Posts Tagged ‘clocks’

Not Andrew

After a long run of wet days, you know the paths will be a quagmire, so good footwear is in order. But on the way out, I pull up at the garage for a bit of petrol, and realise I’ve left my boots at home. I’ve been distracted of late, the memory having reached capacity – one more thing in, like remembering to put the bin out, and out pops something else, like remembering to pick up the walking boots. By the time I’ve gone back for them, the time will be too short for a decent walk, so, what to do? A change of plan is required, which is why I’m now wandering Eccleston’s Grove Mill, otherwise known as Bygone Times.

The Grove has been around, in one form or another, since the seventeenth century, but finally called a halt to manufacturing in 1980. It now houses one of the biggest collections of junk, antiques, bric-a-brack and up-cycled what-nottery you can imagine, as well as several ghosts. On your first visit you pay £3.00 on the door to get life membership, and a little gold card. On subsequent visits, you just flash your card like a VIP, and you’re waved in for free.

I like to pop in now and then on the hunt for broken clocks. I’ve had an eye on an Acctim pendulum clock for a while, and I’m tempted to finally take the plunge today, if it’s still there. It is. Closer inspection, though, reveals it’s not a true mechanical movement, but “electronically assisted” and therefore beyond my competence if it proves to be a fixer-upper. Plus, at the asking price, I’d expect it to be working, and what I really want is a project, for a tenner.

Furniture, books, vinyl records, old tools, maps, a curious and fantastically hairy tweed kilt jacket with waistcoat, but minus the kilt, walking sticks, paintings, musical instruments, garden ornaments, pot-pourri, fine china, cracked china, wool, art supplies, ancient postcards, Victoriana, Art Deco, sixties chic, seventies sideburns and bell-bottoms,… it’s all here, and more. I can only manage a half hour before my head starts to spin.

Then I see Andrew.

Andrew is lying on his back amid an assortment of clock bits, springs, wheels, pendulums, empty cases, screwdrivers, hacksaws, oily bits, rusty bits, broken bits and sad bits. Gingerly, we lift him clear from this detritus and have a look for signs of life. He has a nice looking two-train movement, by Perivale, which means a passing strike on the half hour, and he counts the hours at the top. He has a platform escapement instead of a pendulum, and I’ve been after one of those for a while. They’re expensive to replace, and hard to source, when bust, but this one looks okay. His case is in good nick, but the glass is missing, and there’s no key, so we can’t give it a turn and see if he’s ticking.

Date? Late fifties to mid-sixties? Perivale’s Middlesex factory had links with Bentima, another English clockmaker, and, like the Grove Mill, was a milestone in domestic manufacturing, its rise, its decline and its final extinction.

The rear plate is thick with a gummy oil which doesn’t bode well, but for the price, Andrew’s worth a punt, and will be interesting to tinker with on rainy days. Often, a good strip and clean is all that’s required. Why do we call him Andrew? Well, it says so on the dial. Okay then, Andrew, mate. You’re coming home with me. He smells of fags, but we’ll soon cure him of that.

At home, we borrow a key from Norman, another of my clocks. (All my clocks have names). We give him a cautious wind. He’s hesitant at first, like someone woken up after a long sleep, then off he goes, and settles to a lively ticking. Goodness knows when he last ran, but he seems keen to make up for lost time. He keeps good time, too, bongs when he should, and with a rich resonance. There’s not much wrong with him. A new glass off Ebay, cleaning and oiling, and he’ll be as good as new.

Some people rescue puppies, or cats, or birds, or hedgehogs. I rescue old clocks, not your posh country house type clocks, more the clocks that might once have sat on the mantle-piece of your grandma’s house, and kept the time of an ordinary kind of living, the kind of clocks that were practical, humble, reliable, didn’t need batteries or plugging in, and were not made to be thrown away. These are the forgotten clocks, the clocks the high priests of clock mending dismiss in favour of the luxury end, and they charge the earth to get things going. So your grandma’s clock ends up in the bin, and one by one they’re disappearing from the world for want of a bit of attention.

But not Andrew.

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mr smithThis is Mr Smith. He’s a floating balance clock with an hourly and half hourly strike. You could also describe him as an ugly old wind up from the late 1950s that nobody wanted any more. But he endures, and, except for the occasional melt-down, he’s reliable. He’s also symbolic of a bygone era. If that era has anything to teach us now is open to debate, but I think it has, and it’s nothing to do with nostalgia.

I paid fifteen quid for him off Ebay, then spent the best part of a year scratching my head about why he ran five minutes fast. He’d been doing it all his life, so far as I can tell, because the problem appeared to be a manufacturing fault. He must have driven a variety of owners mad and I’m surprised he avoided the tip for as long as he did. That’s another thing about Mr Smith. He’s sixty years old, but for all his imperfections – and they were clearly considerable – he keeps going.

My grandma used to say: buy second hand and you’re buying other people’s problems. She had a point. So, when dabbling on Ebay, you’ve got to gamble you’ve the ability to fix a thing someone else has given up on. When it comes to clocks, for me, that’s both a technical challenge, and an appeal to my anthropomorphic tendencies. Normally, you’d settle an old clock into its environment, then you’d regulate its time-keeping with whatever adjustment is possible. But Mr Smith was at the end of his adjustment, and still running fast. So I bonded a couple of microscopic screws from an old watch into the holes on his balance wheel. That was enough to settle him down and bring him back to within the realms of possibility. He can still be eccentric in other ways, but he does tell good time now.

Naturally, a professional clock and watch man will pull a face at such a repair, I mean one involving glue, no matter how precisely measured. They’re a fussy lot, rightly proud of their skills. But their skills are dying out because they charge the earth. It’s only worth their while touching the rare Rolls Royces of clocks now – you know, the sort you’ll find in stately homes. Sadly, that means your cheaper relics like Mr Smith get thrown out, or they fall into the hands of Bodger Bills like me, and with mixed results.

mr smith balance

Floating Balance Movement – 1956-1960

The floating balance appeared in 1956, licensed to Smiths by Hettich, a German maker. The balance wheel runs with its axis vertical, suspended on a piano wire to reduce friction. The balance spring also features a curious double helix that helps compensate for temperature changes. Smiths redesigned it in 1960, made it smaller and easier to adjust. My Mr Smith has the older version, which is a bit fiddly. Both types are very accurate, though accuracy is relative.

We take time for granted now. Glance at your phone and there it is, to within a split second. The machines have championed precision at our behest, and now they crack their whips at us. But humans have no emotional need of the split second. When Mr Smith was made, so long as a clock was a within a minute per week, and you could bring it back in to the BBC’s pips, you’d still make it to the bus on time.

I’ve had him in bits more than once, cleaned him, lubricated him, restored some of the shine to his case. He’s been fine until recently, when his bonger went berserk, and he just wouldn’t shut up. I realise this was my fault. I’d forgotten to wind him, so he’d drifted off into silence and reverie. But when a clock stops, and especially a striking clock, you should set it by winding the fingers forward, not back. I’d wound Mr Smith back.

I could stretch a metaphor here and say that trying to reset the beat of your own times, by winding back into the past is never a good idea. There’s always a risk you’ll break something in the process. Stretching the metaphor even further, from a point of stillness, it’s best to look forward, to what might be, rather than what has been. The former we can change if needs be. The latter is too late. Sure, the past can be a pleasant place, happy memories and all that, but it can be dangerous too because there may be regrets lurking. But I don’t think this is what Mr Smith is trying to tell me here, at least not entirely. There’s more.

The past has utility if it remains useful. Much of the anguish and the violence we’ve seen in recent years has been in large part a rage, as we fight over simple explanations to impossibly complex issues. It’s been a petulant desire for simpler times, times when we imagined we knew how the world worked. We didn’t, and we certainly don’t now. Indeed, the world is so complicated now – our technology, our tools – there’s a feeling of things running away with us. But there’s no going back. We have to become more advanced in ourselves to deal with it, to transcend the melee, and deploy these miracles more wisely, and with far greater moral compunction.

mr smith mechanism

Strike mechanism, Smiths Floating Balance clock

As I contemplate Mr Smith’s mechanism I can get my head around each component and understand its contribution to the whole function of time-telling. If I watch it in action for a while, I can figure out how it works, what’s gone wrong, and how I can put it right. The only dangerous element here is a fully wound mainspring, and I know how to deal with that.

But my ‘phone? That teller of precise time. I doubt there’s a single person alive who understands every part of it, even the people who made it. As for its dangers, there are many, and mostly unseen. For a start its potential function goes way beyond what its ostensible purpose is. It spies on me, and reads my mind – at least judging by the adverts that pop up on it. It tracks my movements and sends that information to be stored on computers half-way round the world. I don’t why it does that, but tailoring adverts to suit my needs, like it says, sounds a bit flimsy to me.

By contrast, there’s an honesty about Mr Smith. He doesn’t do anything underhand. He doesn’t get his time from “the cloud” and share it with me in exchange for my personal details, so he can sell them on. He tells the time. So if the past has any utility at all in this instance it is to remind us that honesty is a virtue. It’s not just that our technology used to be so much simpler. It was simply so much more trustworthy. Until we can recover that, we’ve a rocky road ahead.

As for Mr Smith’s bonger, it was just a simple adjustment. He’s back to counting the hours properly. There he sits, ticking away cosily, doing nothing but what he’s supposed to be doing, minding his business, while I mind mine.

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mr sunshineThis is Mr Sunshine. He’s missing one of his rays, between the six and seven o’clock position, but you’d have to point that out before anyone would notice, and it certainly doesn’t dim his enthusiasm. I’ll make a substitute one day, but his essence lies much deeper than the mere look of him. Beneath the wood and the tin, and the plastic, Mr Sunshine is a very special clock indeed. Except today, he’s feeling poorly, and not running at all.

I sort of rescued him. He was about to be thrown into a skip during a house clearance and I said: “Hold on! That’s a Smith’s tuning fork clock.”

“But it’s not run for years,” came the reply. “And who’d want to give a thing like that houseroom these days? It’s as ugly as sin. You want it, it’s yours.”

Well, it’s definitely a period piece, early seventies, and clearly not to everyone’s taste. The tuning fork movement was a real innovation though, an electro-mechanical device that predates quartz, but is just as accurate. You have a tuning fork that’s made to sing. The vibration induces current in a coil and that’s picked up by a slotted wheel. The wheel, made of mu-metal, rotates in sympathy, at an incredibly precise rate.

Smiths is a venerable British make with a long history. Their clocks sat on mantle-pieces throughout the empire, they went into sports cars and flew in Spitfires. Post war though, the industry suffered the same decline as many others, victims of economic reality and  far eastern innovation. Still, Mr Sunshine is a beautiful piece of engineering, as well as something of an extravert. The original specification says he’s good for a few seconds a month. That’s quite an achievement when even a modern quartz watch does well to manage ten seconds.

It’s not a Smith’s movement though. The design was licensed by Bulova, and manufactured for Smiths by Jeco, in Tokyo. Good examples are getting rare, and fetch good prices on Ebay. I remember being nervous as I stripped this one down to see if I could diagnose the initial problem. In the end all it took was a good cleaning and a little soldering to have it humming again. It’s been in my vestibule for a decade now, suits the space and the light, I think, and it just works. Well, it did until today.

I have dozens of old clocks, clocks I’ve tinkered with and badgered out of retirement. Most have names, but Mr Sunshine is a favourite. He’s the one I see every morning as I set out for the commute. He may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me he’s a statement of optimism, the last smile before I set out into my day.

That Mr Sunshine has stopped troubles me. My stopped clocks are a metaphor of other troubles, present and impending, not so much technical as personal and professional. But all of these things are related – I mean metaphysically. We have need of optimism at the moment, and every little helps. This isn’t just about old clocks you see? This is about time and being.

Most of my pieces post-date 1960, the year I was born. So, keeping them going is like encouraging all the formative periods of my psyche into making an harmonious and ongoing contribution to our joint adventure in time. What I’m doing with my clocks is I’m keeping all the various parts of myself going. It’s akin to alchemy.

As we get older, there’s a risk we make decisions that lose the support of little bits of our soul. We compromise our ideals, sacrifice them on the altar of expediency. Thus, parts of us remain locked in the past with their arms folded and scowly expressions, refusing to lend us their energy. Without them, we struggle to reach the heights to which we aspire. 

So what’s the problem with Mr Sunshine then? What’s he trying to tell me? Is it something deep and serious? Or is he just lacking energy. I know I am, too many late nights and early get-ups. Fortunately, a change of battery is all he needs, and then he’s off, humming away again. Problem solved – which goes to show,  it doesn’t do to assume the worst in every situation. So then I look to Mr Sunshine, and I ask him how we’re doing. He smiles, and says we’re doing just fine, tells me I’ve got to find energy from somewhere, get some early nights maybe, got to keep smiling through, you see?

And then he says: Look, it’s a material world we live in, right? There’s nothing wrong in that if we can still find the metaphorical meaning, the poetry, in the material. Otherwise, it’s simply dust, and it doesn’t mean a thing.

Sure, dust is rather a negative concept to have to contemplate. We are all dust, said the clergy of my childhood, and not much cure for it, not much optimism in it either. I only found optimism in my later years in poetry and mysticism. The seventies were a turbulent decade, but not all doom and gloom. Mr Sunshine reminds me of that.

Now, let me introduce you to Mr Smith. He’s a fine old mechanical floating balance movement with hourly and half hourly strikes. His case is somewhat oddly shaped I think, very sixties, but he’s a reliable old curmudgeon – well, he was. No sooner had I sorted Mr Sunshine out with a fresh battery, Mr Smith’s bonger went berserk.

mr smith

I suspect he’s trying to warn me of something, but we’ll leave that for another day, and another story. 

I shudder to think. 





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blessing clockIt’s got to be the ugliest clock I’ve ever seen. Worse than that it was broken – fully wound, yet not even the hint of a tick when shaken, and the hands were dangling loose. Cosmetically it was in poor shape too, tarnished, with rust leaking through the gilt, and I really didn’t care for that ormolu filigree decoration at all. Who in their right mind would waste money on such a thing? Okay, so I would, but for £1.50 from the charity shop it was hardly a ripoff, and I’d get some pleasure from tinkering with it, even if it was only to learn a little more about how these things were put together. Such knowledge is pointless of course, because nothing is put together like this any more. But then much of what we pick up in life, even the stuff we think is really, really important, turns out to be pointless in the end.

It’s a Blessing – the clock I mean, made in Waldkirsch/Breisgau, West Germany. Like most old consumer grade clockmakers they’re gone now – the latest I can date them to is an advert for 1974, but they were a prolific maker in their day. If you search online, Blessing clocks are as common as Smiths. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, so I’m being subjective in describing it as ugly. Anyway, clocks of this period are usually pretty “robust”, so all was not lost. I was sure I could get it going.

What usually happens is they get dirty inside, the original oil turns to mush and the whole thing gums up. It slows down, becomes unreliable, you get cross with it. It stops. That’s the thing with these old wind-up clocks. You could have it serviced by a clockmaker, but it’ll always be cheaper to throw it away and buy a new one. So, quirky and unloved, consumer-grade tickers like this usually end up in the bin. How this one escaped is a mystery, but anyway,..

It’s an act of defiance I suppose, that I should want to get it going, though who the enemy is, who or what it is I am defying is harder to say – and I don’t just want to get it going, I want it ticking as sweet and accurate as when it was new. In a further act of defiance I can perhaps give it back to the charity shop and they can get a fiver for it.

I suppose what I’m doing is acting in a way I’m not expected to. I’ve been doing this fairly effortlessly one way or the other all my life – like the way I get the exact atomic time from my ‘phone each morning, and transfer it to any one of a variety of wind-up wristwatches, circa 1950, which manage to keep track of it within about ten seconds per day. But this is another story – unhelpful tangent – except to further illustrate my eccentricity and total lack of any coherent explanation of myself.

Anyway back to the Blessing: Mechanical devices from this period – I’m guessing late sixties/early seventies – were manufactured in ways that were reversible – in other words you could take them apart, strip them to their nuts and clean them up. They were put together by people sitting at a bench. Modern, consumer clocks are made and assembled by robots and are meant to be thrown away when they stop. Many aren’t even granted the dignity of a fresh battery.

Sure enough, the mechanism comes out of the case without much trouble – just unscrew a few things and the case comes apart into an array of interesting bits and pieces, all of them metal except for the acrylic “glass”.

The back-plate of the mechanism is stamped by the maker. This is West Germany, and marks it as coming from the pre-unification, cold war period, as important a period in post-war European History as will be the period post BREXIT. Already our ugly old clock is having us think of interesting things.

Let’s see: the balance spring is in good shape, likewise the rest of the escapement. So, our ugly old clock is in with a chance. Note of caution though: there are fingerprints all over the end-plate, so it’s obvious someone’s had a go at it before me. This is not uncommon – a squirt of 3-in-1 oil being the usual desperate remedy. I know because I’ve done it myself as a kid. It hadn’t worked – it never does – and fortunately further attention seems to have proved too intimidating for my predecessor – there being no tool marks on the nuts that hold the plates together.

So far my £1.50 investment is yielding great value for money.

The mechanism is heavy with fluff and hair, both human and cat, and goodness knows what else. A preliminary swill in white spirit gets the worst of this gunk off, then the mechanism is at least in presentable condition for the workbench, and further disassembly. One day I’ll get myself a cheap Ultrasonic tank.

Already we see the clock is wanting to run, the balance wheel is fluttering and a hesitant ticking is beginning to emerge from it. We’re a long way yet from getting things going properly, but the signs are promising.

Next comes the fun of a full strip down and a battle with the feeling that the further one goes, the less likely one is to remember how things go back together. Once stripped, we clean every little pin and pivot, put it back together, oil it, and away it should run.

A further note of caution – we’ve got big springs here, one for timekeeping, one for the striker and neither of them contained in a barrel. A spring released suddenly from full tension like this is a wild thing, and it will bite. It’ll run riot in the mechanism and break things. I listen to myself and realise I’m sounding like a pro. Don’t be fooled, I’m merely speaking from experience. We need to let them down, carefully,… We search for the “click”, there isn’t one – oh well, we must improvise. Pass me the screwdriver – no, the bigger one,…

Does the clock survive? Do I? Does any of it really matter? Well of course not, but that’s life. We ponder what we think matters, and we ponder it wherever we can find it. And we can find it anywhere, even in the innards of an ugly old clock.

Stay tuned.

Graeme out.

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Image1I found this little Raketa alarm clock at the weekend. It was on a junk stall,and the seller wanted £1.50 for it. It’s an old clockwork model, and wasn’t running. You can buy a new alarm clock, pretty much like this one for a couple of quid these days, a modern battery version – so £1.50 for a broken clock might not seem much of a bargain, but I like stripping and cleaning old clocks and seeing if I can get them going. Human beings aren’t always logical creatures and our emotional drivers are usually too complex to explain to others. Indeed, if we have to explain them at all, we’re probably wasting our breath and better finding someone else to talk to.

Like broken human beings, what old clocks and watches like this are mostly suffering from is neglect. This one was simply gummed up with decades old 3 in 1 oil, and it responded well to a bit of TLC. I dismantled it, cleaned it up in white spirit, then reassembled and sparingly oiled the jewels with proper watch oil. It was very satisfying to see it come to life.

The unassuming exterior of the Raketa hides a very fine 19 jewel movement, originally designed for a pocket-watch, but adapted to take a nicely engineered timer and striker mechanism. By contrast the modern alarm clock is not designed to come apart much, other than to change a battery. They are not intended for repair. If it broke, you’d throw it away. This is the natural evolution of Capital, to make something deliberately beyond economic repair from the outset.

With an occasional service by a watchmaker, the Raketa will last a hundred years, but at forty quid a service who’s going to pay that? There’ll be no watchmakers in a hundred years, only tinkerers like me. Clocks and watches like this are to be our natural inheritance, also the reasons why we bother in the first place.

The Raketa was built in Soviet era Russia, a period when east-west tensions had us all talking about Nuclear Armageddon, a period that taught me there was no surviving such a thing, that the lucky ones would be those sitting under the first bombs as they fell – at least in Europe where the population density is high and the targeted cities are insufficiently far apart to provide safe havens in between. In a nuclear war, there are no safe havens, you see? You either die fast or you die slow – and the former is obviously preferable. What you cannot do is survive. And those weapons haven’t gone away, we managed to pretend for a while they had, but now we’re talking about them again, talking up the likelihoood of a nuclear war.

Imagine the other side have launched their nukes (Russia, North Korea). You’re going to die one way or the other. What would you do? Launch yours as well, simply to ensure the other side is wiped out along with you? Imagine you have a potential leader who says they wouldn’t hesitate to do it, that their readiness to do it is in fact our best defence. Or you have another potential leader who says they’d not launch under any circumstances, that it was immoral. Who would you vote for? And what kind of civilisation would be asking such questions in the first place?

But we were talking about clocks.

Time-pieces interest me on many levels. On the scientific and engineering level it’s a question of how you design a device to accurately shadow the movement of the earth with respect to the sun and provide a globally synchronised reference for conducting human affairs, so for example sixteen hundred hours on the twelfth of January 2027 means the same to everyone. But we can also think in more philosophical and existential terms, a time-piece being then a construct that maps our place in time, the hands sweeping up the history of our lives as they circle.

I prefer mechanical timepieces, even though they are less accurate. There’s something about analogue mechanisms being themselves a metaphor of life – each piece visible, open to scrutiny and doing its bit, responding to the rhythm of life, its function being to assist in recording the history of its greater self.

My little Raketa has known a great deal of modern history – it’s perhaps thirty or forty years old. It’s known the ending of the cold war, and the reunification of Germany. But I’m not sure how long its been asleep, and what it’s missed – a couple of gulf wars perhaps, the Syrian civil war, Libya,the European refugee crisis? What it will witness in the future one can only guess – the breakup of the European Union seems likely, also Scottish independence, the forced reunification of Ireland, and perhaps a new American war with North Korea?

Perhaps I’d’ve been better leaving it on the shelf. Some things I’m sure, like me, it would rather not know about. I’m reminded that I retire in 2020, that alarm clocks will then no longer be necessary, though I could make a decent hobby out of tinkering with old clocks and watches – and writing of course. A question for myself then: do I build a writing cabin in the back garden, or a nuclear bunker?

It has to be a writing cabin. The nuclear bunker is a waste of time, though I notice they are very much back in vogue.

Duck and cover?

Yea right!

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IMG_1982Clocks and watches, wind-up ones, are a hobby of mine. I’ve collected a lot of them over the years. As a mechanical engineer they fascinate me and serve also as a reminder of the skill of past generations. Out of my collection, I’m favouring a Roamer Anfibio at the moment, a retro gents dress style in gold plate, manufactured around 1967. I picked it up off Ebay for twenty quid. The winder is a little worn and the stem doesn’t hold position when you need to adjust the time any more, but it has a quality movement that keeps faultless time. Not bad for a watch that’s been ticking for fifty years. I also think it’s rather smart.

But here’s the thing: it was something my son said in passing while I peered at the innards of an old and ailing clock. Why this fascination for the machines of time? I gave a vague answer, regurgitating something I’ve explored before, something about the watch or clock face being a mandala, symbol of the self, and an invitation to explore the meaning of my life in relation to time. This is one answer, certainly, though perhaps a little over-clever. But my son came back with a much simpler, more accurate one:

The clock or the watch projects an unsettling influence, but one to which I am addicted. Meditative teachings try to anchor us in the present moment, have us observe it, and bathe ourselves in the feeling of being one with it, one with timelessness. This is the right place to be. But the function of the timepiece is to disrupt this stillness and propel us into the future, to remind us of the time “now” but only in relation to the time remaining before some event for which we must not be late, or by which time we must have begun or completed a course of action. To consult the watch or the clock is like lobbing a stone into the still waters of the present moment.

Day to day, we live by the clock. Its fingers close down on one deadline after the other. We have no choice in this. The world we have built is a machine in which we each play our part – our actions, our presence, all timed by the clock; it determines the mechanistic efficiency with which we perform. In particular, those of us still caught up with a day-job have no choice because faulty timing in this respect will get us fired. But I’ve noticed even those souls now safely retired, and for whom life has the potential to return to the eternal blissful, timeless present, will invent artificial deadlines that they might still live by the clock, still live permanently with their minds fixed always, and anxiously, on some point in the future – be it ten minutes, or ten hours or ten days from now. Perhaps then it’s more accurate to say it is the future that’s our addiction. We simply can’t get enough of it.

In my own life presence, though much sought after, is rare. It is enjoyed occasionally, and usually out of doors where traces of man and his machinery are scant. Such moments are cherished, but easily lost. All I have to do is look at my watch, and I am at once transported into the future which really isn’t a place our heads should be caught up in for very long at all. In the search for stillness then I have unwittingly surrounded myself with enemies, these machines of time.

So to finish,…

A little poem about time:
Stop the clock

I would grasp the moment as it circles,
Carried on the fingers of the clock.
Seconds from now.
Anticipate its coming,
Split the second,
And again,…

Too late.
The moment passes,
Slips between my fingers,
Fades into the past,
Is gone.
Never in fact,
At all.

But if I half-close my eyes, and breathe,…
I find
The moment
All around.
And in such presence,
I might even glimpse
The essence
Of an eternal self.

To hold such a moment,
Is not to anticipate,
Nor is it to grasp
At the sweep of time.
It is,…

To stop the clock,
To remove the fingers,
One by one,
Leaving only the circle,
Of their former sweep,
By which to enter,

fingerless watch

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waltham 3Mechanical 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.

DSCF5004So 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.

seiko orient

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.

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mending clock 1I was browsing a junk market, looking for an old clock. All I needed was a decent case for a mechanism I’ve had kicking around for years, so the clock didn’t need to be working. I thought I’d be able to pick one up quite cheaply, and the project would keep me out of mischief over the Christmas holidays, while I pondered my next literary adventure. Funny things though, old clocks; broken ones of the mechanical variety still fetch decent prices, while broken quartz ones don’t even make it to the the junk stall – they just end up as landfill.

Modern, consumer grade quartz clocks can look a bit cheap, tending to be housed in frail plastic cases. They do what they were designed to do, namely tell the time, and for a fiver you can chuck it out and buy another when you’re bored with it or it no longer matches your decor. In fact I’ve read recently that most of the consumer-grade stuff we buy is thrown away within a year – even if there’s nothing wrong with it. Society is just designed that way now – indeed the entire global economy relies upon it.

mending clock 2There were a few quartz clocks on the junk stalls, all looking pretty cheap to be honest, costing little and ticking away quite merrily, because unlike their mechanical brethren, there’s not much can go wrong with them. Meanwhile the mechanical ones sulked mostly in mute disgrace – missing pendulums, mangled balances, busted mainsprings and missing keys. They were out of my price range anyway – I’d set myself an arbitrary limit of a tenner. Some of them had good looking cases, but it would have felt wrong to push the budget only to throw the mechanism away and replace it with a battery one. Call me odd, but some things just aren’t right, and I’m not tooled up these days to tackle any of the number of ailments an old mechanical movement might be suffering from. Better to let someone else have the pleasure of that kind of project.

There was just one decent looking quartz clock, and at £8.00 it came in well under my budget. It bore a label that said it was busted, but it was a nice looking case and would probably do for what I wanted. When I picked it up though I felt this busted clock had more of a story to tell. It was heavy for a start, so it was higher end consumer grade. It spoke to me of brass and screws and a way of making things that’s nowadays reserved only for rich men’s things, because that way of making clocks is now just too expensive for the everyday mantle-piece. I’m not saying it was an undiscovered treasure – it was still a consumer grade clock, just from an era when we made things differently. Brass and screws also meant I could take it apart and tinker with it.

mending clock 3I didn’t know the brand, but it said it was English and this dated it considerably because, without being cynical, we’ve not made consumer stuff here for a long time now. How old was it? Well, the only clue was inside, where the ubiquitous little black- box battery movement told me it was of West German origin – so, in truth, it was a bit of a hybrid then, this old clock. West Germany also ceased to be on the eve of reunification in 1990, so the clock was at least twenty five years old. Solid state quartz mechanisms began appearing from about 1980 onwards, so at most it was thirty five years old – old, yes, but not exactly antique.

It was tarnished and a little sad looking, but brass plate polishes up like new and I reckoned I’d done okay for what I paid, though I must admit it didn’t sound like that when I was explaining to the Lady Graeme how I’d been out and bought a broken clock. Anyway, I dug out my tool kit and stripped it down. Sure enough, I discovered generous gauge brass plate and screws – nothing glued, so it all came apart like a flat pack kit. For good measure, I popped open the black box mechanism. Usually there’s not much to see with solid state electronics – at least nothing that makes a visual kind of sense to a mechanical engineer – but this one had a curious electromagnetic actuator that gave the gear train a kick every second, only it wasn’t kicking right because it’s designed to run with the actuator in the six o’clock position, and someone had fixed the mechanism with it pointing to three o’clock. I sorted that out and off it went. Suddenly we had a runner!

mending clock 4So, I spent a happy afternoon with metal polish and an entire roll of kitchen-wipes, polishing the muck from those brass plates and all the other bits and bobs – the machined columns, the turned feet and fixings and handle. They all came up like gold. When it was back together I had a clock worth a hundred pounds. Let’s say it’s about thirty years old – not a bad innings for a consumer item – but it was the manufacturing methods and the materials used in its construction that saved it from the junk bin, and which makes this old ticker among the last of its kind. This is a clock that will still be around in another thirty years, even if it goes wrong, because the quality of the case makes it worth fixing, and it’s easily fixable.

Consumer grade clocks aren’t made out of solid brass plate any more – not in England anyway. It’s not an expensive material, but it takes man-hours to machine and polish and tap and screw, which is why that kind of construction is nowadays reserved for the luxury market. Sure, you can still get higher end consumer grade clocks made of solid brass but they’re made where the hands that put them together are cheaper. It’s not that the necessary skills are scarce or difficult to learn. We have millions of kids now in dead-end burger flipping jobs who could easily be taught to make things this way again. But we don’t teach them, because even on minimum wage their hands are still too expensive, and the companies that made this sort of thing all downsized and moved up market, or went to the wall a quarter of a century ago, ran slap bang into an eastern tsunami of disposable technology coming the other way. That’s why we’ll never make a consumer grade clock like this in England this again.

mending clock 5

I feel a curious affinity with this old clock. We both had our genesis in a bygone era, and although the world has moved on, and indeed looks upon us both these days as embarrassing hangers on from a long obsolete economic paradigm, we’re both still here, still ticking, doing what we were made to do. The clock tells the time, while I ponder both its meaning, and mine.

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