The clock struck 13

This month sees the world premiere of the opera 1984 composed by conductor Lorin Maazel, with a libretto based on the 1948 novel by George Orwell. The opera opens with the clock tower of Big Ben striking thirteen, and ends with the same idea. It’s a good way of realising the famous opening lines of the original novel:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

I’ve often wondered about this opening reference to the 24 hour time system. The use of the unlucky number 13 contributes to the atmosphere of strangeness and grime that characterizes much of the setting for 1984. But the device is less effective for us today, since the 24 hour clock is used much more than previously.

The reference would have seemed alien and unnatural to an English reader in the 1940s, as Orwell intended. Presumably for him the 24 hour time system was associated mainly with continental Europe, and England was still recovering from a major war with quite of lot of Europeans. Orwell might also have known that the French revolutionaries in the 1790s changed the time system to 10-hour days, so naturally his theoretical Party would have imposed an alien time system on the proles. Orwell probably didn’t realise that the 24 hour dial can be traced right back to the early English medieval church’s experiments with the new-fangled clock, or to the fine English clockmaking traditions of Tompion and Harrison.

Orwell cleverly juxtaposes the strange-sounding official 24 hour time system with the friendly pre-Big Brother 12 hour system that Winston and Julia find in their hide-out:

Winston looked round the shabby little room above Mr Charrington’s shop. Beside the window the enormous bed was made up, with ragged blankets and a coverless bolster. The old-fashioned clock with the twelve-hour face was ticking away on the mantelpiece. In the corner, on the gateleg table, the glass paperweight which he had bought on his last visit gleamed softly out of the half-darkness.In the fender was a battered tin oilstove, a saucepan, and two cups, provided by Mr Charrington. Winston lit the burner and set a pan of water to boil. He had brought an envelope full of Victory Coffee and some saccharine tablets. The clock’s hands said seventeen-twenty: it was nineteen-twenty really. She was coming at nineteen-thirty….When he woke it was with the sensation of having slept for a long time, but a glance at the old-fashioned clock told him that it was only twenty-thirty. He lay dozing for a while; then the usual deep-lunged singing struck up from the yard below;

Occasionally, Orwell helps us by translating the 24 hour time system ‘back to normal’ for us:

The clock’s hands said six, meaning eighteen. They had three or four hours ahead of them. He propped the book against his knees and began reading…

But Winston Smith is pretty well indoctrinated:

The lane widened, and in a minute he came to the footpath she had told him of, a mere cattle-track which plunged between the bushes. He had no watch, but it could not be fifteen yet………He lit another lamp, and, with bowed back, led the way slowly up the steep and worn stairs and along a tiny passage, into a room which did not give on the street but looked out on a cobbled yard and a forest of chimney-pots. Winston noticed that the furniture was still arranged as though the room were meant to be lived in. There was a strip of carpet on the floor, a picture or two on the walls, and a deep, slatternly arm-chair drawn up to the fireplace. An old-fashioned glass clock with a twelve-hour face was ticking away on the mantelpiece. Under the window, and occupying nearly a quarter of the room, was an enormous bed with the mattress still on it.

This juxtaposition of 24 and 12 hour clocks for poetic effect might still work for many English and American readers, particularly those of a certain age who are less familiar with the 24 hour clock. I wonder how translations of the novel deal with the problem – perhaps convert to metric time…


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