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Posts Tagged ‘pocket watches’

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.

roamer
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.

rolex
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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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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