The old hall clock struck four at twenty minutes to six this morning. And then five at six. It’s almost like a code – but, as my wife points out, without that element of consistency which codes require to make them really useful.
I mention this because, endearingly, the old thing behaved itself perfectly all through this Christmas. I had finally given up on it a couple of years ago (when it struck something like twenty five at something like seventeen minutes past three) and since then it had stood, a beloved but silent sentinel, in the hall of our home. But this year, when I was putting the seasonal holly and tinsel in its hair, I suddenly had a whim to give it another try.
I hauled the weight up on its chain and circled the ancient hands to set the time, and as I did so I noticed with surprise that the correct number rang out as they passed each hour. So I gave the pendulum its little push and tiptoed away, pleased that I had restored, if only for a short time, the house’s ticking heart. But, as I’ve just said, it then surprised us by keeping time and striking the hours correctly right through the new year, asking only to be wound each night on my way upstairs to bed.
The way this happened was really quite weird, because now the festive season is over and we have hit 2017, it immediately reverted to being just as erratic as ever.
It used to stand in the hallway of the Cotswold farmhouse when my wife’s deceased mother grew up a hundred years ago, and she used to tell us it never worked properly then.
Its face proudly proclaims that it was made by S. Simms of Chipping Norton, a town a short distance away from them by their horse and cart. So this was never a Thomas Tomkins masterpiece, yet it has a kind of rustic honesty which we can’t help respecting and cherishing, even when it doesn’t go. And not just because of its family connections.
Not that we haven’t tried: We sent it away to a clock-maker once and he said it was ‘dry’ and oiled it. His cure didn’t last long and one of my brothers repeated the process when he was staying with us. It was the sort of thing he was good at and, removing the pendulum and weight, lifting the mechanism out of the case, removing the face and hands by pulling out various little metal pins, he cradled the gleaming brass mechanism in a cushion on the dining room table and then spent ages delicately touching all the bearings inside with a little paintbrush dipped in 3 in 1 oil.
That worked for a time as well, and after it had once again been playing up I eventually plucked up courage and made the effort to take it to bits myself and copy what he had done. I may even have done this a second time a few years later, but in the end I gave up and the poor old thing seemed to have fallen silent for good.
Until, that is, I did the most dreadful thing you can imagine – in a moment of wild irresponsibility I just lifted the top off the case and blasted aerosol WD40 into the movement from both sides.
To my utter shame this cowardly, lazy and sacrilegious act restored the clock immediately and completely to perfect health, which lasted at least as long as any of the previous attempts to do the job properly had done.
When we moved home three years ago we propped the clock carefully upright in our new hall (we found that old pennies were perfect for putting under the feet to make it vertical, in case you ever find that helpful) and once again had a few goes at getting it going. But in the end our patience flagged and we gave up the struggle and left it silent from then on.
Until this Christmas in fact. Which is why, with no further intervention at all, it seemed so strange that it ran properly for almost two weeks before reverting to its former eccentricity.
And now I have to tell you the shameful truth that since starting to write this little piece I decided to repeat the WD40 treatment. I absolutely soaked the whole mechanism until it was dripping. And once again, ever since, the clock is chiming all the right hours at exactly the right times.
S. Simms of Chipping Norton must be turning in his grave on every accurately signaled hour.
Naturally, this story raises all sorts of important philosophical points. For one thing, it reminds us how rare and precious it is these days to be able to actually see how something works. At least in theory, and when the reasons they don’t work, as here, are so deeply mysterious. It is the same when you take the front off a real piano and let the grandchildren see the hammers and the dampers and the chain of beautifully crafted intermediaries which follow from their pressing the ivory keys.
It would be quite worrying if a generation were to grow up who had no expectation that they might be able to understand how a thing works. And I think showing kids the insides of a ‘real’ clock does something to compensate for this.
And another thing – the modern world does have many wonderful innovations – like WD40 – which really are progress. Provided we use them wisely and try to understand what we are doing, they help us to combine the best of the old with the best of the new.