Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Time and the Hour - by Katherine Langrish

My husband's Uncle Bill Dilger was a watch and clockmaker-cum-repairer, and his workshop, in a small back room in his Victorian Manchester home, was a fairy palace dedicated to Time. You walked through the door and found yourself immersed in a sussuration of soft ticking from walls crowded with clocks - mahogany-cased wall clocks with sober cream faces and slow-swinging brass pendulums; elaborately carved grandfathers looming up to the ceiling with their painted moons and suns and ships; busy gilt carriage clocks tick-tick-ticking away; great dark rustic cuckoo clocks with pine-cone weights and little half-open doors (family history proudly states that the Dilgers were one of two Black Forest families who claim the invention of the cuckoo-clock); a Mickey Mouse clock with eyes that flicked from side to side;  a clock with a ballerina who spun around on her pointed toe to the tune of the Blue Danube; an antique novelty clock shaped like a clockmaker holding a timepiece under his arm: big clocks, little clocks, old clocks and new clocks, clocks in the process of being mended, and clocks which would never work again, clocks ready to be claimed and clocks whose very owners, it seemed, had left them here long ago and vanished into time themselves.

In the middle of the small room, under a low-hanging, glass-shaded light, was Uncle Bill's wooden worktable, covered in small, intricate, shining parts - cogs and springs and watch-cases.  Those he wasn't currently working on would be protected from the dust by a collection of upturned crystal sherry-glasses whose stems had snapped. Everything gleamed.

We always tried to arrive just before noon.  Bill would welcome us and we would all crowd into his workshop, adults and children alike, and wait, breathless and smiling. There would be a strange whirring. Then the first shy chime. And then one after another every working clock in the room would clear its throat and strike.  Ding, ding, ding - dong, dong - bing, bing, bing - cuckoo, cuckoo - interrupting one another in a delightful, clashing crescendo and diminuendo of shrill and rapid and slow and mellow, till finally the last cuckoo ducked back in as the little doors whipped shut, and all that would be left was the constant tick-tick-ticking. It was something that could never fail to give pleasure.

Isaac Peabody - illustration by A.R. Whitear

Uncle Bill's clock room often used to remind me of Isaac Peabody's workshop in Elizabeth Goudge's novel 'The Dean's Watch' which is set in the 1870s in an unnamed fictional cathedral city which combines elements of both Wells and Ely.  Isaac is described as 'a round-shouldered little man with large feet and a great domed and wrinkled forehead. ...His eyes were very blue beneath their shaggy eyebrows and chronic indigestion had reddened the tip of his button nose.  His hands were red, shiny and knobbly, but steady and deft.'  As for his workshop:

The shop was so small and its bow window so crowded with clocks, all of them ticking, that the noise was almost deafening. It sounded like thousands of crickets chirping or bees buzzing, and was to Isaac the most satisfying sound in the world.

But old Isaac has a secret.  Brought up by a stern father in the fear of an angry God, he is terrified of the great cathedral, and even though he is fascinated by the Jaccomarchiadus (the mechanically-operated figure that strikes a bell on the outside of a clock) which adorns its tower, he is too afraid ever to go inside the cathedral and see the clock for himself:

The Jaccomarchiardus stood high in an alcove on the tower, not like most Jacks an anonymous figure, but Michael the Archangel himself.  He was lifesize and stood upright with spread wings... Below him, let into the wall, was a simple large dial with an hour hand only. Within the Cathedral, Isaac had been told there was a second clock with above it a platform where Michael on horseback fought with the dragon at each hour and conquered him. But not even his longing to see this smaller Michael could drag Isaac inside the terrible Cathedral. No one could understand his fear.  He could not entirely understand it himself.

Perhaps not.  But here is the dial on the outside north wall of Wells cathedral, and here - below - is the west entrance, and I think you can see that there is, or could be, something awe-inspiring, even terrible, about its beauty.  You might well feel a bit of an ant, approaching it as Isaac does through the small streets of his anonymous city: 'Like a fly crawling up a wall Isaac crawled up Angel Lane, scuttled across Worship Street, cowered beneath the Porta, got himself somehow across the moonlit expanse of the Cathedral green and then slowly mounted the flight of worn steps that led to the west door...'

Eventually, right at the end of the book, Isaac does manage to conquer his fear and enter the cathedral. And there it is, the other clock.

It was just as it had been described to him. Above the beautiful gilded clock face, with winged angels in the spandrels, was a canopied platform. To one side of it, Michael in gold armour sat his white horse, his lance in rest and his visor down. On the other side the dragon's head, blue and green with a crimson forked tongue, rose wickedly from a heap of scaly coils. They waited only for the striking of the bell to have at one another. It was a wonderful bit of work. ...And to think he had lived in the city all these years and had not seen it!

Here is the one at Wells.  It dates to the late 14th century. Around the dial you may just be able to make out the four angels in the corners, who hold the four cardinal winds.

On the hour, every hour, armoured knights ride around the platform you can see at the top, jousting with one another, while higher up the wall to one side, the Jack perches in his alcove, striking his bell.

After I had taken these pictures, one of the cathedral clergy came out and spoke to the gathered onlookers. He didn't preach, not in a specifically Christian way, but he did ask us to consider the value of time in our lives, and to make good use of it. It was a suitable message.  In Goudge's book, old Isaac makes friends with the great Dean of the cathedral, whose clocks he comes to wind. The Dean is a sick man, who knows he has not long to live.  He pays a visit to the clock-shop and listens to Isaac talking about horology:

He delighted in Isaac's lucid explanations and he delighted too in this experience of being shut in with all these ticking clocks. The sheltered lamplit shop was like the inside of a hive full of amiable bees. ... [The clocks] spoke to him with their honeyed tongues of this mystery of time, that they had a little tamed for men with their hands and voices and the the beat of their constant hearts and yet could never make less mysterious or dreadful for all their friendliness. How strange it was, thought the Dean, as one after another he took their busy little bodies into his hands, that soon he would know more about the mystery than they did themselves. 

Dear Uncle Bill was nothing like poor frightened Isaac, but a truly happy man and a faithful Catholic who willed his best and favourite clock, the massive black grandfather which stood in his living room, to the Catholic Bishop of Salford. It was a typical gesture which I hope the Bishop appreciated, but I expect he did, as - just as Isaac does for the Dean - Bill used to go regularly to wind the Bishop's clocks.  Bill used to joke sometimes, that he didn't know what he'd do in heaven.  "I don't know what I'll do in heaven," he'd say in his soft Manchester accent, with a twinkle in his eye. "There's no clocks there!" He died at the age of ninety-? contented to the last, and would have both enjoyed and deserved the genuine epitaph that Elizabeth Goudge quotes at the beginning of 'The Dean's Watch':

Epitaph from Lydford Churchyard

Here lies in a horizontal position
The outside case of
George Routleigh, Watchmaker,
Whose abilities in that line were an honour
To his profession:
Integrity was the main-spring,
And prudence the regulator
Of all the actions of his life:
Humane, generous and liberal,
His hand never stopped
Till he had relieved distress;
So nicely regulated were all his movements
That he never went wrong
Except when set-a-going
By people
Who did not know his key;
Even then, he was easily
Set right again:
He had the art of disposing of his time
So well
That his hours glided away
In one continual round
Of pleasure and delight,
Till an unlucky minute put a period to
His existence;
He departed this life
November 14, 1802,
aged 57,
Wound up,
in hopes of being taken in hand
By his Maker,
And of being
Thoroughly cleaned, repaired and set-a-going
In the World to come.


Joan Lennon said...

Love the epitaph! Thanks for posting -

alberridge said...

A beautiful post - thank you. I've always loved 'The Dean's Watch', and do wish I'd ever seen a room like your Uncle Bill's.

Clocks are also the most wonderful expression of the timelessness of time, especially in the way they survive us. I always think of that scene in the Dambusters when a character winds a clock just before going out on the raid - and when he doesn't return the clock is still ticking...

Susan Price said...

Surely the big clock left to the Bishop stopped, dead, never to go again, when Uncle Bill died? - Sounds like it should have done. - Great post, and I, too, loved the epitaph!

Sue Purkiss said...

I was just enjoying the gorgeous description of the workshop, and think it reminded me of The Dean's Watch, when there was the picture of Isaac Peabody! And Wells is my local cathedral, so lots of reasons to love this post!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thankyou all. I hope the big grandfather didn't stop, dead, never to go again, Sue - but I'm sure it behaved itself for the Bishop just as Uncle Bill would have expected.

Penny Dolan said...

Clock-makers - especially yours - are wonderful characters. I did enjoy this post - and couldn't help thinking of my fictional Nick Tick as I read it. Thanks.

Mrs Black the shoppe keeping cat said...

Thank you so much! I really loved this story, so well told. Both poignant and uplifting - and I MUST go see this clock! x

adele said...

The Dean's Watch! How I used to love Elizabeth Goudge...must try her now and see how she stands up to the ravages of Time! And Wells is a splendid cathedral!

Petrea Burchard said...

Thank you for the images and imagery! I love the description of the workshop.
I found Wells Cathedral to be overwhelming in many ways, all of them good.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, I loved this! I do like Elizabeth Goudge, too. The Little White Horse is enchanting, especially if you have an old edition with all the C Walter Hodges illustrations. But her adult books, though they do have a bit of occasional twee-ness, have an awareness of the dark side of life and raw feeling, which is drawn from her own experience of psychological illness, which is still enormously powerful. I think The Dean's Watch is her best, actually. In the latter part of her life she lived a few miles away from our home, in Rotherfield Peppard. Her cottage was near The Dog pub, now a rural Italian restaurant, and opposite the house that was Howards End in the eponymous Merchant Ivory film..

Marjorie said...

A beautiful post. I love 'The Dean's Watch' - one of my favourites of her books.

Rosie said...

Hi Katherine,
I’ve just read your wonderful piece on time/clocks/my dad with tears in my eyes. Wow! You described the workroom so well. I haven’t really thought about his workroom for a while so reading those beautifully-written words really brought back the memories. It’s five years since he died, this year – the time does fly! Thank you for the two epitaphs – one about his life and Goudge’s epitaph about Isaac, which I’d not read before.
I hope others will enjoy reading your thoughtful words.
Take care,
See you soon,