Why is it so hard to learn to tell the time? Says Selena, aged seven, "The picture doesn't look right." The face of the clock does not speak to her. Time is a display flashing on the video recorder, the newsreader on the television, a voice on the radio, a mother's urgent hand on the arm. Time is not a solemn dial tick-tocking away in the hall - for who nowadays has a grandfather clock?
Look at any film of the 1940s or 1950s and you will see the public face of time everywhere, even, as in John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps, part of the heart-gripping suspense. Nowadays, as in a recent Bond film, the tense tread of time is marked by a flickering liquid crystal cypher, not by that clockwork tick-tock. Big-faced clocks in railways stations don't go; in banks and post offices they have either vanished or been replaced by digital ones. The 24-hour clock becomes more familiar as a Europe gets closer.
Yet the old analogue face exerts its pull. Says Rebecca, about her son Max, "He wouldn't be seen dead with a digital watch. Too uncool for a 13-year old." Tissot and Patek Philippe still seem to be drawing down the shekels. And Jake, aged eight, was transfixed to see Big Ben's hands stand at 12 while the majestic tune of mid-day rolled out across Parliament Square. "We've seen Big Ben strike 12!" Seeing is the operative word. At one glance, the face can give three sets of information - hours, minutes, seconds. Which means that the brain has to be able to process and superimpose those three counting systems. That's a complex reading task. But we use the clock much more subtly than that. The system of quarters and halves, of how many minutes past and to, relates intimately to our sense of how our own personal time is passing. We do not look at the clock for simple information, but to see how much time we have left until our next task, appointment, lesson - or conversely, how long it took to transact our last engagement with temporality. That is what really makes learning to tell the time hard for a child.
As Thomas Traherne wrote in his Centuries, when he was a child he "knew no time". Days passed without measurement as they do for everyone in infancy. But as infancy gives way to childhood, or, as we might say, in Years 2 and 3, children begin to see that their actions give them some purchase on time-management. They begin to need to tell the time. For time-management, reading a digital display is not as useful as "clocking" a dial.
Not surprising that every agricultural worker in developing countries yearns for a watch. Of course there are better things on which to spend the money won from back-breaking labour. But when you've learned to tell the time and you look at your watch, whether you are a Peruvian peasant or a primary pupil in Preston, you feel in command. Or, as Jake put it, "Big Ben rang just when we were there to hear it. Can I have a watch?"