September 1961. I started in the Sixth Form and my GCE ‘A’ level course. Perhaps more importantly, I now had access to the Sixth Form Library which hitherto I didn’t even know existed. It was like Aladdin’s Cave. The only books we had at home was a small collection of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanac which were the bane of my life. My uncle was dragooned into helping me with my maths and got me working out batting averages. Wisden’s were good at propping up your bed but not stimulating your imagination. Now, in the library, there were hundreds if not thousands of books by authors I had barely heard of. And I read. And read. Voraciously.
I read Huxley, Orwell, Steinbeck among many others. One book I struggled through was The Magic Mountain by the German writer Thomas Mann (I read it in English translation, not the original German). I guess much of it went over my head but one thing stuck, the discourse on the philosophy of time. The protagonist, visiting a friend and then himself resident in a TB sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, experiences the boredom and sameness of every day for weeks on end.
The nub of his hypothesis is simple. Time which as you go through it weighs heavy and drags because nothing happens, seems to have passed very quickly when you look back on it because it’s devoid of markers. Time which is so full of activity and events that it flies past as you pass through it, seems with hindsight to stretch out. Mann began writing the book in 1912, published it in 1924.
A century after he began the book, Claudia Hammond, writer, psychology lecturer, broadcaster, published ‘Time Warped: mysteries of time perception’. The nub of the book is the same, what she dubs ‘The Holiday Paradox’.
Though not a Swiss sanatorium, the 10 weeks since 23 March have seen most of us in isolation, especially if like me you live on your own. Days merge into each other. Same pattern day after boring day: get up, breakfast, work in the garden, afternoon coffee on the balcony, evening meal, TV, read, bed. “What day is it? If this is Thursday, it must be ….. Friday tomorrow. And it will be the same as today.” The blessing on the hazy horizon is that when we look back on the Covid Lockdown the time will seem very short, it will have flown by, become a distant unpleasant memory. Most exciting thing, having The Clap on Thursdays.
The fact that it has been the sunniest Spring and May the sunniest month on record in the UK has helped enormously, not only boosting dopamine levels but encouraging outdoor exercise which does the same thing. I live 100 metres from the edge of the Brecon Beacons national Park and so I resolved at the outset that my permitted dose of daily exercise would be to walk up to the Folly Tower on the ridge-top or continue to the top of the mountain half an hour further on. I have now done that every day for 10 weeks, including on the very occasional days it rained.
With my smart phone I recorded the route and took the occasional photo. It was only a few days ago when I looked back at some of the photos that I realised here was a pictorial glimpse of the truth of Thomas Mann’s time philosophy. Walking the route every day there is very little change. But looking back over the whole period the change has been massive, from the beginning of Spring into the beginning of Summer, from bare trees to full-leaf, pregnant ewes to lambs heading towards the dinner plate, a changing palette of spring flowers.
The week or so when the mountain bluebells were in flower was especially marvellous. Shame they haven’t invented ‘Smell-o-Vision’ yet. It reminded me every day of the time I was flying my paraglider over The Blorenge, a few miles north of the bit of the mountain I was now on, and ‘cored’, the thermal by staying within the smell of the trillions of bluebells on the slope below. A particular pleasure this time was coming across a tiny clump of rare white bluebells, the native kind not the imported Spanish variety which come in pink and white as well as blue. Albino British Bluebells are estimated to occur only 1 for every 10,000 of the conventional colour.
Take a look at the walk in the early days.