Honestly. If time is relative it’s one of the nagging ones in the family that you try to ignore but they never seem to get off your case and constantly remind you that I haven’t done what I said I was going to do and just let me live my own bloody life, Mum… please. Oh.
Now it’s Autumn and the crisp air returns, the berries are fat, the apples ready, there’s a crunchiness to every step; if you’re romantic it’s the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. But for most of us there is something else in the Autumnal air – nothing mellow, you can almost feel its buzz and charge: it’s this sense of pressing urgency.
It’s the season of deadlines and to-do lists. Today really is the tomorrow you were worrying about yesterday. Everything suddenly seems to need to be done “before Christmas!” Like the world just might end then, and it would be devastating if the planet were to explode without the attic sorted out and the tax receipts done.
Even as he wrote his Ode to Autumn in 1819, Keats dreaded the season realising that he had run out of time to deliver his long poem Hyperion – that and not exactly having the constitution for the cold weather to come. “I love deadlines,” said Douglas Adams, “I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”
Why is everybody in a rush right now? It’s like a hole is torn in the space time continuum as the first leaf hits the pavement. All of a sudden time accelerates and there is an unremitting sense of anxiety, hustle and haste in the air. Projects need completing, days are ‘drawing in’, people who haven’t returned dinner party invitations suddenly feel prompted to have you round. Everything has an imperative.
Maybe time just seems short compared to the laconic eternity of the summer holidays; winter never seems to leave as fast as it arrives. Einstein theorised that time was relative to gravity, and certainly the gravity of a situation alters our perception of it. I mean, how long a minute is entirely depends on which side of the toilet door you are. A clock is not just a small device used to wake up people who have no children, it’s a gauge of our emotional state that can whizz round, or drag interminably, depending on how we’re feeling.
Writing in the journal Animal Behaviour, researchers from Trinity College Dublin, Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities claim that: how fast time is perceived is down to a creature’s size. Dogs, for instance, process information at twice the rate of humans, which is why they’re not very interested in television. You’d think with Downton ‘s latest rehashed plots resembling their dinner they might show a woof of interest, but a dog’s visual system has a refresh rate much higher than that offered by TV, or film, screens so all they see is a flicker of lights. The smaller the creature, say the scientists, the more they perceive in a unit of time.
However, the empirical data I’ve gathered from selflessly subjecting myself to the process of aging (the things I do for my readers), goes further. Time is actually perceived with the heart. You judge the world and the speed of life against your internal beating clock. As the heart slows, the world appears to become faster. That’s the tragedy of ageing: what once seemed like a year is, later, barely a week. For older people who, like elephants, have slow hearts, the world is whizzing past, death hurtling towards them. Yet to the young, they are lumbering and slow moving and always have a train of cars trying to overtake them when they go for a drive on a Sunday.
Conversely, when your heart is beating faster, the world seems to slow down. A fly’s heart beats a hundred times a second and so it sees the fly-swat coming towards it in interminable slow motion. It has time to rub its legs, bend them, start flapping its wings, do a faultless vertical take-off and buzz off to some other morsel, to scrape and vomit on, before the swat comes near. All in less than a human heartbeat and imperceptibly fast to the eye.
So when the excited heart starts beating faster as it does during disasters, times of shock or the kind of sex which involves kitchen furniture, everything seems to grind in to slow motion. It seems to take forever to react to anything. Which means some of the best and worst things that happen in life, happen slowly.
But Autumn, however much you love it, always goes too quickly, and every year it will seem just a little bit shorter. I’d love to say, ‘Carpe diem, tempus fugit.’ But honestly I haven’t the time to learn Latin.