United Kingdom

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Clock-watching Britain has lost all track of time

For a few terrifying minutes this past week I thought I'd gone mad. 

Not 'mad' like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I didn't rush out to the shed in search of an axe with which to terrorise my family. 

It was more like Back To The Future. What happened was that I had used my phone to check the news headlines, expecting to hear the pips preceding them just as they have for the best part of a century. 

But they had vanished. I checked the kitchen clock as the seconds ticked away past 8am. Not so much as a single pip. 

For ten minutes I listened with growing incredulity. My fevered brain told me there could be only one explanation: I had gone back to the past. 

Which meant I would be able to influence the future! And then it dawned on me. Instead of a live programme, I was listening on the BBC Sounds app to what had been broadcast ten minutes earlier. 

For ten minutes I listened with growing incredulity. My fevered brain told me there could be only one explanation: I had gone back to the past

So it was a digital hiccup rather than yet another sign that I was losing my grip on reality. But what is not entirely bonkers is the notion that we have all been in an altered time since lockdown began. 

The great writer Ian McEwan was on to something when he suggested the pandemic has replaced 'clock time' with what he called 'subjective time'. 

Most of us are ruled by the clock. We have timetables to obey and deadlines to meet and schedules to keep. 

But the 'subjective' time of lockdown has replaced all that. For many more of us, bedtime is no longer dictated by the threat of the alarm clock in the morning. Weekends disappear. 

What's so special about Sunday if every other day is much the same? We need to check our phones or newspapers now to be sure which day it is. 

McEwan is also right when he suggests we are already sensing that things will never be the same again. 

We may try to retain some elements of our altered time. That's an enticing thought. One of the many things that's surprised me about the past two months is how little I've achieved. 

Sure I've done what I was already committed to doing: writing this column and presenting programmes for Classic FM and even getting involved in some Zoom events. 

But did I transform my garden by digging out all the weeds as I'd promised myself? No. Instead I spent more time contemplating the garden and recognising that the weeds have a charm of their own. 

And a purpose. The bees love them. As for the house, I never got around to getting rid of all the junk which I've been meaning to do for 20 years. 

But I talked to my children a lot more and, I think, the conversations had a different quality because there was more time. There was nowhere I had to go. 

Nowhere I could go. Time that is not controlled by the ticking of a clock allows for reflection. 

We mock the notion of day-dreaming. It's what children do when they should be concentrating and we tick them off for it. 

But why? There is no more powerful tool than the imagination. It may be true that we can understand our lives only in retrospect, but in order to influence our futures surely we need to find time to think in the present. 

I would like to claim that all these profound thoughts flashed through my mind during my brief foray into the past. 

Sadly they were rather more mundane. I wondered what we might do to change the disquieting present: how we might undo some of the more crass decisions reached by Boris Johnson and his band of unimpressive brothers. 

Not that one really needs hindsight to point out the manifest idiocy of allowing 150,000 racegoers to congregate shoulder to shoulder on a racecourse in Cheltenham when we knew that people in so many countries were dying from a virus that thrived in such conditions and had arrived here. 

Nor dismissing the need for the sort of testing and tracking operations that were to prevent so many deaths in countries like South Korea and Taiwan. 

Nor anticipating the devastating effect on people with life-threatening illnesses like cancer who were scared of getting the treatment they desperately needed. 

Nor allowing hospitals to send old people back to nursing homes to die without even the comfort of their loved ones to hold their hands. And then protest that they always had the best interests of care home residents at heart. 

Hypocrisy compounds incompetence. Nor introducing a quarantine on air passengers whose only effect will be to screw down even tighter the lid on the coffin of our travel industry. 

Nor, heaven help us, announcing that the evidence for the public using face masks was 'extremely weak' and then, a few weeks later, make them compulsory on public transport. 

It might be easier to forgive serious blunders at a time of such great peril if only Johnson and his ministers had treated us collectively with a little more respect. 

But to use the daily briefings as a vehicle for trumpeting an endless series of 'world-beating' triumphs was unforgivable. It's simply not good enough to hide endlessly behind 'the science'. 

There is no such thing. Scientists disagree with each other. Politicians are required to use judgment. And maybe a bit more candour. 

We need only one statistic to test the Government's competence. It is the number of Covid deaths per million of population. 

In this country it stood yesterday at 588. In the United States, under the ludicrous Donald Trump, it was 333. 

Easy, you may say, to be wise after the event. So let me use my non-existent Time Lord powers to try to forecast the effect these past extraordinary months might have on us. 

What makes it so difficult is the counter-intuitive findings of the most reputable opinion polls. You'd expect us to be chafing at the lockdown bit. Instead we think Johnson has been reckless in relaxing the rules. 

We're happy to cram the beaches when the sun shines, not so happy to return to work. A friend who uses a London commuter-belt station counted just seven cars parked there this week. It has spaces for 400. 

But now we have discovered it is feasible to get by without observing the rule of the clock, maybe we'll stop worrying if the pips really do vanish. 

In the manner of pioneers, we can decide what time we would like it to be. When a presenter says to a politician: 'I'm afraid I have to hurry you…' we might think: Why? 

Especially if the interviewee is Boris Johnson (fat chance, I agree) and the question is: 'When are you going to stop treating us like idiots and maybe, just maybe, accept that not everything you've done has been world-beating?' 

Tim Davie will replace Tony Hall as the director-general of the BBC

Excellent news that Tim Davie is to be the new boss of the BBC. He's done the job before — but only briefly. 

He was made acting Director General at a time of great crisis. The day after he was appointed he called me in and told me he wanted three pieces of advice. 

Not the sort of thing some of his more pompous predecessors would have done and I doubt I was the only non-boss to be asked. 

My three were: 1: If you're doing an interview (as he'd done pretty disastrously with Radio 4 the day before) give a bit of thought to what you'll be asked. 

2: If you're going on telly, wear a tie. 

3: Sack so-and-so. And I named a very senior and very incompetent executive. 

He nodded at the first two and to the third said: 'Too late for that one. I've already done it.' As I say: excellent news. But he's still not wearing a tie. 

Football news:

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Leicester lead the Premier League after three rounds. Liverpool and Everton also scored 9 points
Jurgen Klopp: Roy Keane said Liverpool showed sloppy football? I want to hear it. Incredible game description
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Conte wants to sign Inter Gervinho from Parma