Clock-Watching

Some time ago, I acquired a fascination with public clocks (as one does) and decided to undertake a comprehensive survey of said objects in Nottingham city centre, one of my aims being to see if it was possible to amble around town without a timepiece or a mobile phone and still be able to check the time if necessary, without undue inconvenience. If ever there was an easy way to make a rod for my own back, this was it. To give the project some focus, I decided to limit my temporal trampings to the area bounded by Maid Marian Way, Upper and Lower Parliament Street and Canal Street. I then proceeded, over a period of time and whenever the mood took me, to walk the streets of Nottingham, taking photographs of the clocks that I found and noting whether they were functional or not. Upon my return home, I would mark the streets that I had investigated in yellow highlighter on a photocopy of a map of the city centre (obtained from my trusty Nottingham A-Z), occasionally taking to the internet in an attempt to gather some information about the history and raison d’être of the clocks that I had encountered.

I sometimes felt a little conspicuous while wandering around the city centre, my gaze more-or-less constantly directed above ground level, pausing to take photographs every so often. It seems that the curious individual is often deemed an object of curiosity himself if he doesn’t conform to the prevailing modes of behaviour. In the city centre during the daytime this generally means activities such as consuming food, checking one’s mobile phone and hefting shopping bags from one retail emporium to the next. In this context, I stuck out like a sore thumb – an object of parochial suspicion.

With the project nearly at an end, my photocopied map a riot of yellow, a mere handful of minor thoroughfares yet to be traversed, I discovered that someone else had already had the same idea. A splendid blog called Clock This (‘A random look at public clocks in Britain, covering those on shops, public buildings, railway stations etc.’) had published online, between March and April 2013, a most impressive six-part survey of public clocks in Nottingham. I felt somewhat deflated, but also gratified that I was not the only individual who embarked upon such unusual (to the unimaginative, conditioned mind of Joe Public at any rate) ventures.

I despise the modern-day appropriation and regimentation of time, frequently used as a control mechanism and as a means of oppression. How objectionable it is to be a slave to the clock and to be chastised for arriving at the office two minutes late. Besides that, the ubiquity of time is a constant reminder that we will never be able to achieve all that we aspire to in our allotted slot. As John Burroughs said, ‘I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read and all the friends I want to see.’

One of Nottingham’s most impressive clocks, the Emett Clock (also known as the Time Fountain or, to give it its full name, the Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator), was, for many years, sited in a spacious location towards the front of the Victoria Centre – a fine spot for a fine object, and a convenient meeting place to boot, replete with a decent amount of seating for the infirm, the elderly, the harassed and the idle (let’s reclaim the latter term as a positive epithet, shall we?)

Following various almost certainly profit-led shenanigans, presumably accompanied by the grudging realisation that it would piss too many people off if they removed this wonderful artefact altogether, the proprietors of the Victoria Centre recently moved the Emett Clock to a far less spacious area, at the back of its premises, with the result that our tremendous Tintinnabulator is now marginalised, boxed-in and shorn of its sedentary possibilities. Oh well. At least the familiar baroque music (Gigue en Rondeau II, part of Suite in E Minor from Pièces de Clavessin by Jean-Philippe Rameau) is still as evocative as ever.

A second horological star of the Victoria Centre complex is the Nottingham Victoria station clock tower, one of a small number of visual reminders of the railway line that once ran through the site. It seems remarkable that the clock tower survived the demolition of the station. Perhaps there was a trend in the late 60s for preserving clock towers, echoed by the contemporary retention of old industrial chimneys. At any rate, the subject of railway architecture had presumably become more topical after the campaign by John Betjeman, et al to save St Pancras, which was given Grade I listed building status in 1967, the same year that Nottingham Victoria station was demolished.

Other curiosities abound. Take a walk up Victoria Street, for instance, and admire the Lewis & Grundy clock above the entrance to the Pit & Pendulum. The clock features two blacksmith figures (the premises were once occupied by an ironmongers) hovering over an anvil, one at each end. These figures were originally animated and would move as if to strike the anvil at each quarter hour, with accompanying sounds emanating from an inner mechanism. The Lewis & Grundy clock was built by Nottingham clockmakers G & F Cope & Co. Ltd, who were also responsible for the Council House clock.

As the need for public clocks has diminished over time, many of those that remain are either ignored or regarded as mere curios. Perhaps the more unlikely survivors, now out of context, their surroundings often having changed beyond all recognition over the years, can continue to play a part by reminding us of the transience of existence. As the Chinese proverb has it, ‘Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.’