Time, please

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near
— Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Is it time that translates our lives into sequence, into meaning?
— Ali Smith, Artful

Multifaceted as my academic and work experiences have been, a constant throughout has been a fascination with concepts relating to time and memory. This was ignited, in particular, when studying the modernists. The early artists, authors, composers and filmmakers of the twentieth-century wove the scientific discoveries of their age into their own work. Theoretical studies of time, space and the mind were filtered and found expression in abstract art and formally challenging poetry and novels.

An appreciation of time and form was essential to my own study of film noir, which preoccupied me in the mid-1990s. Noir is a genre of editing. Time is fragmented and mixed up, the sequence of events varied and, on occasion, reimagined. Voiceover narrations and flashbacks proliferate. Dream sequences, blackouts, and alcohol- or drug-induced hallucinations are not uncommon. Amnesia is a recurrent theme.

Time, in fact, was a dominant motif in much of the ‘literary’ and genre fiction and film that I found most appealing. Those that were inclined, in neo-generalist style, to transcend and blur neat categorical boundaries often served up the most intriguing works. Towards the end of the 1990s, I wrote an article on the fiction of James Sallis, titled ‘Memories of Things Past and Yet to Come’, barely scratching the surface regarding an ongoing interest in temporal themes and my appreciation of his assorted literary output.

I have long harboured an ambition to return to both. In the interim, I discovered new voices whose work demands closer examination in relation to the topic: notably, David Mitchell and Ali Smith in literature, and Richard Linklater in film. I began to pay more attention to time in relation to sport too, not just in a quantitative sense (How fast was the distance covered? How long until the final whistle?), but in the way sport is televised and experienced: slowed-down, repeated, recalled through anecdote, mythologised.

Then there are the technologically-fuelled societal and workplace approaches to time. The primacy of now, of present shock. The ‘post-’ meme, suggestive that something has stopped, that a new age has begun. The hollow ‘future of work’ concept, which always leaves me wondering When does the future actually begin? On whose clock? Who decides and why? Which frequently leads me to abandon the business gurus and TV talking heads in exasperation, turning again to the poets, musicians and filmmakers. Art is about human understanding, about grappling with big themes. It has depth. It is difficult. It requires your involvement, not simple, passive receptivity.


So I find myself, at the start of a new year, contemplating an intermittent series of posts on literature and film, exploring time and memory. It is not a new idea, but one that holds me in its thrall, one I cannot let go. Recently, Eddie Harran asked me to make a short contribution to his #humantime project. This is what I wrote:

Time stretches into the distance, measured linearly by the athlete’s progress along the track; reflected too by the metamorphosis and decline of our own bodies from cradle to grave.

Time circles around the clock, advancing and repeating with the seasons, the ripening of crops, tidal surges and changes of the moon.

Time experienced in flow or memory can be unquantifiable, linked to the senses, elided or expanded, sped up or slowed down.

Time fragmented is the thing of art and poetry, captured on canvas, celluloid and page. It is constantly revisited in an eternal present. To quote, to recall, is to collapse the artificial markers between past, present and future.

These are ideas I wish to mine further throughout the year, the literary and cinematic analysis amplified by reference to sport, music, art, television and anecdote. The cultural emphasis does not negate the relevance to the domains of politics, society or the workplace. It is just that our art makers tend to be a few steps ahead, trendsetters and zeitgeist surfers, telling us today what the business gurus will discover years hence. Paying attention to the artists just feels like a more pleasurable, fulfilling experience and use of time.

I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.
— Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?
— Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

We meld memories from the past to imagine the future. This memory remix allows us extensive imagination, but it causes us to base our ideas of the future on the past without any evidence that it will be the same.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel