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A Brief History of Oxford Time

One of Oxford’s many paradoxes is the way that the bells of Tom Tower simultaneously mark the passage of time and evoke a powerful sense of timelessness. Listening to the sequence of chimes that peal from Christ Church every evening without fail, it’s easy to feel transported out of the modern age by centuries of unchanging tradition. Time-travel of this kind is not without its pitfalls, however, as can be amply illustrated by a canter through Oxford’s peculiar relationship with the fourth dimension.

Beginning with Tom Tower itself, newcomers are often puzzled by the seeming arbitrariness of the nightly ritual; why are the bells rung a hundred-and-one times precisely, and why at five minutes past nine? In fact, the answer to the first point holds the key to the second. Oxford colleges began life as semi-fortified colonies designed to isolate their residents from the moral and physical dangers of the town, and the Christ Church bells originally tolled to remind each of the college’s hundred members (the hundred-and-first was added in 1663) to return within the safety of the walls before curfew. Some generations later, similar isolationist sentiment led to the ceremony’s unusual start time. In 1852, public demand for the advancing railways to have consistent schedules required the country’s hotchpotch of pre-industrial timekeeping practices to be reformed into a single unified time zone. The members of Christ Church resented the loss of Oxford’s chronometric uniqueness, however, and continued to conduct their affairs five minutes and two seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time. For a while, there were even two different minute hands on the tower’s clock face: one for Christ Church’s own personal time zone, and one for everyone else. Today, this small gesture of rebellion against the coming of the industrial age comes across as quaint and quixotic. Nonetheless, it points to an underlying attitude of aloof superiority which has a darker edge. The colleges were built to keep ordinary townsfolk out, and many within them continue to imagine that modernity might be kept at bay just as easily.

This tendency is particularly evident in Oxford’s literary output. Fantasy literature’s Oxonian founding fathers are best known for the new worlds they invented, but we should not forget that they displayed a keen interest in enchanting time as well as space. C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe was a portal not only to Narnia but to a bubble of stolen time, a realm where the Pevensie children could become adults and reign for decades before returning to their original lives on Earth without a moment having passed. Lewis chose not to see a dark side to this forced regression into childhood, instead condemning Susan Pevensie to allegorical damnation in the final volume when she had the temerity to reject the eternal innocence of youth by seeking to grow up.

Meanwhile, Lewis’ friend JRR Tolkien was even more explicit in his opposition to modernity. In his hugely influential essay On Fairy-Stories, he recounted with scorn that “not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life’.” In contrast to this unnamed colleague, Tolkien’s own view was that the twentieth century’s barbarity was so irredeemable that “it is part of the essential malady of such days — producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery.” The strength of his determination to secede from modernity is further shown by the seemingly counterintuitive ending of The Lord of the Rings, in which the heroes follow up the defeat of the world-threatening dark lord Sauron with a low-stakes battle to purge the Shire of oppressive mills. On some level, the struggle against ultimate evil played second fiddle (in Tolkien’s eyes) to preserving the hobbits’ unchanging agrarian idyll from the onset of industrial vulgarity.

Of the three leading figures in Oxford’s fantasy canon, only Lewis Carroll paused to dwell on the potential dangers of suspending time. In Alice in Wonderland’s most famous scene, the Mad Hatter’s explains that his perpetual tea party began when he offended Time’s anthropomorphic personification. “‘And ever since that,’ the Hatter went on in a mournful tone, ‘he won’t do a thing I ask! It’s always six o’clock now.’” Carroll might be the most light-hearted of the city’s fantasy pioneers, but there is something rather nightmarish in his depiction of what really happens when you live in a happy moment forever; in his hands, it’s a sterile purgatory where logic and fun have long since died.

It is perhaps significant that Carroll’s day job was as a mathematician whereas Lewis and Tolkien worked in the humanities, but in general we should not imagine that the sciences are immune to the lure of stopping the clock. The most famous scientist to have taught here – Albert Einstein – disliked modern cities almost as much as Tolkien did, and left Oxford relatively quickly in order to take up a post at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he could research in the seclusion of rural New Jersey without having to teach or interact with the outside world. His most concrete legacy to the university further illustrates the universal appeal of clinging on to fragments of the past. Whilst giving a lecture in 1931, he scribbled equations concerning the age of the universe on a blackboard, and his fame was such that eager listeners refused to let his calculations be rubbed out. They now form the prize exhibit in the city’s History of Science Museum, even though (as the museum itself notes) “a blackboard should be the opposite of a permanent record”. This has led one scholar to describe the item as a “mutant object”, which is transformed into something else by the very act of preservation and loses its original essence in the process.

What does this all mean? This article has so far been gently critical of those who have sought to halt the march of time, but it should of course be acknowledged that this is a natural and often noble instinct. We all want to preserve the things we love from change and decay, and perhaps this is not always a futile task; after all, Einstein’s research showed that time is not merely a one-way street from past to future, but exists in a complex continuum that is bent and distorted by relativity. Nonetheless, we should be wary of allowing conservation to become outright conservatism, which justifies the rejection of progress and development by appealing to Oxford’s supposed timeless superiority.

We should also bear in mind that the transience of things can give them greater meaning and value. One former physics undergraduate lamented the way he had frittered away his time at Oxford in the 1960s without accomplishing anything of note; having kept a careful tally of everything he did during his time in Oxford, he calculated that he had only studied for an hour a day on average. What changed Stephen Hawking’s habits – and our understanding of the universe – was a diagnosis of motor neurone disease which was projected to kill him within two years. As he put it, “when you are faced with the possibility of an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living and there are lots of things you want to do.” So next time you hear the chimes of Tom Tower, why not take a moment to think about the time you’ve got left and the people you want to spend it with, instead of basking in the eternal Oxford bubble and its sense of glorious isolation? In the words of the greatest Oxonian authority on the subject, John Donne, “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Written by Louis Morris



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