Halloween at the Center of Time and Space

Tom Elliot

The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, calls itself “The Centre of Time and Space,” and perhaps it is. At least no outraged counterclaims appear to have been lodged—by Alpha Centauri, say, or the Magellanic Clouds—and even if they had, Greenwich has a strong case on grounds of appropriateness: the center of time and space is an arbitrary concept, and Greenwich, its manifold other charms aside, is a shrine to the arbitrary. What puts it on the map is the prime meridian, the reference line from which we measure distance east and west, arguably the most arbitrary feature on the planet. No geometric imperative places the prime meridian in Greenwich. It is not like the equator, fixed by the earth’s rotation in the only place it could be, halfway between the North and South Poles. The prime meridian could with equal logic and utility pass through Addis Ababa, Chengdu, or Moline, Illinois.
    So it was bold of this bare, forked species of ours to decide to scratch a line on the surface of the globe and say, “Here. We’ll start measuring here.” Perhaps even more marvelously, after the odd century or so of debate, the bulk of the indus- trialized human world agreed in 1884 that the here in question would be a line passing through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich on its way from Pole to Pole. (The French, it is true, held out for the Paris Observatory but eventually knuckled under in 1911.)
    Still, arbitrary and negotiated as it is, this line has the imaginative force of a thing of nature. Though it makes no difference whether it passes through Green- wich or another place, it is vital that it exists somewhere. And not, I think, solely for navigational reasons. We humans are uncomfortable not knowing where we are, where we stand, but the ugly truth is that we stand in a disturbingly contin- uous world, with few natural borderlines that hold up to scrutiny. The surface of the earth looks like a fairly discrete boundary, but get down on your belly with a magnifying glass and look at how the porous ground admits the atmosphere. And that speck of soil there, splashed up against a grass stem by a raindrop—is it above the surface, or is it the surface extending itself temporarily upwards? Stand in a tidal marsh or a freshwater swamp and tell me what is dry land and what is not. Organisms exist that are not clearly either animal or vegetable. Waves rise and fall, and we are hard-pressed to see the beginning of one and the end of another. The wind blows and changes direction and ceases; can we say with certainty the moment at which it has shifted from north to north-northeast or when it is no longer stirring at all?
    Faced with the promiscuous continuity of this world, is it any wonder we crave a good border from time to time? I happily admit my attraction to demarcations; it was the prime meridian and not the National Maritime Museum or the places where scenes were shot for Four Weddings and a Funeral that made me start early on a trip so I could have a day in Greenwich.
    I came straight from Heathrow Airport on a rainy Saturday morning—Halloween, quite by chance—and arrived in Greenwich by one of what seem to me two perfect ways: on foot, walking through a tunnel under the Thames. (The other is by water, and I left that way the next day, on the excursion boat Chaz Blyth, named after a young man who rowed the Atlantic and sailed around the world against the prevailing winds.)
    The tunnel was originally built to let dockworkers living on the south side of the river walk to their jobs at the West India docks on the Isle of Dogs, eliminating a swarm of ferryboats that obstructed oceangoing navigation. It opened in 1902 and is an excellent piece of brute-force, problem-solving British engineering, appropriate to its purpose but with a workaday grace. Two vertical shafts are sunk some forty or so feet deep on either bank, housing broad circular staircases and central elevators that descend to the level of the tunnel. The tunnel itself is a quarter mile long cylinder, eleven feet in diameter, made of curved, inch-thick cast-iron plates from the Butlin ironworks, flanged and bolted together and covered with white glazed ceramic tiles.
    The tunnel’s walkway strikes a chord fairly low on the circular cross section, so the walls curving in noticeably at the bottom gave me the distinct feeling of walking through a long tube rather than an arched passageway. And a long underwater tube at that, as moisture seemed to be seeping through the tile work in places and depositing a little of the Thames’s bottom on the walkway. I decided I would not be concerned about the river rushing in if it wasn’t bothering the young street singer seated on the pavement just at the halfway point of the tunnel, as far from safety as he could get, guitar case open for donations in defiance of the No Busking sign posted at the entrance. When I started walking the tunnel, he was just beginning “Stand by Me.”
    The acoustics were better than his singing, and while he lifted my jet-lagged spirits, I was just as glad that Zeno’s Paradox of Motion appeared not to be in effect, so I was able to walk past him and emerge from the tunnel at the other end. Zeno, as you may or may not recall, was a philosopher of the fifth century B.C. who argued that motion is impossible. To go a certain distance, say from one end of the tunnel to the other, you first have to travel half that distance. Then you have to travel half the remaining distance, then half the distance still left, and so on. Zeno reasoned that if space is infinitely divisible in this fashion, you would have to pass through an infinite number of halfway points, and an infinite task cannot be accomplished in a finite amount of time. Hence motion is impossible, and I would be doomed to spend eternity in a leaky tunnel under the Thames, my foot an infinitesimally short but uncrossable distance from the bottom step of the Greenwich-side staircase, “darlin’, darlin’, stand by me” echoing forever down the long tube behind me.
    Clearly the stuff of nightmares. But like many nightmares, easily banished by a glimpse of apparent reality. “I can too move,” I might have said, striding confidently through the tunnel, tossing fifty pence into the singer’s guitar case, climbing the stairs to where Zeno leaned smugly in the doorway, and smacking him upside the head with a haddock. An impulse to be resisted. Although Zeno appears to be flamboyantly wrong, twenty-five hundred years of philosophy and mathematics—not unrelated to Greenwich, I hasten to add—have not produced an incontrovertible way to prove him so.
    One of the more convincing and, as it turns out, useful paths out of Zeno’s trap is calculus, which derives in large part from breakthrough thinking that young Isaac Newton did while on break from Cambridge in the mid-1660s, the university being closed temporarily because of the plague. Newton was interested in the mathematics of bodies in motion, and out of this work came a method that permits the calculation of speed at an instant in time, a way of taking the most clearly continuous thing there is, the motion of a body in space, and saying precisely what it is doing at one discrete instant.
    Average speed is easy. If I travel twenty miles in two hours, my average speed is ten miles per hour, which I get by dividing twenty by two. But that is an average. Perhaps I started fast but got distracted and dawdled. I could calculate speed over a shorter span, dividing distance traveled by smaller and smaller amounts of time: an hour, a half hour, a minute, a second. But however small I make the intervals, chopping them like Zeno into ever smaller pieces, I will still be getting averages, when what I really want to know is how fast I was traveling at a particular instant. And what is an instant anyway? An instant is a point in time, and just as a point in space has no length, a point in time has no duration. Assuming I could measure the distance traveled in a period of time whose duration is zero, to get my speed I would have to divide this amount by zero, and I remember Mr. Gerard telling us in eighth grade, in no uncertain terms, that you just can’t do that.
    To placate Mr. Gerard and arrive at a solution, Newton invented some murkily defined quantities called fluxions and fluents. Gottfried Leibnitz, who hit the same problem as he more or less simultaneously developed a solution similar to Newton’s, relied on another truly heroic mathematical leap: imagine a number infinitely small but still greater than zero. These fluxions, fluents, and infinitesimals worked in the sense that they got Newton and Leibnitz past a sticky spot and allowed the construction of calculus, which in turn allows us to calculate instantaneous velocity, the orbit of the moon, or the increasing water pressure as a heavily laden freighter sweeps by a scant few feet above the roof of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.
    But even though these constructs worked, they required a stern shushing of common sense, and the mathematical world was much relieved when Augustin-Louis Cauchy developed the concept of the limit in the early nineteenth century. Cauchy went back to Zeno’s infinite series, where the distance left to go is half the length of the tunnel, then half the remainder, then half of that half, and so on ad infinitum. Zeno says I will never have zero distance left to go. Cauchy, somewhat surprisingly, agrees with him. But, he continues, zero—a perfectly real number— will be the limit of this series of halves of halves of halves: you can keep taking halves indefinitely, and the last half you take can be as close to zero as you like. The series is said to “approach zero as a limit.”
    Cauchy’s limit is as artificial in its way as the prime meridian. But like the meridian it is a useful artifice. If you accept that a real value exists that is the limit of an infinite series, then it takes no great leap of faith to accept that the sum of the terms of the infinite series is also some real value, say a quarter mile in the case of the tunnel. Zeno objects: “But surely the sum of an infinite series is an infinite value.” Cauchy fixes him with a steely gaze: “Says who?” And, Bob’s your uncle, there I am on the Greenwich side of the tunnel, getting my bearings in a misty rain.

    I went from the tunnel straight to my hotel, my wheeled suitcase bouncing on the cobblestones and construction debris near the Cutty Sark, a restored tea clipper kept at Greenwich as a museum. At the suggestion of the Greenwich Tourist O≈ce, I had made a reservation at the Mitre Hotel, little knowing what an excellent choice it would be. As I said, it was Halloween, and while the British don’t make as much of the holiday as we do in the States, someone had seen to it that my room on the second floor would look out directly on the graveyard of St. Alfege church. And not only that, when I opened the curtains I saw they had very thoughtfully arranged to have a huge night-black crow perch directly opposite my window among the glossy green leaves and lurid red berries of a large holly tree in the churchyard. It was clearly an omen of some sort, a communication that I was on significant ground and would be well advised to listen up.
    But whatever Crow was foretelling, it wasn’t clear weather. The sky was a solid and resolute gray, and the mist was continuing. I put on dry socks, took up the broken-ribbed umbrella I intended to replace while in England—if you can’t get a good one here, where can you?—and went next door to St. Alfege’s.
    The current church was finished in 1714, replacing a twelfth-century one commemorating Alfege, Archbishop of Canterbury, said to have been martyred on the spot in 1012 by invading Danes. (The “mitre” of the hotel’s name, I learned, referred to the bishop’s hat. I had erroneously been thinking in carpentry terms, driven by my own preoccupation to assume that everything in Greenwich pertains to lines, angles, and measurement.) The churchyard predates by a considerable time the current church. It is small and tightly packed, with leaning headstones and a few large stone tombs aboveground. Most of the stones are weathered so badly that it is impossible to read the names and dates, but here and there are legible notations of loving mothers and devoted husbands committed to the dust in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
    I didn’t go into the church itself—I had only one day and was impatient to get to the meridian—but the rain picked up, and I sheltered for a while in the broad, triple-arched portico that fronts on Greenwich High Road. An organist was practicing inside, and I was reminded, as I stood reading memorial plaques from more recent years a≈xed to the portico wall, of an Isaac Watts hymn written at about the time the new church was built, one we sang as I was growing up:

    Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
    Bears all its sons away;
    They fly, forgotten, as a dream
    Dies at the opening day.

I never had any di≈culty visualizing this, although the only stream in our Detroit suburb was a piddling little affair that could scarcely be relied upon to bear away an orange-crate raft, let alone the souls of all the dead. But even without a local reference, I could see the dead souls clearly while we sang, first tumbling in the billows of the water, then in the air, pale and white, silently flying and fading as time carried them away. It made me sad to think of them, lost forever, nameless and forgotten. And it scared me as well: was I not also a son?
    But is Watts correct about the nature of time? And is that truly our relationship to those who have gone before us? It has not been self-evident to most people on the earth that time is a linear flow. The many cyclical events in nature—the repetition of the seasons, the appearance and disappearance and reappearance of the Sun, Moon, and stars—are a good deal more likely to instill a sense that time is circular, with no start or finish, than that it moves in a straight line from a beginning to an end. But Western Christian society has rejected the idea that time is circular, believing instead that God’s plan is linear, proceeding from creation, to the fall, to redemption, and ultimately to the last day and the end of time—“The angel . . . sware by him that liveth for ever and ever . . . that there should be time no more” (Revelation 10:5–6).
    Once we assume a linear flow, we face the more poignant sense that lost time is irretrievably lost, that what has gone has gone forever. “Thou’lt come no more,” says Lear. “Never, never, never, never, never.” And that makes us want a heaven—a time out of time, something that will never end. It also makes us want to stop time, to fix the continuous flow just now, just for this instant, in some stable point, something we can keep. So monuments, so plaques upon a wall.

    Soon enough the rain slackened, and I moved toward the Royal Observatory and the prime meridian. The maritime dominance of the British Empire in the nineteenth century may explain why the meridian is in England, but it is in Greenwich, as opposed to the Admiralty o≈ces a few miles west in London, say, or another British astronomical site like Stonehenge, because Greenwich was the locus of intense and laborious efforts aimed at finding a reliable way for a ship at sea to determine its longitude, which was the practical point of having a prime meridian in the first place. Mathematicians and astronomers (and a legion of cranks) toiled away at the problem, spurred on by a twenty thousand pound prize established by Parliament in 1714—a huge sum at a time when a laborer could be hired for less than twenty pounds a year. This was no pure research grant. Ignorance of east-west position had hampered Atlantic navigation since the first mariners ventured out of sight of land, but the immediate impetus for the prize was the loss in 1707 of four warships and thousands of men under the command of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell, who thought he was well to the west of his actual position right up until the minute the first of his ships ran aground on the Scilly Isles off Land’s End, in a bad storm. If twenty thousand pounds could prevent disasters like this—and give the British Navy and merchant fleet a significant navigational advantage over rivals—it would be money well spent.
    The solution to the problem is conceptually simple. Because the earth rotates at a constant rate of one revolution every twenty-four hours, one hour’s worth of rotation covers one-twenty-fourth of a full circle, or fifteen degrees. If you know what time it is at some fixed reference point and you know what time it is where you are, you can calculate how many degrees you are east or west of the reference point.
    The hard part is knowing what time it is, not just aboard ship but also at another place, no small problem for mariners before the days of radio. A solution proposed as early as the sixteenth century—when there were few clocks that would keep good time on land and none at all that would do so on a pitching vessel—was to predict when the moon would pass by a particular star at a reference location. Comparing the local time at which the transit was observed with the reference time would yield longitude. One di≈culty with this approach was that there were no celestial charts good enough to predict with any accuracy when the moon would cross in front of a given star.
    “I can solve that,” said the English astronomer John Flamsteed, who got King Charles II to set him up in a new observatory built by Sir Christopher Wren on a hill in Greenwich Park. Here he labored for forty-some years to produce an accurate and exhaustive star catalog for the aid of navigation. His massive work was not published in its entirety until six years after his death in 1719, although Newton, anxious for observational data to support the continuing development of his laws of planetary motion and convinced that Flamsteed was dragging his heels, managed the bootleg publication of part of the catalog in 1712.
    Observations like Flamsteed’s did indeed prove useful in navigation, but even as they were being perfected, an obscure clock maker named John Harrison arrived at an alternative and ultimately dominant solution to the problem—a clock that would keep accurate time at sea. The engineering involved was hellishly di≈cult in the eighteenth century, but the navigational application of Harrison’s achievement is simplicity itself. A ship merely has to carry a clock that is maintained on the time of a reference point. When the sun is directly overhead, it is noon, local time, and by comparing that to the time on the reference clock, the navigator can easily calculate degrees east or west of the reference point.
    In addition to being more convenient at sea, a mechanical clock is a good deal more flexible than the heavenly timekeeping captured in a table of star transits: to change the reference point from Greenwich to Chengdu, you merely have to reset the clock. Massive amounts of new observation and calculation would be necessary to shift a star chart. Nevertheless, the years of patient work on the part of Flamsteed and successive Astronomers Royal gave Greenwich a certain amount of momentum, and the Greenwich meridian remained the reference point for English, and eventually world, navigation and timekeeping. To this day a large red ball is lowered on a mast at the observatory at precisely 1:00 pm, as a time mark for outbound vessels.

I wanted to cross the meridian somewhere on the ground, unmarked, before I got to the official metal strip on the pavement in the observatory courtyard, so I tacked across the park that stretches between the observatory and the National Maritime Museum at the foot of Flamsteed’s hill, observing that the park maintains parallel sets of trash containers, one for dog waste, one for everything else. There were few others out, with or without dogs, so I crossed the line pretty much by myself. It seemed slightly colder and rainier in the Eastern Hemisphere than in the West, so I hastened up the hill to the observatory, splashing through the stream flowing down the steeply graded walkway from the center of time and space.
    The bright lights of London have rendered the Greenwich Observatory much less practical for astronomy than it was in Flamsteed’s day, although its twenty-eight inch refractor—the largest in Britain and the eighth largest in the world—is still used from time to time. But the observatory makes a fabulous museum, with multiple small rooms and many levels and outbuildings. There is a lot of astrotrivia to get through, but eventually I arrived at the good stuff, which to my way of thinking is the exhibit of Harrison’s clocks and the meridian line itself, with a coin-operated clock beside it that stamps, to the hundredths of a second, the precise moment at which you are standing at the meridian.
    Or does it? The impulse to capture the present moment, preserve it, carry it with us down the stream of time, is an understandable one. It has sold a lot of photographic film and popular music, and has caused a lot of coins to be dropped in the observatory clock. But it is based on the hopeless fiction that we can identify the present. We left Zeno back at the tunnel, arguing with Cauchy, but here he is again. “Show me this present moment of yours,” he demands. “If you think you can stop this river, flowing continuously out of the past and bearing us into the future, show me the precise instant where the future ceases to be something that hasn’t happened yet but has not yet become something that has already happened. In the time it takes to say ‘Here, this is the present!’ it’s already too late, and whatever might have been the present has become the past.”
    Harrison wrestled with this problem in wood and brass when he lavished time and ingenuity on the escapement mechanisms of his clocks. The escapement on most mechanical clocks consists of a toothed wheel that is stopped and released at precisely even intervals by a checking lever. The lever is connected to the pendulum (or expanding and contracting spring, in Harrison’s case) and takes the continuous energy supplied by the driving weight or wound spring—the stream of time, if you will—and chops it into equal and discrete pieces so that the clock keeps correct time, each second and each hour as long as every other one. The escapement had been invented centuries earlier, probably as early as the 1300s, and while it is an elegantly simple mechanism, it is di≈cult to get it just right. Let the lever fail to intercept the wheel quickly enough and the clock runs too fast. Let it linger too long on the escape stroke and the clock runs too slowly.
    Harrison’s escapement, nicknamed “the grasshopper” for the way the lever kicks off the wheel in a quick and precise jump, approached the limit imposed by the mechanical fabrication technology of his day. But good as that was—and one of his earliest clocks didn’t gain or lose more than a second in a month, an impressive achievement for any pre-electronic timepiece—it still represented an approximation. So too the vastly more precise clock in the courtyard at the Royal Observatory, regulated by the vibration of atoms and purporting to stamp on a card the precise instant when my coin tripped its mechanism, really offered only a more narrowly bounded approximation of the point in the continuum of existence at which I stood beside the line that divides East from West.
    The rain let up while I was in the museum, which was just as well, as the gift shop had lots of astrolabes but no umbrellas, and I had more of Greenwich to see. At the corner of Romney Road and King William Walk, by the Royal Naval College, a young boy, perhaps seven or eight, walked toward me with his mother. With one hand he held hers, and with the other he pushed a baby carriage. In the carriage rode a monster draped with blood-caked bandages, green-skinned and undead. I guessed he was going to a Halloween party. They waited for the light, then crossed on towards their unspeakable rites. I walked in the direction of the river, toward the place where the meridian crosses the Thames. The line exits Greenwich Park and passes through a few blocks of town before hitting the grounds of the Greenwich Power Station and plunging into the river somewhere near the intersection of Lassell Street and the Riverside Walk. Even though it exists simultaneously everywhere along its length, I can’t help thinking of the line as something that emanates from the Royal Observatory and travels around the world. I halfway expected to see a pair of Meridian Crossing signs on either side of the Thames, like Cable Crossing signs to warn ships not to drag anchor there, lest they snag.
    Actually the meridian spends relatively little of its time on dry land. Heading north it skirts Newton’s Cambridge by a few miles on its way to the North Sea. After that it hits nothing solid until the polar ice cap. In its southward travels it crosses the Channel and passes through France—no doubt thumbing its nose at the Paris Observatory—nicks Spain, then heads across the Mediterranean and the Sahara and through the tropical forests of Burkina Faso and Ghana until meeting the Atlantic at Tema, a couple of miles east of downtown Accra. It traverses virtually all of the Southern Hemisphere at sea, then it fetches up on the shelf ice of Queen Maude Land, well south of the Antarctic Circle.
    Its doppelgänger on the opposite side of the globe, the one hundred-eigthieth meridian, has even less to do with land. It crosses a bit of Siberia and a couple of islands in the Fijis, but its longest single run on land—or out of the water, since the Ross Ice Shelf is not exactly “land”—is a couple of hundred kilometers of Antarctica. Because it forms the basis for the international date line, on one side of which it is Monday, on the other, Sunday, the line wisely stays in relatively uninhabited territory.

The Thames east of the meridian appeared to me very much a working river. I paused to watch a large Finnish container ship, the United Trader Mariehan, move slowly upriver toward the South London docks. A gas flare jetted upward near the riverside from the Hays Chemical Distribution site, and an intense sweetness exuded from a nearby sugar and syrup processing plant at Hollicks Wharf. In one embayment formed by a dock and what looked like a permanently moored barge, the current had pushed in and trapped a huge collection of floating junk: chunks of styrofoam, plastic jugs, paper cups, bits of wood, things unnamable—all the detritus of an urban thoroughfare. I named it the Bay of Crud and claimed it for the Crown.
    The Riverside Walk matches the river’s tone. It is no artsy tourist way but a narrow strip of pavement and occasional benches sandwiched between the river and this series of factories and warehouses. One stretch angles away from the river to pass around a factory, and I found myself blocked by a large puddle, several inches deep, spanning the entire width of the path and far too broad for leaping. I hitched myself along the curb, clinging hand over hand to the factory’s wrought iron fence, feeling like a commando and looking, had there been anyone to see, like an American tourist of even less than usual decorum. But I didn’t want to turn back from my circumnavigation of eastern Greenwich. Would Admiral Cook have turned back? Would Frobisher have?
    I returned by an inland route along Blackwall Lane and Trafalgar Road, not altogether sure of my direction and passing with regret and unsatisfied curiosity the closed Frog and Radiator Pub. Somewhere along Trafalgar Road I recrossed the unmarked and unnoticed meridian.
    Much as one may like the concept of the prime meridian—and I like it a lot— for most purposes, such as mine at that moment, it has no practical function. True, had I been off the Scilly Isles with Admiral Shovell, knowing where I was in relation to the meridian could have kept us off the rocks. But I wasn’t, and in my circumstances it was far more helpful to realize that the Arches Leisure Centre would be on my left if I were walking west on Trafalgar Road than to know that its front door is only a few yards shy of the boundary of the Western Hemisphere. It is the locally relevant, the analog and continuous, boundless space and imprecise time, that we turn to in most of our practical dealings, and not only do they get us where we are going in a perfectly acceptable fashion, but on the way they may also encourage a richer experience of life, bidding us look at the moon and stars, not the face of a watch.
    Which in a way is what Zeno was trying to do. He seems to have developed his paradoxes in support of his aging mentor, Parmenides, who argued against the Pythagoreans that space and time are not divisible into discrete units. Parmenides had a fierce and absolute belief that the entire universe was one indivisible substance, a sort of monolithic sphere. This led him to reject completely the evidence of the senses—including the appearance of motion—and drew him unblinkingly to the belief that time itself was an illusion: “If what is is, it can never have come into being or pass away, for what can there have been before or after it?” In other words we live in an eternal present, with no past or future, locked in the unchanging mass of the universe.
    Now picture Zeno and Parmenides in a small boat, sailing for Athens from Elea, where they lived in southern Italy, to meet Socrates. We know little of Zeno biographically, but he seems to have been active in the violent politics of Elea—by some accounts he bit off part of his tongue and spat it at his torturers rather than give up his comrades in some scheme—and as highly as he regarded Parmenides, he may have retained a nagging belief in the reality of the world of sensation and of sequential action. After all, were not the two men intending to go from one point on the earth’s surface to another? Was not their boat tossing up and down? Motion might well have seemed possible to Zeno. But he owed a lot to Parmenides, and the old man’s logic was as tight as his conclusions were eccentric. So Zeno clasped the rail and honed his arguments, because whether or not he believed them, they would certainly hoist the Pythagoreans on their own petard. They were the ones who claimed that space and time were divisible. Let them live with the consequences of that claim.
    And in one way or another, we have been doing that ever since. We have thrown our lot in with Cauchy, Newton, and Leibnitz, maintaining by a sheer act of will a world we can count and measure and move in. We create limits, like the limit of a series or the prime meridian, because they are useful. Useful but not necessarily true.

But all this is rather arid for something grounded in the most elemental of human concerns. Isaac Watts, the hymnist, had his finger on the limit that really bothers us: the limit of our lives. Those dead souls memorialized at St. Alfege’s—they crossed that limit in 1817 or 1685 or some unreadable date in eroded marble, and we desperately want them not to have been transported into someplace totally discontinuous from our existence.
    In some ways we have our wish. We who live in the stream of time tumble in those waters from the moment we are born, the dead tumbling beside us. We say the dead have “passed on,” as though they have crossed some definite boundary between life and non-life. But it is not always so clear exactly when that crossing occurs. It is not just that medical science recognizes different states of death— brain death, cardio-respiratory death, etc.—although that does suggest an unsettling degree of fuzziness about what might otherwise seem the most unambiguous of demarcations: the instant when the Spanish Republican soldier flings back his arms and starts to let his rifle drop, when the Vietcong suspect’s head starts to snap to the left from the impact of the general’s bullet. No, the issue is more the way the dead stay with us, if we are open to having them around.
    I am rarely without my dead. I frequently speak with my father, for example. I know the man is dead and that I am making up his half of the dialogue. Still, there is a value to me—and for all I know, to him—in having the conversation, even though we don’t necessarily converse on major topics. I recently filled him in on the Internet, for example; a newspaperman and lover of public libraries, he was intrigued.
    In doing this do I “keep him alive?” Certainly I have always wanted to believe in Shakespeare’s assertion to his lover that “you live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes,” but the immortality purchased by words can be a very thin life. We know as little about Shakespeare’s lover as we do about the occupants of the now anonymous graves at St. Alfege’s, the particulars of whose lives have been eroded away with the names on their headstones. Do they, with these paragraphs, beat back a little against the current?
    I would like to think they do, aware as I say so that this is a bold wish indeed. But we may want closeness to these attenuated lives as badly as we want to know where we stand on the planet. To claim our kinship requires the degree if not the kind of audacity that created the prime meridian. In denying all boundaries, Parmenides took the notion of continuity further than most of us are comfortable going, but we still want the option of behaving as if that last limit could be ignored. We want to watch the Thames flow across the meridian, smooth, continuous, and quite untroubled. We want to stand with our monsters at Romney Road and King William Walk and believe that on Halloween the border guards are a little more relaxed about their duties. When the light changes, we would like to cross safely to the other side, then come back again when the party is over.

Tom Elliot works as a marketing consultant for the high-tech industry, but he is not responsible for the whole dot com thing. Over the years he has published in an eclectic range of periodicals, from The Journal of Popular Culture to Software Magazine. He is currently working on a book about the underpinnings of the Internet, complete with excursions into thirteenth-century church architecture and the cult of Sherlock Holmes.

“Halloween at the Center of Time and Space” appears in our Winter 2002 issue.