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Posts Tagged ‘koma’

fingerless watchIn the closing stages of my novel “By Fall of Night”, lovers Tim and Rebecca linger in a world between realities, a world of mutual dreaming where time has no meaning and from where they’ve discovered they can wake back to any previous moment in their lives. This is just as well because they’ve also discovered that to return to their original lives means certain death,┬ábecause an asteroid is about to strike the earth. But to avoid it by skipping realities is also to risk waking in separate branches of the multiverse, where Tim and Rebecca don’t exist for one another any more.

So, they bide as long as they can in the interstitial dream domain, resisting the call to wake up while they wrestle with the dilemma. They visit a cafe, as you do, because, as the saying goes – if in doubt, have a brew. Here they meet up with fellow dream-traveller William Wordsworth who, in the course of a somewhat poetical conversation over tea and scones, draws from the pocket of his waistcoat a watch with no fingers.

What time is it? Who can tell? And does it really matter?

This slightly Dalian dream-scene is taken from free-running imagination. It was not consciously plotted, and like much of my fiction needs to be interpreted with the looseness of a dream counsellor, rather than the clinical precision of the literary critic. What you get with me is something irrational, but since I’m just a different version of you, such things are not entirely meaningless to either of us. They are archetypal, and therefore infuriatingly obtuse to us both – yet I hope as intriguing and attractive to you, as they also are to me.

In my own version of reality a fascination with time – and in particular time-pieces – leaks through from the dream world. I wrote before Christmas about buying a broken clock, then spending a day or two cleaning it up and getting it going. Well, I went back to that same junk emporium after Christmas and found another worthless hunk of brass – this time a proper clock with springs and gears and such, this time more properly broken.

And here it is:

koma clock1It’s a torsion clock, more commonly known as an anniversary clock. They were designed to run for about 400 days from a single wind. You can usually spot them by the spinning balls. I think there’s something rather grand about them, but most of them you see these days are battery driven plastic fakes. With the original design the idea was you’d be given the clock as a gift – retirement, wedding, birthday and such, and each year, on the anniversary, you’d wind the clock to keep it going for another year. It’s a quaint idea, though now somewhat out of date (changing the battery on your birthday doesn’t have the same romantic appeal). They’re obsolete of course, though there are still plenty of these old tickers around. It’s just that the skills for maintaining them are increasingly rare and terribly expensive.

This one carries the brand “Prescott” crudely glued onto the dial, and is a bit of a misnomer – hinting at the long tradition of clock and watch making that went on in Prescott, near Liverpool, up to about 1912. But the mechanism is by Konrad Mauch, a German company who manufactured anniversary clocks from 1950 to 1958, so the Prescott thing is a bit of a mystery for now. I bought the clock with a label telling me it “needs attention” i.e. “bust”, but that was all right. In truth, I thought the clock was ugly, and I wanted it only to strip it down and learn what I could about this type of movement.

Although rather delicate and precise in their construction, there’s actually not much to go wrong with a torsion clock. They move so slowly, even ancient examples show little wear. What usually happens is the oil turns to gum over time and the torsion wire that holds the spinning balls gets kinked or broken. Either way the clock stops. So, the original owner contacts a professional clock-maker for an estimate for repair, gets quoted an eye-wateringly huge figure, and the clock goes in the attic, and later for junk.

To be honest, professional clock-makers can be a bit stuck up – I know because I’ve spoken to a few. They rightly value their skills, honed at the bench over a lifetime, but that was most likely a long time ago, and with maintenance free black-box ┬ámovements nowadays being churned out by the billion, one must be realistic. It means mechanical clocks are nowadays only for the rich, or the interested tinkerer. And tinkerers don’t always have the skills or the patience for work like this.

With my clock, the torsion wire was both busted and kinked, and the key was missing. I cleaned it all up by hand, degreased it with Methylated spirits and a little brush, cleaned up the holes in the plates with sharpened match-sticks, replaced the wire with the help of online info, oiled it all sparingly with proper clock oil, ordered a new key from the Bay, and got it running nicely, those little balls spinning slowly, mesmerisingly for days on end. But if I put the fingers back on, it stops.

It reminds me of Wordsworth’s watch – dreams leaking into fiction, and leaking into fact.

Oh, I know – in dull, practical terms it means I’m still missing something with the mechanism, that there’s something about it I don’t yet understand. But still, the metaphor is interesting. The anniversary clock marks time. The spinning balls rotate, they oscillate slowly – 8 beats a minute in the case of this little mechanism. But at such a leisurely pace, even small errors add up to something significant – the anniversary clock is not renowned for its accuracy. By contrast the quartz resonator in your modern clock operates at nearer 546 beats a minute, a pace at which small errors don’t make so much difference – seconds a month as opposed to minutes – but both are essentially mechanisms that approximate to an arbitrary unit of time. My mechanism runs, but what is it counting as its little balls spin? I put the fingers on, and the clock stops. It counts nothing, actually. And I can’t help wondering about that.

As I spend time cleaning it up and fiddling with it, the old clock begins to grow on me. I wonder what anniversary it was originally bought to celebrate. If it was a retirement in the 1950’s, its original owner probably died in the 1970’s and the clock might have been through several hands since then, or lingered lost in some damp old attic. Or was it a family piece perhaps? In one sense, it’s a shame such memories are lost, yet equally, I prefer to avoid timepieces that are clearly marked with a memorial engraving because to me that full stops the device in time and prevents me from adding something of my own momentum to it.

It may take me much of 2015 to get this old clock running properly and marking time as it should, but already, it’s taught me a lot – not just about torsion mechanisms and their idiosyncrasies. It reminds me that time is, in essence, simply we what make of it, and four hundred days is really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things – a key wind or two, an accumulation of slow swings of the pendulum, but always an approximation to a reality we can never hope to fully grasp.

Happy New year to all.

Thanks for listening.

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