Clocking Off

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (April 2011)


The clocks went forward this weekend and I wish they hadn’t. I enjoy the spring mornings getting lighter and lighter. Now suddenly they are dark again and I will have to adjust my sleep pattern accordingly. And while the, as John Galsworthy put it, ‘artificially extended daylight’ is not too much of a trial in March; it is a real hardship to me in June when it is still light at my 10pm bedtime. The suggestion every year that we should stay on Central European time, and even move our clocks forward a second hour fills me with dread.

I want to make the case for the British Isles to stay on Greenwich Mean Time, which is the natural rhythm of these islands, all year.

Greenwich Mean Time is a term originally referring to mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. It became the standard for time in the United Kingdom in 1848 at the time of the coming of the railways so that the timetable could be regulated to the second. Before that each church or town hall clock was set according to local observation of the sun’s movements which resulted in a 5 minute discrepancy between east and west coast. This is not much to affect everyday life, but was not precise enough for Victorian Railway engineers. Their successors, however, have a much more flexible attitude to time these days when it comes to calculating punctuality statistics of the modern train, but that’s another story.

British Summer Time came about during the First World War as a daylight saving exercise. The intention was to squeeze every last drop of labour out of the munitions workers before the bosses had to expend their profits on lighting the factories and workshops. In that it was so successful it was decided to keep the practice going after 1918, hence Galsworthy’s remark in 1929. During the Second World War the daylight saving was extended by another hour to Double Summer Time. A similar light regime was imposed on occupied Europe by the Germans; known as Berlin time it suited the longitude of central Germany, and the comfort of the occupied peoples was not a concern. Spain adopted the time under General Franco at the end of the Civil War in 1936. Some 70 other countries have introduced some type of daylight saving measure to suit, or not suit, their local conditions.

Just as they kept the innovation introduced after conquest by Napoleon of driving on the wrong side of the road, so the countries of Europe kept Berlin time, which was renamed Central European Time. 

Great Britain experimented with running on GMT+1, which they called British Standard Time for three years (intended five) from 1969 to 1971. British Standard Time or BST was not to be confused with British Summer Time or BST. I was at school studying for my O-levels and A levels at the time. It was a thoroughly miserable period during those winters. I travelled to school in the dark and watched the sun rise from my desk. By the time I had finished for the day the sun was setting and I traveled home in the dark. Slice it and dice it how you will there are only 8 hours of daylight in southern England in winter. It wasn’t just miserable; accidents increased in the mornings. The experiment was such a failure, Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to end it two years early.  But will the current enthusiasts for lighter evenings and the resultant dark mornings listen? No, they blame it on ‘Scottish farmers’ for being a minority refusing to move with the times. They insist that accidents fell during the period but that the figures were adjusted for the sake of the Scottish vote. I am among those who believe that any general fall in road accidents during that period can be attributed to new safety measures including the Breathalyserto to deter drunken driving (introduced two years earlier) and the beginning of seat belt requirements. Accidents directly attributable to dark and icy morning conditions increased.

Like me Philip Johnson remembers the failed experiment and he wrote about it in The Telegraph last year, making many points I agree with.

The latest pressure group for our adopting GMT+1 and GMT+2 call themselves Lighter Later. They insist that there are more deaths when the clocks go back in October to GMT than would be the case if they went back from GMT+2 to GMT+1. I found this rather interesting article from Aberceder this morning. It mentions the change to British Summer Time this weekend and then quotes some statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics database and the University of Michigan showing that in the mining industry from 1983-2006 there was 5.7 per cent more workplace injuries and 67.6 per cent more workdays missed due to injuries in the days following the change to British Summer Time but that there was no increase in accidents when the clocks go back and people get an extra hour's sleep.

Ben Plowden, director of Better Routes and Places at Transport for London has warned London’s teenagers to be careful this week. This is from the Haringey Independent.

TEENAGERS are being warned to take extra care on the capital's roads as tonight's clock change will cause darker mornings. Clocks will go forward by one hour at 1am on Sunday morning, and road safety campaigners say this can lead to an increase in accidents in the early-morning rush hour.

I cannot find this article on line now; I believe it has been removed or hidden behind the apartheid pay wall; but last October I read an article by one of the proponents of our adopting GMT+2. He described his childhood memory of double summertime, sitting on a hay-cart at 11 pm, it was way past his bedtime but he was happy.

And the reason he gives for it being a good idea is exactly why it is a very bad idea. Sleep.

Professor Francesco Cappuccio of the University Of Warwick Medical School is just one of the reputable practitioners who have written about the fact that we get on average 2 hours less sleep than our grandparents did 100 years ago. Most of the articles on the subject give modern lifestyles as the cause, such as staying up to play computer games and watch late night TV. Traveling greater distances to and from work meaning time at home with the family has to be snatched from somewhere. Stress and noise, as if our forefathers never had noisy factories on the doorstep or worries about where the next meal was coming from. All of these have a part to play. But no one, that I can find, has made the correlation between the change from a healthier sleep pattern 100 years ago and the daylight saving measures introduced in 1916, ie nearly 100 years ago.

The proponents of artificially extended evenings say we will be healthier, less obese, and safer and will spend less on fuel if only we embrace football and aerobics outdoors until 11pm. Then we are expected to go home, get to bed at say midnight, then get up at 6am (which is the average time to rise in London, and my husband is indeed average; I am later since retirement), shower and breakfast, ready for the journey to work all bright eyed and bushy tailed.

If someone has to rise at 6am for the commute to work then to get something approaching 8 hours sleep they need to be heading towards the bedroom by 10pm-ish. Even if they then spend some time reading, praying or discussing the condition of the ceiling with their spouse.

Lack of sleep is even more damaging for children. This is an article originally in the Guardian from the website of the Leith Academy in Edinburgh. The original has gone from the Guardian website as their copyright has expired. Of particular interest is the research of Dr Avi Sadeh at Tel Aviv University. It is not just children’s behaviour and temper that is affected; their young brains do not develop properly and they cannot take in what they are learning properly. Is our education system dumbed down, because our children are too tired to learn?

Lack of sleep is a cause of obesity, increased risk of heart attack and stroke (that is research from Warwick University again, this time working with the University of Naples), can lower the immune system and thus increase the risk of catching a cold (or maybe worse) and diabetes and bowel cancer. And those same hormonal changes that affect the risk of diabetes are believed to have an effect on appetite and thus obesity. As Dr Shahrad Taheri said here “It is important for people to realise there is more to obesity than just stuffing your face”.

Anecdotally I know many people who do not sleep so well in the summer. They have difficulty getting to sleep until after dark. Once asleep the dawn does not always have the effect of waking them up early. It does some, but as in winter there is nothing that can be done to change the amount of daylight.

Portugal, a country also on the westernmost edge of Europe, through which the Greenwich meridian runs also tried the Central European Time experiment a few years ago and like the UK in 1971 abandoned it. The only English language version of comments about the experiment made by Rui Agostinho, director of the Lisbon Astronomical Observatory, who sat on the Portuguese Government commission which decided to abandon the scheme are here in the Daily Mail.

Mr Agostinho said: ‘Politicians think they can simply change the local time by law, regardless of what the sun is doing.  But the reality is all our lives are ruled by daylight and we strongly depend on the sun.
In 1992 the government here decided they wanted to have the same time as Brussels because of the European Union. They claimed business relations with Europe would improve. But the experience was very bad. Our commission sat in 1995 and every government ministry involved was in favour of changing back to British time.

‘The consumption of medication for stress and insomnia increased dramatically. People were not feeling well. Schoolchildren suffered extreme effects – in the winter they were starting school while the stars were still in the sky. They were not sleeping well enough and they were forced out of bed when it was dark.

‘The human body needs sunlight to help it wake up properly. People were driving while sleepy and kids were going to school when they were not ready to start learning.’

Mr Agostinho, who is also professor of physics at the University of Lisbon, added: ‘The number of road accidents increased and retail industry suffered because customers would not shop in the mornings as it was too dark and too cold. The data shows you don’t save money. Electricity consumption increased in the mornings because it was still dark.”

Spain is considering reverting to GMT after nearly 70 years of European Central Time. The Spanish government think Spain will be more productive if they abandon the afternoon siesta followed by a late evening meal and got to bed earlier. I don’t think they are taking sufficient account of the heat of a Spanish afternoon which was responsible for the development of the siesta but I expect they have the example of Portugal to look to.

I submit that many of the health problems associated with the early part of the 21st century in the UK are associated with lack of sleep and a policy of artificially extended lighter evenings will result in even greater sleep deprivation, which will worsen not improve our health.

The old saying, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise” may not be such an old wives tale after all.

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