Broken clocks & zombie apocalypse

I have a thing about broken public clocks. I wrote a piece for The Big Issue about why I think they’re the first step on the way to social breakdown and chaos. Think Day of the Triffids when there’s no one to wind them anymore. The artist Alfie Dennen, who I interviewed, then invited me to help him wind the Caledonian Clock Tower in Islington. I’ve embedded video and photos in this post of the remarkable experience. Alfie and I both took part in a fascinating discussion on BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme which found, as a result of a Freedom of Information request, that a quarter of public clocks managed by the local councils who replied, are broken. Here’s the original column on why they matter. And special thanks to Alfie for letting me share the Victorian engineering marvel of the Cally Clock tower.

My once regular walk to work across London’s Waterloo Bridge took in a view of 2 great clocks: The Clock Tower, housing Big Ben – its faces often glowing through the fog of early mornings – and what was once known as Big Benzene – the art deco Shell Mex House clock that faces the River Thames. Built in 1931, its giant hands spread across the bare Portland stone, amplifying your anxiety if you’re going to be late. As I neared the office, the frozen hands on all too many historical pub clocks near Fleet Street, such as the Cittie of York, on High Holborn, felt like a personal insult to a district built on print deadlines.

In Paris guerrilla hacker-artists (UX for Urban eXperiment) tackled the national insult of the broken clock on the neo-classical Pantheon. Breaking in and working in secret for more than 2 years, the temple of the Enlightenment, where Parisians once flocked to see Foucault’s pendulum displayed, heard the chimes of the quarter hours rung out again in 2007. But to public shock, the humiliated authorities chose to stop the clock again, rather than admit their failure, even trying to sue the restorers.

Artist Alfie Dennen, (@alfie) started drawing attention to the number of stopped public clocks in London a few years ago, via the website, with a view to encouraging their repair. Change of owners, budget cuts and the loss of expertise all play a part. (Smiths of Derby are the best people to call in, it seems).

Dennen got cooperation from Islington Council to restart a much loved tower clock by Caledonian Park, and has now trained up a team of 8 volunteers to wind the mechanism, much to the delight of local residents.  Dennen’s initial mission was sociological. He wanted to protect them as part of our analogue history, but also for their symbolic bond between citizen and state. “My mother would say, “When I look at a public clock and it’s not working, I feel actively not cared for.””

But a public clock is more. It can seem a living machine – somehow tuned into the frequency of the universe, even if we know atomic clocks are now more accurate. Scaled up on public buildings, their power is formidable. And horology is at its heart, compatible with faith. The Augustan poet, Joseph Addison’s hymn “The spacious firmament on high” celebrates the “divine” clockwork of the universe.

A visit to the clock gallery at the British Museum in London is a transcendental experience. The mechanical peace of dozens of ticking devices from across the centuries immediately calms the spirit. Long pendulums swing against one wall, the renowned  16th century Augsburg golden galleon automaton, sits frustratingly still in its glass case. But the ebony Mostyn clock, made by the renowned 17th century clock maker Thomas Tompion shows not just hours and minutes but counts weeks for a year’s duration, using six wheel gear trains. A sector aperture at the top displays the days of the week, each with a figure personifying its ruling planet.

To be in their company is to realise the liberating power of time ticking on. At the time of my last visit to the gallery the abyss of the economic crisis was still opening up every day.  But time was indifferent to the collapse of banks or personal misery. Everything would pass.

Now I seek out pendulum clocks, like some people might seek out religious sites. Often hidden away in the back corners of public institutions, when found, their steady movement is a comfort. They are in tune with the rhythms of the universe whether you are there to see them or not. And they embody human endeavour and achievement in the intricacy of their gears and wheels.

Where the embarrassed custodians of the Pantheon chose to see only trespass and “vandalism” (though the judges threw out the case), the guerrilla repairers   saw a greater mission Their spokesman Lazar Klausmann told the Guardian in 2007: “The Latin quarter is where the concept of human rights came from. It’s the centre of everything. The Pantheon clock is in the middle of it. So it’s a bit like the clock at the centre of the world.”

The engineers sent in by the Pantheon bureaucrats to “restore” the clock to its broken state, refused to do more than disengage a wheel. UX went in not long after to “liberate” the part. They’re keeping it safe till a more enlightened regime wishes to bring the clock at the centre of the world back to life.

 All photos and video copyright Samira Ahmed taken at the Caledonian Clock Tower, July 2012 



About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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