There's a news story been doing the rounds of print, TV and online sources, what they call a human interest story, albeit a media-contrived one. A Facebook webpage created by a Bournemouth University student devoted to a local ‘tramp’ who can tell time accurately has become a hit.
Facebook being more a student networking site than just a web host, students around the world have picked up on this 'trick' as amusing, or even amazing. The "Gordon The Tramp" appreciation group now has thousands of subscribers and he is described onsite as 'possibly the most famous person in all of Bournemouth' (though this is not saying a lot). Followers arrange "Gordon the Tramp" dress-up parties. He's now a "global superstar." Google lists 12,000 hits for 'Gordon+Tramp' These are apparently all news stories or blog items rehashing the same Press Association story, originally from a local agency outlet.
Gordon seems to be bearing his new celebrity with good grace, posing with groups of student "revellers". (I'd guess this is how he was discovered, when one of them, out late, asked him the time.) This is despite the fact the site's home-page design patronisingly has his head in the centre of a Looney Tunes circular logo (you remember, where Daffy or Bugs or Porky Pig would say 'That's all, folks.') Another page shows him wearing a Photoshopped-on crown. In interviews, he seems uncomprehending at this online fame, understandable if he's probably not had much to do with the web in his life. However he did tell Meridian TV news (YouTube clip online) he is annoyed at the label tramp.
The students must have got this obsolete term from some literary source like a prewar Just William story. It meant someone who tramps, or travels on foot, around the country as an itinerant beggar. The reality until recently was that this lifestyle was enforced by local officials, who would have the police 'move on' homeless men (e.g. drive them to the edge of town and tell them not to come back, sometimes giving them a bag of chips as a consolation). Gordon is not homeless but has lived in the same house for fifty years. The reality of the life of tramps can be found in books like Orwell's Down & Out In Paris And London, or Autobiography Of A Super-Tramp by W.H. Davies. If this latter name sounds familiar from school days it's probably because he also authored the frequently-anthologised poem Leisure – “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare."
The term has been hijacked by the student party set in names like Tramp's Nightclub and Brit progressive rock band Supertramp (one of whose founders, Richard Palmer - Palmer-James actually - was from Bournemouth). Tramps in the traditional sense were homeless men also known in America as hobos or bums. There, calling a female a tramp meant something else entirely - a Mickey Spillane style derogatory term for a type of woman, as in the song The Lady Is A Tramp. Disney adapted this title for their 1955 animated feature, where Tramp is the streetwise male mongrel. This US provenance may be the source of the nightclub name - there is a Tramp's in NYC as well as London.
The same thing has happened to the idea of Bohemianism. It’s now a fashion accessory expressing a bit of token non-conformism, like wearing T-shirts with slogans Bohemian originally referred to the ‘ethnic’ quarter of a European city, then to the middle-class people who took up residence there to live as what in the Sixties were called ‘drop-outs’. The legacy of this is that Bohemian has since become a fashion-oriented consumerist label. These days, councils vie to be more 'bohemian' than their rivals. Brighton claims to be more bohemian than Bournemouth (or 'BoMo' as some would have it). And they're not boasting they have more down-and-outs, but more upmarket 'alternative lifestyle' cafes and clubs. In fact, when a place becomes officially bohemian, house prices rise and anyone not upmarket enough is sooner or later forced out. (The eventual fate, I have no doubt, of Boscombe.) The process is similar to what happened after Culloden and the Highland Clearances, when the Royal Family and aristocracy dressed up in the clan tartans and other finery while the bulk of the population was forced overseas.
It's rather like Diogenes' name being used for The Diogenes Club in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Rather than live as cynics in the original sense of like dogs (Greek cyn-, as in canine) as Diogenes argued everyone should, the exclusive Diogenes Club is run by Sherlock's corpulent, indolent brother Mycroft, who basically lives there in gentlemanly comfort while using it as a government front. (He was physically better represented on screen by Bournemouth-born Charles Gray in The 7% Solution rather than Christopher Lee in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.)
The source material is already buried beneath the media blitz of this nine-day wonder. Most of the news stories don't provide a link to the Facebook page. Newspapers online rarely offer links the way academic works offer citations to sources. The Facebook site, whose traffic first peaked in the wake of the Virginia Tech Uni students shootings in April, when many online news stories linked to the site, is now the world's 2nd most visited. Yet it has no links on google to specific pages, neither is the site searchable from its home page, for it's a members-only club. Until recently, it was restricted to those with a college or university email address, leading to protests when the site was opened up to anyone. A few videos of Gordon telling time sans watch have been posted on the public web, on YouTube. Though sites like the Mail have removed the link with a warning of 'rude language' (good on you, Gordon), you can access them using this search link here:
On the videos, when asked the time, Gordon looks at his wrist – as if consulting an invisible Rolex - and gives the time exactly. (I was reminded of this last month when approached by a shopper who asked me the time and was irritated when I simply bared my watch-less wrist. "You've got a mobile phone on you, don't you?" he snapped. No, I said honestly. I didn’t bother telling him I have a pocket digital pedometer with chronometer built in.) It's hard to tell if Gordon's self-described 'fan club' are genuinely amazed at his ability to tell time, or are just patronising him regardless as a sort of local mascot. (Rather like the ragged old busker, now dead, who would stand by the Square and endlessly twang a guitar he couldn’t play – though he would hit people who made fun of him.)
They may be genuinely unaware most people throughout history have had to be able to tell time. Students are of course notorious for poor time management. I remember in first-year Psych, our lecturer told us the ability to tell time was the sign of a well-adjusted person. Uh-oh we thought, for we were often late for classes. You often hear someone say when late they had 'lost track of time.' The expression correctly implies you normally have a time-awareness sense. It's not a special trick (what Crocodile Dundee did was a trick), but part of our dormant survival intuition-skillset. Early clock-time keeping was peculiar anyway, for when the 24-hour system was adopted, the ancients first divided (using a graded candle or water jug etc.) day and night into 12 hours each. The catch is the length of the hour would vary as days got longer or shorter. Most of the time, the day hours would be shorter or longer than the night hours, so you had alternating time scales. The problem wasn’t so obvious at first nearer the equator, but gets worse as you travel farther north (Homer comments on this in The Odyssey.)
People who didn't have clocks need to be able to tell time to pace their activities through the day. Gordon is 78, so was born in 1929. In the 1930s, most homes had at best a rather inaccurate wind-up mantelpiece clock, which might have to be pawned if times got tough. Wristwatches were popularised by their WWI issue to officers (you will recall in war films where they synchronise watches). More common were windup ‘fob’ watches, now no longer seen, that you wore with a chain through the buttonhole of your waistcoat. One of the main duties of the police in this era was telling people the time. If you were one of the lucky few with a phone, you could dial T-I-M and get the time signal, long a popular GPO service. You could also correct your time-pieces from the BBC radio time-signal ‘pips’ or the bongs of Big Ben with the 6’oclock news. You can actually regain the ability to tell time, as I discovered when I went off to live in a cabin in the North American wilderness for two years. If you're without clocks for long, you acquire this sense, just as your night vision sharpens up after ten minutes even in the pitch-black of the country night, which is not seen near civilisation due to light pollution.
I’m not sure what Diogenes, the original drop-out, what would have made of all this. He was famous for decrying societal rewards for endeavour like wealth and fame as mere baubles. What comes to mind is the Roman practice when holding an official Triumph, of having a slave stand behind the hero in his chariot whispering in his ear a reminder, that "all glory is fleeting." The la dolce vita uni set will soon become bored and move on to another fad. The story's already been around for over a week, the web equivalent of Andy Warhol's legendary 15 minutes of fame or celebrity, which he argued is all most people can expect.
It's later than you think, Gordon.