Earlier this week, the world-famous and iconic London clock, Big Ben, was prepared for a major undertaking of cleaning and repairs. Before the work could begin, the familiar "bongs" of the clock's bell were silenced, and the clock's hands were brought to the twelve noon position. As I watched the hands speeding around, it was difficult to avoid thinking that I was witnessing some sort of science fiction moment of time speeding forward, losing the parameters of the familiar.
And yet, is the accelerated spinning of the hands of an iconic clock really all that far removed from what is happening around us, every day? We are all wishing, planning, measuring our lives away, stopping time only to commemorate it hastily and define ourselves in the process.
The owner of one of my favourite local cafés recently tweeted that it was "only 131 sleeps to Christmas." Admittedly, perhaps it was a commentary on the unseasonably cold weather that so-called summer morning, but, although Christmas can be something to look forward to, should we really be starting the build-up of anticipation of mid-winter festivities in August? Within days of this early count-down, I saw "just in!" Christmas air-fresheners on sale, while 2015 calendars have been available (quite literally) for months. 'Back to School' displays appeared before the Summer Term was over, tapping students and teachers on the shoulder with a ghostly finger of doom, the sunny anticipation of the summer holidays clouded over with a reminder of reality.
I remember - as all of us who are alarmed at the speed at which we are growing older can - how the summer holidays used to seem like forever, and the year from one birthday or Christmas to another was unimaginable. Now, though, it really does seem as though we actually "can't wait", grasping the instant gratification which might be so much sweeter if seasoned with a little patience. Have our lives have got so busy that our days whiz by like the spinning hands of Big Ben on that mid-August morning? Is it not so much about anticipation, as that our time can't wait for us? With our our 6:30am spin classes and our multi-tasking, driving using Bluetooth phones, to say nothing of weekend-long Netflix binges because we simply can't watch a series gradually, week by week, are we making our own clock hands circle at a science fiction pace?
And it's not just about scheduling. Not for our rushed generation the patience of a life lived helping others. Without wishing to pour cold water on anybody's charitable efforts, there's something about the current 'Ice Bucket Challenge' which jumps up and down and squeals 'look at me doing good, look at me being better than you, look at meeeeee!' just like the bare-faced chic of the 'No Make-Up Selfies' for cancer charities several months ago. As I understand it, the Ice Bucket Challenge completer donates less to ALS/Macmillan Cancer than the person mocked and bullied for 'chickening out'. Granted, the completer raises more by self-aggrandising their feat online and then issuing nominations for friends to do the same: but what of those who quietly help others or give to charity without seeking audience or applause? No-one videos quiet direct debits or charity shop donations. Nothing to Instagram there. Taking a make-up-free selfie, or dousing yourself in iced water before scuttling off to the shower, is just a superficial, highly public acceleration of the invisibly slow process of trying to make your life worthwhile. We can speed time with our perpetual motion, or still it to a defining photograph or video. Time moves at its own pace, though, just as days have passed while the hands of Big Ben have been stilled. A life lived well will take a lifetime - not the half-life of a Facebook video.
As for Big Ben? Its washed and uncovered faces, its iconic four dials, were restored by teams of cleaners dressed in red, slowly abseiling as they worked. It was a painstaking and dangerous task, with the expert abseilers held steady by ropes, 315 feet from the ground, and having to take account of the wind directions in deciding which face to work on at a given time. In a close-up photo, the red overalls, the features, and the cleaning tools are clearly seen; in the distance, the men looked like tiny, dark, silhouetted figures against the black and white clock faces.
As our time speeds past, our appointments and our plans and our aspirations, the things we look forward to and the things we dread, the people we care about and the difference we try to make, appear important. Viewed from a distance, we are all just tiny silhouetted figures, defined, shadowed and set precariously against a background of the impassive accuracies of time.