BBC Radio 4

    In Our Time: The Measurement of Time

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    Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Measurement of Time. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - EMcN.


    I'm dictating this quite late at night after a heavy day in the sun in London. I have seen people stripped nearly naked, lying on the grass in London parks, welcoming the sun like sprites in Ibiza. I have seen people looking tempted at the waters of St James's Park and feared that they might plunge in.

    St James's Park was a strange experience today. I have never seen it so crowded. Literally scores of groups, mostly of children. They were encamped almost in regiments. They could have been a miniature medieval army who had amassed in St James's Park just before they took on Parliament, which could be clearly seen in the near distance. But despite the utter crowdedness, the total and charming inability of French children to proceed forward in a crocodile line and their insistence on advancing in a mass as if they were about to storm the Bastille; despite the fact that almost every blade of grass was occupied by largely foreign youth and the green and white deckchairs were fully spoken for, and the rather Swiss-looking wooden restaurant was heaving and creaking with custom, and two pelicans had caused a traffic jam by coming out of the lake and onto a path and entranced everybody by using their long bills to clean their already snow-white feathers, I felt completely comfortable. Yes, there was a crowd, but I was a part of the crowd. And this was a crowd at ease with itself. Nobody was rushing or pushing or irritated or anxious. Perhaps it was the sun. Perhaps it was a holiday. Perhaps everybody, for that moment, felt pretty well-off. I must say that after a couple of glasses of cheap Argentinean wine I felt pretty well-off myself.

    Back to the programme. Three things afterwards. For a change there was something that I felt that I had not said and that was had the number 60 come from a notion which the Babylonians had got from a healthy heartbeat of 60 beats to the minute? I didn't want to raise it because mathematics seemed to be so superior to biology at that point. But I would have enjoyed what Kristen Lippincott had to say about it. I think it was Jim Bennett who pointed out that clocks in portraiture replaced the horse as the mark of a man who wanted to seem distinguished. They represented discipline and temperance and a regular life and intellect. The session after the programme was most enlivened by Jonathan Betts giving an extended aria of quotation from a great chronometer maker who thought that chronometer makers were the greatest craftsmen, nay artists, nay individuals, who had ever lived. A sound bite it wasn't and, to be honest, I was glad that it hadn't come out on the programme. But as an exhibition in memory and as a demonstration of the way in which many of us like to elevate what we do to the top of the human tree, it was stunning.

    I seem to be running out of Ingrid's patience. It was a very full day. After all, I had to go and get my eyes re-examined, I had a haircut, I went for a drink with my son, I went shopping, and I went to an induction course at the BBC who told me how to do all sorts of things that I wish they'd told me 51 years ago and then I would be alive and talking to you now.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

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