'In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance,’ says Orson Welles, playing Harry Lime in The Third Man. ‘In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock!’ The last two sentences are among the few in the screenplay not written by Graham Greene. And they are not true: the cuckoo clock was first made in Germany, which has not enjoyed five centuries of democracy or peace. This is one of the many intriguing pieces of information in Simon Garfield’s idiosyncratic and fascinating book that considers the practical applications rather than the philosophical aspects of time.
Garfield is not interested in exploring whether time is real or imaginary, or what came before the Big Bang, or the mind-numbing consequences of time travel, or ‘all that going back to kill your own grandfather … rigmarole’. Others have done that many times already. Instead, he takes