the Scottish highlands. Is that why the Spaniards have dinner so late? One day, I intend to cross the frontier from China to Afghanistan so I can put my watch forward three 1/2 hours, a world record.
Maybe I can get to the strip of western Australia, larger than Belgium but with a population of 200, that has its own unofficial quarter-hour zone -- and one day understand the complex answer to the deceptively simple question: "What's the time in Indiana?"
The Chinese force the entire country, even the far west, to observe Beijing time. This probably gives the government a little popularity, because people like their light during the day, when they can use it. Some Brits with long memories still think wistfully of the experiment nearly 40 years ago when daylight saving ran year-round, and it was possible to potter in the garden after work even in December. It didn't get light until 10:00 a.m. in Scotland, and Scots MPs had it stopped. A reversion for the rest of us might be a hidden benefit of Scottish independence.
Before the war, France was on Greenwich time (though they didn't call it that). Then the Germans forced them to use Berlin time, which was evidently not an unpopular feature of the occupation: they have essentially stuck with it ever since. There is research to support the logic of this, which the Indian scientists have cited. For instance, winter morning dark is less dangerous than evening dark on the roads -- kids mess around less on their way to school than on their way home.
Of course, everyone could just get up an hour earlier. But, oddly, no one ever seems to think of that.