Time flies like a banana

No, sorry, I’ve got that all wrong. It’s fruit flies that like a banana. Time flies like an arrow instead, I don’t know if this counts as one of their five a day. I have always struggled with the abstract concept of time. When I was a physics student I completely failed to grasp equations about time (or much else to be honest, I was quickly encouraged to find an alternative degree). Similarly, philosophical arguments about how people categorize time floor me utterly. I feel this is a bit of a failing in someone whose job is to investigate the past. Every so often I make another attempt on the literature about time. We have owned a copy of Alfred Gell’s The Anthropology of Time for many years, but it still has the least creased spine of all the books in the house.

It may be that the whole idea of a research project which looks at social memory is a sneaky way of creeping up on the topic of time, without having to read any books with Time  in the title. Dave and I thought we had made an important discovery about cultural attitudes to time over coffee the other day. We got talking about our favourite time-travel movies (in my case Time Bandits obviously, but also a very cheesy time-paradox film called Millennium with Kris Kristofferson as an air-crash investigator – look it up on IMdB if you don’t believe me) and this raised the question of when time-travel got to be such a central theme in science fiction.


In our Wikipedia-less state we decided that this was the answer. Our theory was that Wells’ The Time Machine marked the beginning of modern understandings of time. It pre-dates Einstein’s work on special and general relativity and we thought it could be the starting point for all subsequent fictional time-lords. Certainly, we could remember nothing in, for example, Jules Verne about time travel. Then Dave remembered the existence of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which turns out to slightly pre-date Wells. However, we still we felt that there was something important about time-travel fiction in defining the modern world.

Once we got access to works of reference, we felt less enchanted with our theory. It turns out there is a great deal of pre-modern literature from all around the world dealing with characters travelling in time. However, we were able to salvage our hypothesis slightly (we are university lecturers, we don’t do admitting we are wrong). What is revolutionary about The Time Machine is that time travel is presented as something that can be accomplished by technological means. Wells’ traveller doesn’t travel by magic or as the unexplained consequence of bangs on the head, he makes a time machine because he understands the relationship between time and space.


  1. mummy2daisy said:

    Sounds like you two should read some of ‘Dissent with Modification’ by John McNabb.

  2. I think we spend more time in the past, the future and the possible than in the present. I remember being taught a stress handling exercise some years ago in which it was explained to me that we are full of thoughts, day dreams and rehearsing conversations over and over. The trick is to focus on the senses – these bring you into focus on the present. I try this now and again when looking at the Mesolithic in particular and how people may have behaved. Works for getting jobs done too.

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