Saturday, 19 February 2011

Tea, time and transport

Have you ever listened to the BBC Radio 4 series A history of the world in a hundred objects? If not, I strongly recommend you go to the website, download the podcasts and start listening at soon as you can.

The broadcasts are just 13 or 14 minutes long, an ideal length for a quick trip to the shops or the last dog walk of the day, while three or four will fill in a gym session nicely (OK, three for me). In each of 100 episodes, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, picks an object from its collections and uses it to illuminate an aspect of the development of humanity and its culture that never fails to be fascinating.

More great radio from the BBC
I was particularly struck by two programmes I listened to recently.

One was about an English tea set that became the pretext for talking about the trade routes that brought in tea from China and later the Indian subcontinent. In London, it was met by ships from the Caribbean bringing in sugar, in many cases produced using slave labour. These two alien products finally met up on our tea tables with domestically produced milk to make a quintessentially British drink.

Then MacGregor made a point about the impact of the railways that was a real eye-opener for me. For a long time, the only way milk could be made available to city dwellers was to have cows nearby, but from the mid-nineteenth century we’ve had milk trains travelling in to our great cities at the crack of dawn of every day, allowing the cows to move back to the country, which must have been a great relief to them.

Even more fascinating was another change brought about by the railways, mentioned in a programme about chronometers and accurate measurement of time. From 1855, the railways’ need for timetables made it impossible to continue with the immemorial custom of each place working to its own local time, based on the position of the sun. Even in a small country like ours that could lead to significant time variations, which didn’t matter when transport was slow, but mattered a lot when it became rapid.

Extraordinary to think that it took the railways to align our time zones. Before that happened, places like Surrey, where the nice people still live and set the standards for the rest of us in the name of God, Queen and the Conservative Party, were some two minutes behind London.

That was then. The discovery amazed me because these days they seem at least half a century behind most of the country.

Wonderful what you can learn from the BBC.

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