About Time A Letter From The Prime Meridian

September 08, 1991|By RICHARD O'MARA

GREENWICH, ENGLAND — Greenwich, England. - This is where the day begins.

The world is divided East from West by the Prime Meridian of 0 degrees longitude which runs through the center of the old Royal Observatory in Flamsteed House placed on this green hill in Greenwich Park in 1675 by King Charles II.

It is the sun's starting point each day, the line from which the nations of the world have reckoned longitude since 1884.

The meridian is, of course, an abstract thing, represented by a brass strip embedded in the ground. It creates a great curiosity. You can stand astride it, one leg in the Eastern Hemisphere and one leg in the Western.

The Royal Observatory's purpose was to make precise the astronomical tables used by sailors, generally to improve navigation across the seas.

The meridians of longitude divide the globe spatially but also in terms of time: they march around the planet like segments of an orange, each line representing an hour, and come together at the poles.

Time. That's what one is encouraged to think about here. Inside the octagonal red brick house, designed by Christopher Wren, there is a vast collection of chronometers, astrolabes, telescopes of various lengths and powers. They attest to the astronomers' obsession with time.

Not time as history, or flowing time, but time as a tool. The observatory was a great clock, similar in principle but much more sophisticated than, the earth clocks built by the neolithic people in Britain's prehistory at Stonehenge and other places.

The work done here was to bring time into the service of man. They acted on time. One wonders if time acted on them in any way.

Did Edmund Halley, for whom the comet was named, who is buried here and had been one of the royal astronomers, ever look north from the hill, down over the Queen's palace to the slag-gray Thames arcing down from central London, and brood over what the knowledge of time has done to the human heart?

The Argentine novelist Ernesto Sabato says tragedy springs from the knowledge of time. It makes man understand that he will die, those he loves, his children, will die, and so on, a knowledge that is a barrier to deep happiness. Human beings are different from all other beings mainly owing to their awareness of time past and time future.

Still, the knowledge of time is a boon. No one would doubt that. It encourages us to plan, to improve. What do we pay for this boon? We have conferred on us what J.T. Fraser called 'the melancholy of the time knowing creature."

Mr. Fraser, who wrote a book called "Time, The Familiar Stranger," carried the idea farther along. He wrote that all the arts and letters, the sciences, all the truly thrilling cerebral pleasures (and maybe some of the fleshier ones as well) are opiates to deflect people who think from the natural inclination to turn to the contemplation of death.

Art is an opiate. Joyce Cary, one of Britain's better novelists, who died not long ago, wrote that art is "a spell against death." Mr. Cary and Mr. Fraser were two men toying with the same notion, attracted by the depressing curiousness of it

In the summer, the rain ended and the English rushed into their parks. They threw off their shirts as they do whenever the sun appears, exposing flesh as white as lard, arms and torsos decorated with new tattoos -- very much the fashion these days, even among young women.

On a recent Sunday they filled the park below Flamsteed House, picnicked beneath the oaks and sycamores, kicked soccer balls and sprawled on the spongy grass of the slopes.

The English have an Arcadian obsession; they commune in the heaths and are at home in natural surroundings, though as one writer pointed out here recently they have no experience with wilderness, as the Americans do. In the thousands of years the island has been occupied, every square mile has been walked over, and most of it improved.

There are 65 acres to Greenwich Park; they slope down toward the Tudor palace called Placentia on the river bank. Henry VIII was born there, and it was there he married three of his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves. And England's greatest queen, in the estimate of some, Elizabeth I, was born here as well. She was Henry's daughter.

This year the English are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Henry's birth. They have put on an exhibition of his accomplishments, and failures, in the Royal Maritime Museum below. (His principal accomplishment may have been to lay the foundation for the Royal Navy, the instrument which enabled the British to dominate much of the world in the 19th Century. His failures were mainly in the bedroom.)

The exhibit is attracting great numbers of visitors. Many would have come to Greenwich anyway because it is such a pleasant place, reached in about an hour by boat from the dock at Westminster.

The famous clipper ship, Cutty Sark, is here as well, and the small sailboat, Gypsy Moth, that took Sir Francis Chichester around the world solo in 1967.

From the bottom of the hill, looking up at the observatory, you get a different perspective -- and a different conviction comes as a result. The hill was a platform for looking to the stars, never down into the human roil. But see the people today, with their beer and sandwiches, their relentless pursuit of natural pleasure while the sun shines, and you know that they know time's value.

Richard O'Mara is The Sun's London correspondent.

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