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Perpetual motion: Bartleby on Bristol

Everyone seems to want to go faster at the moment. Phones are going up through the Gs at a bewildering rate. Suddenly it’s not enough for a train to travel a hundred miles an hour. They’re supposed to go at twice that speed. Meanwhile, superfast broadband is virtually a human right. My mother now has it in her Somerset village, and uses it to watch episodes of The Crown on catch-up.


Until the invention of the steam engine, nobody had ever travelled faster than a horse can gallop, which meant that was the speed information travelled too. I suppose carrier pigeons might fly faster than a horse can run, and then there were systems like the beacons lit in sequence to spread news of an imminent invasion or somesuch, but you get the general picture. Until about 1840 life moved at pretty much the same pace it had in 840.

In a port like Bristol, time related closely to tide. Most people, goods and information came in with the tide and left with the tide. If you stand on one of the bridges over the New Cut you can see how the water rushes in and then out, with just a moment or two of stillness at high tide. Until the Floating Harbour was built, that tide flowed twice a day, in and out of the city, keeping the whole place in almost perpetual motion. Everybody depended for their livelihood on this coming and going, which meant everyone depended on the tide. For centuries, you could say, life in Bristol was ruled by the moon.

Clocks were not important until the railway connected Bristol to London, then suddenly time was something you measured by the movement of hands around a dial rather than by the rise and fall of water. Other revolutions followed: the telegraph offering the almost instantaneous transmission of information; the telephone; aeroplanes and cars. And then faster planes and faster cars. I can assume today that the drive to my mother’s Somerset village will take an hour, more or less. It’s about 50 miles, which I imagine would take quite a long time on a horse. Actually, I once looked up the journey using a certain online map provider and saw that it was predicted to take 14 hours. My first thought was that the motorway was somehow terribly broken, but it turned out that I had accidentally asked for the directions on foot.

I did make the journey by bike once, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. I arrived wet and saddle sore, but with a much stronger sense of where I’d been than normal. The hills, in particular, had made a bigger impression than previously, but there were other sights and sounds – and smells – I would not have noticed in a car. Crossing the Levels I was mesmerised by the peaty black water in the rhines, to the extent that I stopped at the Peat Museum for a quick look round.

Thinking back, that slow-mo journey south from Bristol was a bit of a treat. Mostly I’m rushing out of the house, late, and impatiently hustling onto the motorway by the quickest possible route. Likewise, since there are now trains that get to London 20 minutes quicker than usual, I charge off to the station (late) and am appalled if this new fast train is held up for any reason. No doubt people using HS2 will soon get used to travelling at two-hundred-and-something miles an hour and start grumbling that the journey to Birmingham from London STILL takes whatever it is. Perhaps we won’t be happy until we can teleport like they do on Star Trek, but then people will start saying, ‘hang on, why can’t I be there and here at the same time?’ And then another chapter will begin. Meanwhile, The Crown seems unchanged by its superfast delivery. Life in the 1950s continues to move slowly, even for the Royals.

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