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Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

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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From A to B

bernexMy apologies to the other bidder who was after this rather nice looking Bernex. I know it doesn’t help now, but I assure you I would not have bid any higher than the £22 it went for, so you should have kept going, added that extra 50p and clinched it. But that’s the curse of auctions, online or otherwise, isn’t it? If we’re not careful we get carried away, ego takes over, and we’re damn well going to have the thing, no matter what it costs. The only winner then is the auction house. So, in this case we both stuck to our limits and in that way we were both winners. I may have clinched the actual prize this time, but the goddess of restraint has had me miss out on it often enough in the past.

But here’s the thing: what I really wanted was the Montine that closed five minutes after the Bernex, and which I suspected most vintage horologists had taken their eye from in single minded pursuit of the Bernex, and which I’d therefore imagined I could nail pretty cheap. Sure enough, the Montine went for just £14 and would have made a more ideal tinkertoy, but by then my pocket money was spent and I had to let it go. From past experience I thought the Bernex would have sailed on up to £50 or £60, which goes to show you just never can tell with auctions. It comes down to the mood of the day, perhaps even the phase of the moon.

The seller said it winds and runs, and it does. The seller said the timekeeping had not been measured and in any case could not be guaranteed, but I find it keeps time reasonably well. There’s some wear of the plating on the case, and it needs a new glass, but other than that it has survived the years with dignity – except for that disgusting Fixoflex strap – remorseless nipper of the hairy wrist! Uggh!

Polished, a new glass, a decent strap, and professionally serviced, this one could sit happily in the vintage section of the posh jeweller’s window with a price tag of maybe a hundred, or a hundred and fifty pounds. I hesitate therefore to tinker, to strip it to bits, to clean and oil and regulate, to risk losing the screws to the carpet, or bending the balance, or marking this fine seventy year old dial with a careless slip of a screwdriver blade.

The rickety old Avia I wrote about a while ago, and which I’d not wanted to die on my watch, died on my watch. The balance jewels turned to dust when I cleaned them, and an intricate repair to the lever, carried out in the mists of time, and under the lupe of a man more masterful at the art than I, came undone. At best I now I have an Anton Schild movement as spares for the more robust bits that tend never to be needed. I don’t want the Bernex to go the same way, end its days in the ignominy of my bit-box. It is not a Rolex, just as it is not a Rolls Royce, but even a Ford Focus man like me can enjoy those rare moments when mass produced stuff has a quality about it that shines.

Anyway.

£22 is about the cost of dinner, an experience all too often questionable, and in any case gone in an hour, lingering in the memory only as indigestion. I do not dine out much these days, but for the same money I shall have many more hours of delicate tinkering with this old beauty, learning as I go, and this time I hope, another nice vintage gent’s dress watch to fill a gap in my collection of sensibly priced tickers – indeed a Bernex to add to my Avias!

Oh the joy of it.

 

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olad-aviaSo, seventy five years from now no one will be interested in the date of manufacture of my first generation iPad. Even I don’t remember. 2010, perhaps? All I know for sure is I’d only had it six months and it was already obsolete. Such is the march of consumerism. I still use it though, resisting the inevitable upgrade because like most people I’ve less money now in real terms than I had when I bought it.

But if it still works, why worry about it?

Shame on me. This is not the spirit of consumerism.

Perhaps the internet will preserve the history of my iPad for posterity. Who knows? That’s more than can be said for the AVIA watch company, its history being something of a blur – no one seeming to have considered it worth the writing down. Like the iPad, they shelled their watches out like peas, entirely in accordance with the bean counter’s credo  that making things has never meant a damn beyond the selling of them.

But I’m an engineer, not a bean counter. I make things and I like making things, and I’m interested in the history of making things, and how things were and are and will be made. And I like AVIA watches, but don’t ask me why. They were a quality Swiss manufacture, the designs possessed of a certain nostalgic elegance that appeals to me. I’ve no idea what my first gen iPad will be worth in seventy five years, but a seventy five year old Avia wrist watch is worth,.. well, it varies, but I just paid £12 for this one, which is next to bugger all.

It still runs, just about, but cleaning and oiling will have it back on form. As for the rest of it,.. well,.. it looks knackered to be honest. The case is very worn, the gold plating rubbed through to the brass, and the face,… well,… let’s just say it’s suffered from a long term overexposure to damp. Clean it up all you like, this old watch is never going to look like new.

I’ve seen pictures of Patek Phillipes, Omegas, Rolexes, all with crusty dials – they call it patina on watches like that, aspirational watches, but on an old consumer grade AVIA, well it’s just junk, isn’t it? Sure – with a bit of patience, I can get it telling time as if it were new – get it going for another seventy five years. But who cares about that? Patina’s only worth it on a watch worth ten grand, and in the eyes of the pillock who’s prepared to afford it. To anyone with less money and a damn sight more common sense it’s just going to look,… well,… knackered, and why don’t you go and by yourself a new watch?

So, maybe I should just have my fun, learn a bit more about what makes old tickers tick, then chuck this worthless old junker away.

What’s that? Sell it back on Ebay?

Why should I? If I’m more honest than the original seller who sold it to me (nice condition, running a bit fast), it’s hardly going to make much of a profit, is it? (Old AVIA, generally knackered in appearance, but keeps good time.)

A fiver?

I asked this question on Instagram. My thanks to @grandadbeard for the reply. If it still works you shouldn’t throw it away. You should use it. But I have several dozen watches, some of them much older  and all of them a damn sight better looking than this one. I’ll never wear it, never use it.

But someone will.

It’s come a long way since those first nimble fingers put it together. Maybe in another 75 years it’ll be more valued than it is now. I sense the responsibility, reach cautiously for the screwdriver.

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Lady of the Lake - Ullswater - 2004In the summer of 2004 I took the old steamer, The Lady of the Lake, from Glenridding, Ullswater, as far as the jetty at Howtown, then made my way on foot into the remote valley of Martindale. There, on a bend, just before the narrow road gives out, there stands a massive yew tree, one of the largest and oldest in England. In its shadow lies the lovely, lonely old church of Saint Martins where, on a plain headstone, I chanced upon the following inscription:

Here lies the body of Andrew Wilson. Traveller. Orientalist and Man of Letters. Author of The Abode of Snow. Born at Bombay April 11th 1830. Died at Bank House Howtown June 8th 1881

I’m guessing many a pilgrim must have pondered this headstone in the hundred and thirty years it has lain there, but  for me it was to become a particularly significant encounter. My later thirst for knowledge of this man’s life was, and remains, something of an obsession. In 2004 I was soaking myself in various oriental and mystical philosophies, and therefore  open to all manner of related connections.  It was for this reason the word Orientalist struck home first, followed by the title of the book, which I recognised as a romantic phrase often used to describe the Himalaya – roof of the mystical east.

The grave of Andrew Wilson - MartindaleI took shelter in the chapel from the sweltering heat for a while, made some notes, then continued on my walk, pondering this odd syncronicity and telling myself I’d look that book up when I got home. It proved to be the beginning of a long journey of discovery. Indeed, it’s fair to say that through his work, much of it now obscure, this lost Victorian man of letters has become a kind of guru to me. I am broader now, deeper, and much less attached to things that simply do not matter than I was when I first did that walk. This is not to say  Wilson alone is responsible for this change in my outlook, his being just one of a company of voices, but he’s certainly been by far the most congenial companion along the way and I still take great delight at turning up yet one more snippet from my researches into his life and work – no matter how trivial.

The son of John Wilson, a famous Indian missionary and founding father of Bombay in the 1830’s, Andrew actually spent much of his early life in and around Edinburgh where he’d been sent to escape Bombay’s terrible insanitary conditions, and the risk he would follow his siblings to an early grave. His education took him to the Edinburgh Academy and then, like his father, along the path of training to be a minister in the Scottish church. But a profound crisis of faith caused him to veer off course, into what appears to have been a very modern kind of European Buddhism – a philosophy espoused by the likes of Schopenhauer and other gurus of the later German romantic period. Deeply troubled, he abandoned his training and took up a career in journalism, eventually editing newspapers in India and China, as well as the UK. But it’s in his personal works, rather than his day-job reportage that I have sought the man, and a very interesting man he turned out to be.

The Nineteenth Century saw many writers who were far more prolific and materially successful than Andrew Wilson, while as a traveller, there were others far more ground-breaking. It’s  for this reason he does not feature at all large in the role-call of Victorian celebrity. He enjoyed some public recognition with the appearance of The Abode of Snow in 1875. Sadly though, increasing ill health prevented him from building upon its  success. While he continued to write to the very end, his later years saw him slip into relative obscurity and disability, his retirement from the world’s dusty byways being funded by the writing of penetrating, and sometime acerbic critiques of other people’s books. Whatever his qualities as a writer, mealy mouthed he was not.

The Abode of Snow is the best introduction to his work, though it catches him at a point in life when he was very ill indeed – barely able to walk and with every breath he took being an effort of steely will. It is an account of a six month trek in the Himalaya, beginning on the sweltering plains of India in the summer of 1873 and rising to the borders of Tibet, then along the valleys and mountain ridges to Kashmir. It’s been described justly as one of the most epic journeys ever undertaken on horseback, a journey he began more in hope than in expectation that the cooler air of the higher altitudes of the northern frontier would restore his health.

Throughout the early stages of his narrative we get the impression he was not entirely confident he would survive, but survive he did, returning temporarily rejuvenated, to pen his memoirs, initially for serialisation in Blackwood’s magazine, but later for publication in book form. The result is at times an intensely personal travelogue, deeply reflective, but it is also typical of his work in that it provides us with  an entirely unaffected description of what was then a very remote part of the Victorian world, including the varied cultures and the people for whom those seemingly inhospitable wastes were home. The book found favour with a pubic greedy for romantic tales of exotic travel in corners of the world that were already fast disappearing under the steady march of Victorian imperialism. He had far more to offer this genre, but his own eccentricity and ultimately a return of his ill health meant the public was to hear no more of Wilson’s extraordinary travels.

Some time after publication, a copy of the Abode of Snow found its way into the hands of the novelist George Elliot, who read it aloud to a gathered company of friends in the drawing room of her home at Rickmansworth. Afterwards, in a  letter to John Blackwood, editor of Blackwood’s Magazine, she said: “But what an amazing creature is this Andrew Wilson,…”

When I first encountered Wilson I was naïve in imagining a linear life’s path, from Bombay to Westmorland, which had seemed curious enough to me, and worth investigating, but in fact I discovered his footsteps had circumnavigated a world of steam trains and sailing ships with  breathtaking dynamism – from India, to Hongkong, to China, America, and India again. He finally settled at Bank House, in those days a humble small-holding, where he rented rooms and penned much of the work that was to become the Abode of Snow. The place is still there, though nowadays it’s better known as an annex of the Sharrow Bay Hotel, beautifully situated overlooking Ullswater. By a strange quirk of fate then, you can still rent rooms there, but at rates I suspect Wilson would have found beyond his means. I also suspect he would find that amusing and worthy of a witty, or a philosophical aside, illustrated, as was his way, with a few lines of apposite poetry, deftly plucked from his prodigious memory.

Bank House - HowtownIt was here, at the age of 51 he endured a long and distressing conclusion to the illness that had dogged his steps for much of his life. Unmarried, childless, he passed away attended only by his landlady and was buried just a mile or so up the road at the Old Church of Saint Martins. This plain and lonely old chapel would be abandoned shortly afterwards, leaving Wilson – Orientalist, writer, thinker and prolific traveller – to rest in peace and final obscurity.

Most of his other works – his earlier travelogues from his days in China, Baluchistan, Switzerland, and Sutherland, also his poetry – are difficult to find, being published anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine from 1857 onwards. You can uncover them  with the help of Wellesley’s guide to 19th century periodicals but one needs a dogged determination and even a slightly obsessive attitude to get at them properly. Most of those vintage periodicals however are now freely available online,  and I found them well worth the effort – and the tiny font –  not only in fleshing out Wilson’s entry in the dictionary of National Biography, but in experiencing more of that genial charm one encounters from a reading of the Abode of Snow – also his beguiling wisdom, a thing that manages to strike a curious balance between Victorian no-nonsense rationalism, and full blown nature-mysticism.

He was not universally admired in his day, being criticised by The Times as too sympathetic towards the Chinese, perhaps understandable at a time when our armed forces were busy setting fire to large parts of the Orient. Then, on passing through the United States in 1861, when commenting on the opening stages of the Civil War, he dismissed Abraham Lincoln rather sniffily as a small man caught up in large circumstances – a phrase I beg my American readers to forgive as a momentary aberration. Then there was an early stint as Editor of the Hong Kong “China Mail,” during which his journalistic recklessness landed him in court on a charge of libel. Duly found guilty he was fined the eye-watering sum of £1000 and bound over to keep the peace – this at a time a when decent salary was around a £300 a year.

Mealy mouthed, no. Recklessly outspoken,… at times, yes. But among his fellow literati he was much respected, spoken of with great affection, and viewed as something of a wayward genius, even a curiosity, with many a drawing room gathering of his old Edinburgh school chums beginning with the words: what news of Wilson?

I could fill a book on this subject, and probably will do one day, for the half a dozen people besides myself who would find it interesting,  but I’ll end this little homage here with Wilson’s own words. On the nature of life, he was no more eloquent than in this excerpt from a contribution he made to Blackwoods Magazine in March of 1858, titled Stories from Ancient Sind:

Experience and reason assure us that the fabled spontaneity of  perfect life is only a sickly dream; for the law of life is but the law of growth and labour; the golden ages of the past have germed in pain and grown with difficulty into full wide-branched glory; and behind every civilisation we find no primeval paradise but only the seething swamp with its slimy brood, the low tangled jungle with its self destroying life, and the hoary salts and the petrified flames of the pathless desert….

…So the world wends; in the light of life onwards, and backwards again under the cold inevitable shadow of death, and its life is ever beautiful and mystic, freshly joyous or infinitely sad, to the imagination of man, for it is in the nature of the human spirit – its highest exercise and noblest prerogative – not to confine itself within the narrow limits of its petty personalities,…

Andrew Wilson 1858

The Abode of Snow is still in print. You can also get an ebook copy for free from the Internet Archive here.

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