Dandum semper est tempus: ueritatem dies aperit.

(We should always allow some time to elapse, for time discovers truth)

– Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC– 65AD), Dialogues.

Time is a slippery old cove. One moment, he (or is it she?) is on your case, tick tock, belabouring your internal clock. Then Time slips – barely a bell later – into lolling mode, posing for eternity like one of your French girls. Somewhere in The Utne Reader magazine archive (I’ve never had enough time to hunt it down) is a special edition on Time, with various proverbs from around the world and an essay which points out that time is like a landscape, with valleys and mountains, each having very different qualities and qualia.

Which brings us to the present: “the eternal now, the eternal moment” that is such a feature of Van Morrison’s oeuvre. Covid Time is a peculiar dance all of its own.

Some people are still lashed to their western time-keeping habits, while others have discovered their inner African. “African Time” (alongside “Caribbean” or “Island Time”) is a highly characteristic experience, whose writ runs in the Muslim lands, too (where I think of it as “Inshallah Time”). It can infuriate but also beguile, depending on circumstances. The President of the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbabo, was so annoyed by it that he instituted a “Punctuality Night” to reward civil servants and suchlike for good timekeeping. (The excellently named Narcisse Aka, also known as by his colleagues “Mr White Man’s Time”, won a house.)

On the subject of British civil servants and their timekeeping, Dominic Cummings has written on his blog of his bewildered disbelief when he was Michael Gove’s special adviser at seeing the head of some policy area in education blowing up in the news one week, then casually getting into a lift to head home on the dot of the conclusion of “core hours” (they used to be 10-12 a.m. and 2-4 p.m.)

Having myself experienced the frustration of trying to get urgent business done with quangocrats outside of those hours (immediately widely adopted across the public sector as far as I can tell), one can only imagine Mr Cummings’ feelings, with a media storm and a vast number of other pressures thrown into his basket for good measure. (By the way, welcome back, Dom, from your self-isolating. There are a lot of peacetime generals who need clearing out, I rather suspect, and you would seem the man to do it.)

Masterly inactivity is a great feature of the so-called “Rolls Royce” of civil services (like the machines: a fuel-hungry beast, incredibly expensive to repair, and living on the fat of past glories), and often comes wallpapered in languid prose and vicious little appendices. It’s rarely seen in the fancy dress of agility, dynamism, and modernity. We continue to try to run the 21st century – which has, finally, arrived – on late 19th century ideas, early 20th century firmware and mid-to-late 20th century software, and we’re getting “the blue screen of death” ever more frequently. Fatal system errors are now, in the real world that lies beyond the bureaus, actually fatal.

But Time doesn’t care. A hungry beast, as Goya knew, Time is mulishly indifferent to mere mortal concerns. We therefore have to learn to live with it. And in this regard, we sensibly turn to the poets, none more so than T.S. Eliot, that fastidious product of another age who can still dance a tune (even if a catastrophic one, as this year’s bizarre CATS movie demonstrated).

I recently discovered that the bulk of Eliot’s dance through the music of time in the Four Quartets was published in the Second World War, although the famous opening and conclusion of Burnt Norton’s first section (“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past… Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present”) date from around 1935.

Eliot had, as the war emerged, entered his fifties – that nadir in “the global U of happiness”, when the end is finally noticed as nearer than the beginning.

And so here – and there – I am, deep into the fifties, yet not having written any poetry, let alone a single song, and contemplating Time, as we all are now. All of that time we saved by rushing hither and thither – and still, absurdly, hope to do so again, even unto a quarter hour “saved” getting to Birmingham. (See this excellent Reaction piece on the “value” of HS2 by the Professor of Transport David Metz. The even more shameful prospect of ripping up the central landscape of our nation at Stonehenge, for a ghastly tunnel starting at Blick Mead, the heart and soul of our most ancient history, for a pottage of “extra” time while hurtling along the A303, is enough to leave one breathless.)

All that time is now being served up to us, whether we like it or not: we are time’s servants for the nonce, and all serving time.

Yet this “bonus time” on and in our hands is not without its deeper and higher value. Watching walkers and their dogs on the mead opposite my boat, I detect a different body language in the humans (the dogs live in their own time, ruled by walking and sticks): a sense of being present in the present, not unlike that seen in those entering a cathedral. This is a precious time which, even as it slips away, we all share and will all look back upon together, on occasion, for the rest of our brief lives – themselves each a mere blink in Time’s eye.

Living in this remarkable time as if it were one long meditative act, albeit with the busy-ness of business still getting done without the commuting time and the decompression time needed to recover – well, that’s not at all a bad thing, surely?

We should make the most of it, for “Time’s glory is to command contending kings / To unmask falsehood, and bring truth to light.” Fiat lux!