Graeme Davison
The Unforgiving Minute: How Australia Learned to Tell the Time
Oxford University Press, 1993.
Australian Book Review, Feb/March 1994, p. 28.

Fifteen years ago, Graeme Davison published The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne. Now, he has completed a second and slimmer volume. Meantimes, Davison has not been idle. He has edited collections, published essays and taught at a university. In terms of academic achievement, his second monograph reads like a Masters Thesis. Had Davison been its supervisor instead of its author, he would be justified in encouraging the student to complete the job by enrolling for a doctoral degree. In that event, the student researcher would need to find a more accomplished supervisor.

The weakness in Davison’s essay is not its narrow range of examples, although a Victorian bias is evident. The failure is Davison’s in ability to comprehend why minutes had to be become unforgiving. Just as Ken Dallas’s Marxism provided Blainey with the catalyst for his Tyranny of Distance so has Davison leant upon Marxists such as David Harvey and E. P. Thompson, but he has no more comprehended their source than did Blainey, with whose book Davison’s has been compared.

Marx himself is quoted several times in The Unforgiving Minute. From Davison’s footnotes, he appears not to have read the passages from which these quotations come. His references are to two secondary works which quoted the Grundrisse. Davison’s failure to consult Marx’s original is the more strange in light of the emphasis he gives to one of these phrases, “Time Conquers Space”, by using it as a chapter title.

Had Davison sent out a research assistant to photocopy the relevant section of the Grundrisse, he might have been spared the embarrassment of declaring that Marx had expressed himself “rather cryptically” when commenting on “the annihilation of space by time”. What seemed cryptic to Davison becomes less so to anyone who takes the trouble to read the phrase in the context of Marx’s discussion of why capitalists must strive to increase the speed of circulation of commodities. In brief, the surplus value extracted from the workers’ labour power cannot be realized as profit until after their products have been sold; in the interim, the capitalist is paying for his fixed and variable costs. Hence, the briefer the interval between production and return on sales, the lower those costs can be kept.

In mitigation for not comprehending these dynamics, Davison could plead that he has been misled by those Marxists who concentrate on the controls over workers at their points of employment. This aspect of the battle to prevent a decline in the rate of profit did indeed lead to the scientific management of workers through the control of time so that the rate of exploitation could be increased without need to prolong the working week. Significant as that side of the class struggle remains, the logic of capital must also be recognised. It would be unfair to expect a historian to bother his head with such difficult matters if he had not decorated his text with their externalities.

Relations between the state and the capitalist class are no less a puzzle to Davison. If capitalists are the beneficiaries of time-thrift, why is it, he asks, that the primary enforcers were government employees, such as school teachers? If, following Marx’s aphorism, the state is the executive committee of the bourgeoisie, then school masters, including university professors, are paid to facilitate the accumulation of capital through the training of the next generation of workers.

Darwin’s name does not appear in The Unforgiving Minute, nor that of any of those authors who, during the first century of European occupation of Australia, counterpoised Biblical assumptions about a 6000-year universe against what Stephen Jay Gould calls deep time. Those controversies were alive in Australia during the period when Davison shows how significant the divisions of clock-time were becoming. The interaction of these contrary experiences merits consideration. Nor do we hear of how Australians learned about relativity theory with its variant of a Space-Time continuum. Nor does our chronicler of clack-time trouble his readers with how cinema and television screens have taught us to accept that reel time need not coincide with real time.

The Unforgiving Minute is boosted on its back cover as complementing Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance. This intended praise comes not from reviewers but from mates, a local instance of one of those infections of academe against with Paglia has railed. One problem with such commendation is that it sets a standard which Davison cannot reach. Dangerous as Blainey’s penchant for paradoxes can become, his prose is always as lively as the connections he perceives are provocative. If we revert to Kenneth Slessor’s image of Captain Cook’s cabin, then Blainey is the clock by Arnold which “ran like mad”, while Davison reads like the Kendall dawdling “in the tombstoned past”.