In Tunis, it seems that everyone speaks French, and if they don't speak French, they speak Arabic with accents out of the tenth arrondisement. I, misnamed as I am, do not, so communication could at times be dicey. I understood our cab driver when he told us (en Francais
), as he whizzed an inch by the fender of the car stopped in the fast lane (they're all fast lanes), that he was the Schumacher of Tunisia, and was tuned-in enough to pun (in English) that I'd almost rather he be Willie than Michael. (Shoemaker, you see.) But I was much less confident that any understanding was reached when we asked him if he would return to the Bardo Musum at five o'clock. Partly this doubt was due to my confusion over whether our proffered "cinq heures
" would lead him to arrive not at 5 p.m. but after five hours, but mostly I was worried that we should have mangled "dix et sept
" instead as the twelve-hour clock might be to him nothing but a long-abandoned anachronistic chronometer.
See, I'd been reading Charles Stross's Singularity Sky
, and I'd gotten to the bit
where Martin Springfield is being held by the secret police for committing a political infraction the nature of which no one will tell him. Stross writes, "Outside the skylight, it was a clear, cold April afternoon; the clocks of St Michael had just finished striking fourteen hundred [ . . . ]" For some unlikely reason, my mind stretched back to the opening line of Orwell's 1984
, which was always an eerie and ominous annoucement to this American reader, the clocks striking thirteen carrying a sense of otherworldly strangeness, plain wrongness, and invoking a hint of triskaidekaphobia. But had I grown up with the twenty-four hour clock, I may not have noticed any peculiarity.
I have no idea when the United Kingdom or the rest of Europe adopted the twenty-four hour clock for civilian time, so I have no idea whether Orwell intended the reference as a frightening anomaly, an allusion to the weird way they do things on the Continent, a symbol of the regimentation of Oceanic society, or an only slightly futuristic bit of realism. Britain, though, has a history of resistance to such government imposed rationalizations. Famously, for a hundred and seventy years it regarded as suspicious popishness. I remember as a child encountering generation-old Punch
cartoons lampooning the opposition to decimalization of the Pound, and I think the metric system was rejected for some time as being too closely associated with the French Revolution. My ignorant impression is that the British, or elements of British society at least, look at government-imposed rationalizations as perniciously continental. Then a generation grows up with the new system, and people are incredulous that their elders could ever have been such paranoid, parochial provincials.
Over here in America, we have a civic ethos built on our inalienable right to be paranoid, parochial provincials. We're lucky that the Revolution took place after the UK adopted the Gregorian calendar, or we might have obstinately stuck with the Julian at least until the Red Scare. We still treat applications of the metric system as a Euro-weenification roughly tantamount to letting the UN land black helicopters on our front lawns and force us to listen to Robbie Williams. And though we've since relented, we initially regarded one of the most widespread government-imposed rationalizations as a Wilsonian internationalism as threatening to the American way of life as the League of Nations. I speak ( of daylight savings. )