Mechanical time-pieces are a passion – wristwatches, pocket watches, clocks. The physics that drives them is as old as Newton, but it still works well enough for everyday purposes. I have a Waltham pocket watch that’s been ticking since 1873, and can still be relied upon. When it began its life, we navigated the world under sail. Now we have people orbiting the earth in the weightless habitats of outer space, and it’s still ticking. Continuity. That’s a key concept in my fascination for time-pieces. It is not the passing of time that interests me, nor less do I fear it in personal terms; it is more the slow circling of time through the seasons of life, and its relationship with seasons passed, and of other lives that seems the more important thing, the thing that enlivens my imagination. Mechanical time-pieces are Romantic.
We must be careful however, as with all Romantic ideals, not to be too simplistic or literal in their interpretation. I have a family piece among my pocket watches, an English Lever, a lumbering great lump of silver Victoriana, of which I’m fond and spent a good deal of money rousing from its senescence. I had in mind the idea of this watch timing the beats of my life, as it had timed the beats of my grandfather’s. But for all of my enthusiasm it resists my wishes. Sometimes it’s passably accurate, but if it should settle awkwardly in the pocket it will stop and leave you floundering, unanchored in time. It is telling me that the past, while often-times alluring, and peppered with the sparkle-dust of pseudo-insight, is not always to be relied upon, that indeed nostalgia, as they say, isn’t what it used to be. Time is not nostalgia; it is a living thing, passed down from one generation to the next, not that we might simply go on measuring it, but that we might continue actively creating it.
Longevity is important, not so much the personal – indeed there is something unhealthy in the quest for personal immortality, something materialistic and a little embarrassing – but in the devices that survive us, or which come to us from our forebears, we see the little wayside stones indicative of progress along the collective path of mankind’s journey. I have a collection of torsion clocks, mechanical devices that will run for a year from a single wind. They are not precise instruments, indeed I note this evening they all tell a different time. Curiously however, if you take the average of them the result always zeros in pretty well to the truth. They make fourteen winds since I was forty, fifty four since before I was born. I think the message here is that we need to think beyond the limit of our own small lives, also to come at things from several angles if we want to be sure of what we’re aiming at.
I remember the advent of the digital Liquid Crystal Display watch in the 80’s: incredible accuracy, and no need to wind the thing. You could fall asleep for a week and it would still be running, still reliably telling the story of your time. But for me, it was not a love affair that lasted very long. Something was lost, I felt, in the literal telling of the numbers, something that was more easily retained in the abstract tilt of fingers against a circular dial. Numbers are more of a mathematical truth, axiomatic in their bluntness, and the mind must decipher them through its fuzzy apperatus first, convert them to a more abstract form before we can properly interpret them. You see few LCD watches now, though they were once thought to be the height of modernity, in the long ago.
So it was the quartz analogue watch, the watch with the electronic heart and the traditional fingers, that seemed, for a time, to contain the promise of all times-future. I bought several in succession, preferring always robustness and utility over the fanciness of multifunction. The durability of time in the harshness of the elements, that was my forte. That they might tell their split-second time reliably amid the rain and rock and running water of my life, seemed the finest thing. But they would stop suddenly, unpredictably when the battery ran down. Yes, it might take a few years, but the thought of being cast out of time at some indeterminately inconvenient point in my life preyed upon me like a neurosis, so when the solar watch was invented, I bought one, feeling for a while the world was once more secure in the turning of those fingers on my wrist. So long as the sun rose each day, the watch would sip of its light and run, navigating me seamlessly and effortlessly through all the temporal twists of my journey, rain and rock and running water included.
And yet,… there was something unnervingly impersonal about this perfection because it seemed also to exclude me. It mattered not if I wore the watch; it would still speak for anyone who picked it up, in perpetuity, maybe long after I was gone. I was no longer a part of the equation of my times. I added nothing. I had lost my personal involvement with it. So I came full circling back to the mechanics of Newton, and the older watches among my collection.
I have always had the Roamer. It was my father’s, but I rarely wear it, so treasured a thing it is for other reasons. I think it’s his prematurely arrested journey I feel enmeshed within it, and I prefer not to taint the purity of that imagining with imagining the times of my own. I’ll leave it to my children to figure that one out. I also have the Rolex, which I bought in a fit of first-salary madness as a singleton, forty years ago, and which I also rarely wear, because I fear to scratch its exquisitely pristine shininess, and because it costs more to service than my car, and is indeed worth more than my car. Neither it seems are good candidates for telling the story of my day to day – only as fingers pointing back to an earlier ideology that still finds resonance.
So we come to the more recent mechanical Seiko 5, a cute little automatic aviator, self winding, and likewise the more dressy Orient Symphony. Both of them of good quality, Japanese manufacture, but not expensively so. This pair of automatics are my day to day, though the story of my time moves on, and I’m sure this will not be the case in another ten years. There will always be another twist, another lesson along the way. But for now, I rest more easily in the fact that the automatic moves so long as I move, that its little variations on the theme of time vary with the temperature on my wrist, and the way I set it down at night to sleep. It is more personal, and there is something Romantic in the notion that a universe spinning that does not contain each and every one of us at its centre, is not a thing worth measuring.
Absolute quartz-served accuracy is unimportant. I have a clock that takes its timings from the atomically adjusted pulses from the transmitter at Anthorn in Cumbria (UK). It’s a useful reference, once in a while, but rather an overkill for the day to dayness of my life. On the hour. Quarter past. Half past. Quarter to. A variation of plus or minus a few minutes on these quadrilateral datums is surely permissible? Indeed I think the universe is seen best through blurred vision. Obsession with accuracy divides us only more into the camps of late and early, when the more insightful approach accepts both labels at once. Ambiguity is the truer reality. Am I late or early? What time is it? Chill out, man, it’s near enough. The time in fact is now, the watch more a gatherer of moments like beads upon a string, sweeping them up the one after the other, than a mere teller of the time.
Look at your watch now, or the clock on the mantel, but look beyond the time, and ask yourself what other tales it tells.