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Posts Tagged ‘pocket watch’

rambler movement

It says Rambler on the ratchet wheel, Swiss Made on the dial. Other than that, I don’t know anything about this watch. My researches have turned nothing up on the make, if indeed “Rambler” is the make. That, and its date of manufacture, are both mysteries. Its story is lost.

I bought it twenty years ago, and paid too much for it. It had been languishing in the dust of a back-street jeweller’s shop when I took pity on it. It ran a little slow, but the wily old jeweller wanted more money to service it, so I made do.

I like old watches, and enjoy musing over the nature of time. It’s not so much the accuracy of time-keeping that fascinates me. It’s more the fact of time’s subjectivity. There’s a flow to it, from past to present, but also the hint of something cyclical, like the circular path of the hour-hand’s tip, scything through the present moment. And we need a device to hold us firm in reality, because perceived time has an odd, variable quality, one in which not every hour measures the same. Relying on perceived time, we’d be all over the place. All our realities would be subjective, and we’d never connect.

One of the minor myths of our culture is the passing on of one’s grandfather’s pocket-watch. If it was a good piece it might even have come down from our great-grandfather. Thus, the trail of ancestral time might stretch back into the middle-Victorian period. I think there’s something Romantic about that. But if my grandfather had a watch, I never saw it, so my fascination for old tickers might also be compensatory.

By the middle-Victorian period we were mass-producing watches that would last several lifetimes. Well, the Swiss were doing it, and the Americans were catching up using Swiss methods. English pieces, by contrast, were already obsolete due to lack of industrial investment. Sound familiar?

In my experience an English Victorian watch surviving to the present day is definitely not a thing one can rely upon. Most had their cases melted down for the silver, the orphaned movements appearing on eBay now for spares. I have three old English pieces in my collection and none of them are any good. The Swiss and American pieces I own from the same period  are still perfectly good. But I digress. Let’s get back to the mysterious Rambler.

What can we say about it? Well, it’s a full hunter, meaning it has a cover over the watch face. Half hunters have a small, inset glass window. When you press the crown, the cover springs open to reveal the time with a dramatic flourish, an affectation I find oddly attractive. But here the case-spring was broken, so the time remained shy. The case was also tarnished, the brass showing through where the gilt had rubbed off.

The plates are of the three-fingered type, made of nickel – a thing that came in around 1900 – and they are decorated with a uniform swirled damaskeening. I count eleven jewels, not including the cap-jewels on the balance. Case, a little worn, minor chipping to the dial at the four-o’clock position. Otherwise, a decent quality Swiss piece, possibly a “Rambler”, probably made some time after 1900. I think it looks like the interwar period, but that’s just a guess.

rambler

Strangely, after paying a packet for it, we never really made friends and I never carried it much. It was the lack of clear identity, I suppose, the lack of back-story. So it languished in a drawer until quite recently. In the twenty years since I bought it, I’ve acquired some knowledge of watch tinkering. So yesterday I stripped it, cleaned and oiled it, regulated it. And in so doing I managed to “own” it a little more. I also managed to fashion a replacement spring for the case, so the cover now pops up when you press the crown.

I was hoping to solve some of the mystery of it. Sometimes a maker will leave clues on the less visible parts of the movement, but not this one. It’s running well now, hasn’t lost a minute since I set it last night. It’s an enigma, then, though one I can’t imagine anyone losing sleep over. I still feel a little sad about that but, having felt the beating of its heart now (300 per minute) , we cannot be anything other than friends at last.

So, it finds a more settled place in my collection now, ticks away at my bedside as I write, and therefore claims a bigger place  in the story of my own times, even if all it’s taught me really is that eBay’s a much better, and cheaper, place to find old watches, and those dusty backstreet jewellers will surely rob you blind.

Thanks for listening.

[If you know anything about watches and recognise this piece, do get in touch. I would still dearly like to place it in time, and give it its proper  name.]

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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, because 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  movements 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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old englishThis was my great grandfather’s watch, on my mother’s side. But is that my mother’s maternal or paternal grandfather? I don’t know for sure and I’ve no one to ask now, but I’m favouring the maternal side at the moment, though I’ve nothing more to go on other than gut feelings and the images that arise when I’m handling it. In other words I’m weaving stories with very little to go on. But that’s what writer’s do; they take the unknown and make it knowable, whether it be the truth or not, because even holding to a myth is better than saying we’ve no idea at all.

I discovered it among the keepsake belongings of a dear aunt who passed away recently – along with copies of wills, and family birth and death certificates going back to the 1850’s. The watch was thunder black and looked quite sorry for itself. The minute hand was missing, the seconds bent, and it wasn’t running.

A quick clean-up revealed a silver cased English Lever, hallmarked 1899. I consulted an old fashioned jeweller who was able to get it going for me. The missing finger was replaced with one that doesn’t really match, but apart from that the watch runs well now – most of the time.

I’ve written about old watches  before, being a bit of a collector – always on the lookout for the half busted, bent and obsolete waifs and strays of a bygone era. I’ve waxed lyrical about their significance, speculated on their archetypal, psychological meanings – and described how at times of inner transition I find myself obsessing over my collection. Then this one turns up – the great grand daddy of them all – the size and weight of a small cannonball, pregnant with history, all of it muddled, mythical, and possibly irrelevant, yet rising from my unconscious like a well aimed torpedo and suddenly sinking me further down into my own past than I’ve ever been before.

And while I consider the story of this old pocket-watch, I feel the currents that normally drive my own fictions are becalmed, as if lost in the balance that follows a deep sigh. Indeed I find myself wondering if there’s another story in me now, or if I’m spent. It would have been unthinkable at one time, this sense of creative emptiness, but now I really don’t care. I’ve tried several fresh avenues since finishing my last novel. I’ve rummaged among the stuff on the back burner, but I find it all trite and foolish, and I’ve set it  aside. Seven novels are enough, I think. So let the muse sleep, and me with her, in some Arcadian bower for a thousand years. And when we wake, let it be without the need to light the darkness with our stories any more.

balanceA mechanical watch is like a human life. You create tension, apply it to a train of events, but without balance it would run down too quickly, deplete itself in a mad whirling blur. So the watchmaker creates balance with the hair spring – such a delicate little thing, like a  heart. Set it beating and away it goes, regulating the life force, playing it out more slowly, more usefully in time. But the balance is also the most vulnerable part  – easily lost, easily thrown out by wear or trauma.

No, I’ve not lost my balance here. That’s not why I’m becalmed. Rather I think this is one of those rare periods in my life when I can say I have attained balance, all be it temporarily  – that I know it by having known the lack of it. And balance seeks no other purpose for itself than the is-ness of the moment. Ambition, thoughts, fears – they all fall away, and the need for stories too. I don’t know anything. Let this watch be what it is, without the need to weave a myth around it, without the need to put a name to it.

And yet,…

Whatever its story, this watch is telling me something else as I write. Its tick is loud, like one of those old Smiths alarm clocks, and it’s pulling me out of the place my thoughts seem most inclined to settle this evening. Of all my old watches, this one speaks with the firmest voice, and it’s telling me I’ve been writing a lot about the fact I’ve not been writing, that I’ve been weaving an elaborate story about how I’ve run out of stories.

Sure, antique English levers have an inescapable and somewhat unsophisticated bluntness about them. They were old fashioned and idiosyncratic even when they were new – a bit like me then, born old and eccentric, and a little unreliable. Yes,  there were finer movements than this in 1899 – Swiss and American – fancy things, bejewelled and more innovative, yet here it is: this old English timekeeper, still ticking. And it’s telling me we’re not done yet, that so long as there exists a void in our understanding, there will always be one more story to fill it.

I can say what I like. It’s just a question of time.

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waltham 3This is a favourite little pocket watch of mine. I bought it off a market stall for twenty quid in 1996 and it’s one of the few in my collection I use on a regular basis for telling the time. I usually wear it with a short chain in a casual waistcoat pocket, though my children insist I must have my jacket buttoned up if I’m to walk with them. It seems waistcoats attract so many brickbats these days there’s even a risk of collateral damage.

Anyway, a little research reveals the mechanism of this watch was made in Waltham, Massachusets in 1888. I think the gold plated brass case is a Dennison, shelled out by the millions in Birmingham UK. The case proudly announces it’s “guaranteed to wear 5 years”, so it’s not done too badly, though most of that gold plate has by now worn away.

The mechanism is of reasonable quality, having a jewelled lever and a split bi-metallic balance  for automatic regulation of the time over a range of temperatures. There’s also a bit of filigree detailing which I think is rather nice.  But given the utility of the case,  I don’t think this was intended as a “Sunday best”  watch,  more something that would have been used during the workaday week – a workaday watch for measuring the hours at the office or the factory and for judging the trains.

The amazing database of Waltham serial numbers – entirely the work of volunteers at the NAWCC archive, confirms this, telling me the movement is of a fairly basic standard with seven jewels, and was unadjusted for accuracy. But even after 125 years, and with no obvious evidence of restoration, it’s still capable of telling the time to within a couple of seconds a day, so I’m not complaining. How many consumer devices can you think of that are being put together today and will still be working 125 years from now?

waltham 4I’ve had a fascination for pocket watches since I was a boy,  and my collection now consists of nine pieces, some inherited, some picked up as I go about my travels. None of them, however, are worth much, other than in sentimental terms. But my intention here isn’t to bore you with the details of another of my obsessions. What I’m trying to get at is what  this fascination for old timepieces might yield to a little over-analysis.

The watch or clock face is a good example of a mandala. This is a psychological archetype,  said to represent aspects of the unconscious self, and their drive towards integration, or wholeness. Mandalas are usually circular – either a painting or a drawing, or a physical object like a ring or a watch face, or even an arrangement of objects like a stone circle or a fairy ring. And they fascinate us. They usually feature some form of geometric division, commonly into quarters, but not always. Indeed, they can be quite abstract and if we draw them ourselves they can form a basis for psychoanalysis, because they weave a story of the psyche at a moment in time, one indicative of both a state of mind, and a direction to be taken if it’s wholeness we’re seeking. And whether we’re aware of it or not, wholeness is what we’re all seeking.

Sometimes, like with the Waltham, I’ll encounter a watch syncronistically in the wild, so to speak, at a “time” of auspicious transition. At other times – times of introspection and self analysis – a watch from my collection will unconsciously find it’s way into my hands,.. or my waistcoat pocket.  I’ve looked at all of this before, but that’s another thing with mandala’s – they tell us we cannot measure psychological progress in a straight line. Progress always involves a circumnambulation of the centre, encountering the same lessons, the same insights time after time – but hopefully with each full circle bringing us a little closer to home.

The time element might also be meaningful of course – especially the idea of being tied to it, indeed literally chained to it. The watch measures out the passing of time, the passing of a man’s life. It speaks from the past, also speaks of the future. It speaks of order, precision, regulation, of a desire to be on time. But to be on time also implies being lost “in” time. You’d better solve this, because “time” is running out. You can’t do this now because you haven’t got the “time”. How much more “time” must I wait? How much more “time” before my life improves, before I gain the satisfation I crave?

You get the picture?

waltham 1At this level, the watch is more obviously a projection of one’s Ego with it’s ability to measure out, to analyse, to rationalise, to regulate. And there’s nothing like the fear of not having enough “time” for placing a strain on our nerves. The urgent and all pervasive sense of “not enough” is Ego pointing out our inadequacy. We become slaves to time. Look around: we’re obsessed by it! There’s a watch on our wrist, a clock on the wall,  a clock widget on our ‘phone, or a readout on our computer screen – reminders everywhere that we should remain in time and that time is constantly moving, constantly in danger of running out, and we need to keep up with it if we don’t want to be caught out and shown to be less than who we otherwise like to believe we are.

But on another level a pocket watch is different. You don’t see them much any more. They’re disappearing from general use, having been discarded long ago for being too slow, too fancy, too fussy with the time. But then there are people like me seeking them out from the junk stalls,  saying hold on; I think we’re missing something here.

But what is it?

waltham 2Well, I was in the woods the other day, at a local beauty spot, down by the river – a weir roaring, sunlight filtering through bare trees, early daffodils nodding. I was lost in the motion of the water, leaning on a fence, breathing the air, not thinking of anything.

Then someone appeared at my elbow with an urgent enquiry: “Have you got the time, mate?”

A snatch at my sleeve revealed an empty wrist and a reminder I was “off duty”, wearing the waistcoat under a jacket, carrying the Waltham. So I had to unzip my jacket, feel for the chain, draw the watch up. I did it hurriedly, snagging my zipper, and altogether making a terrible fuss in order to get at the watch, when all the guy wanted was the time – instantly! Hurry. Hurry. Time is running out! He was even poised on one leg as if ready to bolt back into time, as soon as he got the time, and the time was soooo slow in coming. No wonder they invented the wrist watch.

“Half past twelve,” I replied, eventually, and off he went like the Mad Hatter, already late, because for too long I had delayed his re-entry into time.

But what time was it, really?

When he’d gone, I felt time slowing down again, and I wondered why I’d been in such a hurry. Half past twelve, said the watch. It felt warm and vital in my hand, having absorbed so much heat from my pocket. I flipped open the back and watched that balance bouncing. It felt alive. I could feel it through my finger-tips. The sun was shining beautifully, the water making a mesmerising roar – a little rainbow forming in the spray. A thrush was singing. I snapped the case shut, put the time back in my pocket, and settled once more into the moment. We become more aware of life, I think, when we can put the time away, and in doing so find the space in any moment, space enough to expand and rediscover the pleasure of simply being.

What time is it? Well, it’s a trick question and you shouldn’t fall for it. The time is always “now”. Not in the future, at some imaginary time that never actually arrives, a  time we might easily waste our whole lives waiting for. Our lives are not a destination but an experience to be perpetually explored – and this does not mean the more extreme or exotic the experience the better – you can find it in nothing if you know how to look, even in the beating of an obsolete timepiece, so long as you can see past its mere function and realise its inner beauty.

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