COLUMN SIX: A fixed time

Measured by coffee spoons or electrons, life moves steadily on

Special to the VOICE

When I was a child and didn’t know better, I tried to make time go backwards. My gran cautioned me never to do it again.

I had noticed her ancient wall-clock was still on Daylight Saving Time, so I stood on a chair, opened the glass cover and began moving the minute hand back. When she saw me she told me to stop.

“You must never reverse the hands,” she said, helping me down from the chair. “It’s not good for the clock.”

She removed the chime weight, then slowly pushed the minute hand around and around, clockwise, with the hour hand following, until she reached the correct time.

So I learned that turning the clock back was something you didn’t do even when you were supposed to be doing it. It wasn’t the last thing that I learned that made no sense.

Her clock had always fascinated me. Its face, long aged into tiny, capillary-like cracks, was set inside a circular rosewood frame. It was mounted high on her living room wall, with two weights—one to move the hands, the other to drive the chimes—each attached to a chain that extended almost to the floor. It had a long pendulum that swung back and forth in a hypnotic, scythe-like motion, to produce the comforting tick-tock that pervaded her apartment. A little door on the side opened to reveal the dozen brass cogwheels of varying sizes, all connected and working in synch.

Gran brought her clock over from Scotland when she moved to Canada, and I remember asking her then how old it was. She didn’t know, she said, because it didn’t have a date or a maker’s name. But as a child she remembered being mesmerized by the movement of the pendulum; and her own grandmother once told her how, when she was little, she heard this same clock chime in the night from her upstairs bedroom.

That took it all the way back to the Ark as far as I was concerned.

It would be mine one day, she said, as long as I didn’t make it go backwards.

I don’t think I appreciated the clock’s significance when I was a child. In the 1950s there was nothing special about keeping something that still worked. Sure, it had been around forever, but so had everything else. Not much got thrown out back then, as I remember.

People hung onto things if they worked and fixed them when they didn’t. Even when the “next thing” came along most waited until “this thing” expired before replacing it.

And, really, there weren’t a lot of “next things” coming down the pipeline in those days. Technology in the ‘50s was more of a pipe dream—fanciful inventions like flying cars and hovercraft footwear. Actual new stuff took years to happen. The rotary phone hung around for decades before voice-messaging and push-button dials came along. Even after automatic transmissions and colour televisions were introduced, my parents kept their manual-shift Ford and black-and-white Philco TV until they died of natural causes—the machines, I mean.

But a silent revolution was happening under the radar. The bar code, solar cell, optic fiber, computer hard disk, modem, microchip and integrated circuit were all invented in the ‘50s. We were oblivious at the time to these technologies that would change how we lived.

And so we fast-forward to the present day, and a world stuck in fast-forward itself.

My gran passed away in the interval, and left me her clock as she promised. I’m older now than she was when she cautioned me about turning back the hands of time. I’ve taken good care of it, getting it cleaned and serviced several times during that period. So I thought.

A year ago it started behaving erratically, and I was advised to find a proper clockmaker to put it right again. Skilled clockmakers are as rare as roof thatchers now, but I managed to locate one in St Catharines.

Ron was elderly and eccentric, and reminded me of old Gepetto from the Pinocchio movie. He actually resembled the Disney character, with his shock of thick white hair and mustache, square spectacles and furrowed brow. His basement workshop echoed with the ticking of 50 antique clocks that sounded like pebbles dropping down a deep well.

I felt I’d come to the right place, until he said it would cost fifteen hundred bucks to fix my clock.


I’d just read that school boards in Britain want to remove the analog clocks from their classrooms because students couldn’t read them. Kids panic during exams because they don’t know how much time they have left.

So why was I even thinking about spending more than I could afford to keep Gran’s clock going?

I felt better when I read that Big Ben’s been taken out of service for four years so it can be restored—at a cost of £62 million pounds. It’s funny to think when Big Ben is finally up and running again there’ll be a whole new generation of school kids who won’t know how to tell time from it.

And then I thought, does it matter how we tell time anyway? Who reads a sundial anymore?

It’s the times that change.

Most kids these days haven’t heard a clock that ticks, nor a dial tone either; but their phones have a hundred apps that give them the time along with a hundred ways to spend it.

The cost of fixing my gran’s clock could buy the services of Alexa, or Siri, and make me master of the universe in my smart home. Why throw money at a device that did nothing but tell time—something it’s been doing pretty well since the beginning of it?

And then it hit me. The question was also the answer. Gran’s clock is timeless. All these other marvels aren’t.

Our new devices will always be replaced by newer ones, just as they replaced older ones. Innovation and obsolescence are themselves part of the tick-tock rhythm of our lives. In and out they come and go, all things passing through an ever-revolving turnstile of change: standard transmission, rotary dials, phone booths, videotapes, CDs and DVDs, fax machines, button technology, touch-screen and voice recognition.

We miss the familiar when it goes, but if nothing hangs around long enough even to become familiar, what’s to miss?

We re-invent ourselves, de-clutter and shed the past, give ourselves a makeover and take the fast lane into the future.

We don’t even take time to ask why we’re in such a hurry.

What if we get to the future too quickly and find that it’s already behind us?

“Forever can last a second,” said the White Rabbit, who was always in a hurry to be somewhere else.

Gran’s clock was making me feel nostalgic, not for the past but for what’s to come. I was already beginning to miss it.

Sometimes I think we all got here too quickly.

In the end the repair bill for my clock cost more than my first car, and even then Gepetto told me it would run a little fast.

The times we live in, I thought, but I was delighted to have it back up and running.

The slight inaccuracy wasn’t an issue because old clocks never kept perfect time. The earliest ones—those mounted in church towers—were only as precise as they had to be in announcing prayer times or summoning workers from the field at dinner.

Our eternal summons was in poet John Donne’s mind when he wrote ask not for whom the bell tolls—and, yes, we have an app for that as well now.

The Life app is actually a Death app—a device that calculates how much time you have left—like those British students in the exam room. It can crunch your vital statistics and family history to work out which day will be your last. It’s so you can get your life in order, the ad says—settle your debts, junk the stuff your children will never use, update your will, tidy your room, write your last blog, then pour yourself a stiff one and wait for the countdown, like New Year’s.

I’ll give that one a miss. Sometimes it’s better not to know the time.

Still, I’m happy not to be the one who lets go of an heirloom that has timed the lives of my ancestors and myself from birth. If the clock outlives me, which is likely now, it’ll go to my daughter, and she’ll look after it to the last syllable of her recorded time.

I sometimes imagine, what if Gran’s clock were to keep going till the crack of doom?

Wouldn’t that be priceless.

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The Voice of Pelham
Pelham's independent news source from the heart of Niagara.