Musings

Being Santa.

December 18th. Nick Whitelock sat at his desk by the window and looked out as the cold, winter rain tracked its way down the pane. “Sleet, more like.” he thought to himself. He was, as usual, the last one in the office. The rest of them would be in the Arms by now, backs to the log fire and pints in hand, an anticipatory celebration of the Christmas holidays.

He looked down as his phone buzzed.

“Nick Whitelock.” That was it. No greeting, no fuss. That was Nick.

“Nick – it’s Sarah from Field Cottage. Can’t talk long – but I’ve been let down and I’ve tried everyone else. Can you be village Santa for the switch-on tonight?”

Ashleigh was only a small village, two-and-a-half-thousand souls, but it had it’s own little supermarket, a proper butcher, a post office and, Continue reading

Advertisements
Standard
Musings, Writing

A year on

Oh, look – MMC’s posting pictures of watches again. Yes, it’s a rather nice GW-5000, the one with the proper screwdown back and metal inner case (G-Shock nerds only need apply). But it’s the time that’s significant, not the watch.

GshockWhy?

This time last year, I was away with the fairies as Mr Tristram Barton was, quite literally, screwing my leg back together after I’d bust it in three places. I’d rather stupidly fallen down some concrete steps near the Kennet & Avon canal just outside Bath.

As I was tucking into my post-surgery lunch (bloody good it was, too) I quietly set myself a challenge. This time next year, I decided, I’d run the 4.5 miles from the start of the Kennet & Avon at Sydney Gardens to the Dundas Viaduct at Monkton Combe – where I’d fallen.  As I could only ‘walk’ on crutches at the time and was going up and down stairs on my arse, I thought that was a decent enough goal.

Christmas and January were, with huge frustration, spent on crutches and trying to run a business from the sofa. I was out of plaster on February 16th and into physio on the 20th. My wonderful physio Rona signed me off on June 10th and I started running (ok, shambling like a sack of cats) again in mid July. Rather than being my usual baresark, know-it-all self, I did a proper couch to 5k plan and built up slowly.

By the end of August I was up to 5k again and the screws were still holding my leg on.  The NHS had done their usual fine job.  I was delighted that I could start running regularly again from the office; there’s a gorgeous route that goes along the Windrush valley.

So, early this morning (timed to match when I’d gone under the knife last year), the ever-patient Pip drove me to the start at the edge of Bath, wished me luck, implored me to be careful and not end up in the canal, and waved me off.

So in 3 degrees, hacking sleety rain and a river of mud I splashed off along a sodden canal towpath – and loved every minute of it. Apart from Pip, who appeared at the bridge over the canal in Bathampton to cheer me on, and a couple of other runners, I had the place to myself.

It’s a gorgeous run, even in the middle of winter.  Countryside, canal boats, brick-built bridges and the peace that comes from being alongside water.

Pip, ever indulgent, was waiting again in the hacking rain on the last bridge before Monkton Combe.  As I ran the final few yards towards her and the viaduct, you could probably have used my grin to power the national grid.

I know proper runners (and probably a few who’ve never run in their lives) would sneeze at my crappy 12 minute mile time.  But, given the mess I was in this time last year, I’m just pleased to have been able to do it at all.

I’ll be raising a glass this evening to John and Stewart, the paramedics who scraped me off the path with a huge amount of good humour, Caroline (world’s finest brownies) and her team at RUH Casualty, the kind and patient Steve Laver, my anaesthetist, who is reassurance personified, Mr Tristram Barton for some damn fine carpentry, Rona, my business partner James who acted as my unpaid driver to innumerable meetings when I was plastered and – of course – the utterly amazing Pip, who looked after me better than I deserved despite still being on crutches herself.

And, post-toast, I’ll be avoiding concrete steps.

Standard
Musings, Writing

Singing at Christmas

 

At this time of year, for me, as the temperature goes down and the decorations go up, there’s always a ‘Carols for Choirs’ shaped gap.

As a six year old boy treble and then as a young counter tenor and bass, the weeks from September onwards meant only one thing – Christmas.

The run up to Christmas Day was linked together with a paperchain of rehearsals, concerts, services and carols. Learning new music, and adding more pencil marks to the annually-distributed copies of Carols for Choirs as we polished well-sung, familiar arrangements.

Before the bright and church-rammed Christmas morning service, there was the far more magical Midnight mass. As trebles in a market town parish church that fancied itself a cathedral, with choral standards to match, each of us hoped we would be the one to have Stephen Cowley, our choirmaster, tap us on the shoulder as we lined up in the vestry to process in. That tap, and Mr Cowley’s calm words of encouragement, meant you’d be taking the treble solo in “Once in Royal David’s City”.

At the back of the darkened church, the chosen treble would get a simple three note ascending phrase from the organ and be expected to launch, on his own, into the first verse of the well-known carol.

With the inevitable nerves there was a good chance of going sharp. If the carol had been unaccompanied throughout, this would have been of little consequence. Only those with perfect pitch would, perhaps unseasonably, have winced a little. But, sadistically, the piece’s arranger, David Willcocks, had written the organ accompaniment to start at verse 2. If you’d strayed any more than a tinselswidth out of pitch it was both painful, public and obvious.

This was the worst of our fears until the tapped singer was the junior treble, Neville Poole. Neville was a whirlwind in a cassock and surplice. His voice was exceptional, but getting him to concentrate on one thing at a time was like crocheting butter. He was almost humming with anticipation and excitement by the time he’d reached the back of the church. It was Neville’s moment of glory. Only his brother, Nigel, who was Head Chorister, looked a little concerned. But I don’t think even he realised what was coming.

The choir arranged itself in an arc, facing the east end and the high altar. The organ played the quiet ascending introduction of D, F#, G and Neville took a breath and started singing. It was a few seconds before the choir realised that, rather than starting (as he should have) on the D, he’d kicked off on the G – a perfect fourth higher.

This would make things problematic for Stephen at the organ console as he’d need to transpose at sight for his verse two accompaniment. But this was easy by comparison with the task Neville had set himself, his fellow trebles – and the congregation. Rather than having to stroll up to a simple E in the second half of the verse, they’d now have to hurdle a rather higher clean top A when they reached “Mary was that mother mild.”

You could almost see the thought processes of the other trebles as they worked forward and realised they’d need to clear the high C in the last verse descant. Plenty of worried looks and mental warm-up stretches started.

This was going to be interesting.

Neville, meanwhile, sung on unaware of the chaos he was about to create. At least, he did until he reached “…in a manger for his bed”, the line just before Armageddon A, and realisation dawned. He and I were standing at opposite ends of the choir’s semicircle, so I was facing him when he realised he’d started squealingly too high. I imagine skydivers who find their main ‘chute has failed wear similar facial expressions as they hurtle towards the planet at 120mph.

But, Neville being Neville, he just went for it. The Christmas angels were clearly on his side that midnight. He hit his top A as though he’d meant it all along. The rest of us broke out the crampons and ice-axes and followed him up there on verse 2 and the last verse descant. The only members of the congregation who even attempted it were the small crowd who’d rolled out of the Blue Boar and poured themselves in just as the service started. Actually, they didn’t do a bad job.

But even mistakes became part of the choir’s Christmas traditions. A fine example was Darke’s setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Herbert White’s – a wonderful, natural tenor – solo. Even in his late 70s, he’d lean back against the choir stall and let his voice ring round the chancel’s vaulting as he soared up to “The ox and camel which adore.” Every year, without fail, he’d get the words wrong, singing “The ox and ass and camel we adore” until it would have, quite simply, been unthinkable for him to have sung them as Rossetti intended.

The year after Herbert died, I was touched beyond words to be asked to sing his solo. Of course, I made sure I sung the words just as he would have wanted.

In the weeks leading up to midnight mass we’d carol around the old people’s homes in the town. As a treble, I’d look forward to the apparently bottomless bags of sweets and sugary hot chocolate provided at each stop. When my voice broke and I sang with the back row, a nudge in the ribs and a passed hip flask as I paged through ‘Carols for Choirs” to find the next piece meant I finally felt one of the Gentlemen of the Choir.

As we walked, increasingly unsteadily, between each home, we’d launch a few verses mistily into the freezing air, just for the hell of it. We’d swap parts and laughter as basses falsettoed their way up to treble descants. We often found our way into one or two pubs along the way too, replacing their comfortably beery background hum with a verse or two of “Hark the Herald” or “We Three Kings”, with the regulars joining in with “Ohhhhhhhhhhh starofwonder…”

Later, singing with my school’s chamber choir, I remember a candle-lit carol service at Holy Trinity, Dilton Marsh, a village between Frome and Westbury. It was our wonderful choirmaster, Garry Jones’ home patch, so we were determined to do him proud. We sang one to a part, and in Britten’s “Hymn to the Virgin” I exalted in the unity, control and freedom that singing in small choirs gives. Gratia divina.

The next year, we sang at the cathedral in Wells. I found myself in the darkened chancel, desperately trying to stop the lit taper I was holding from betraying my nerves. I was to sing the unaccompanied, baritone solo from Vaughan Williams “The Truth From Above” at the start of the service as the whole packed cathedral was in darkness.

I’d rehearsed until, had it been any lesser composer than RVW, I’d have hated the piece. But, as I held the tuning fork that gave me my note to my ear and began the first line, “This is the truth sent from above…” any apprehension dissolved against the glory of Wells’ soaring acoustics. A donkey would have sounded good under that roof. I still remember the kind words of a lady from the congregation as I left the cathedral. “I hope the next time I hear you, young man, it will be on Radio 3.” That would have been wonderful indeed, but not to be.

By contrast, I’d often cycle from St John’s to St. Katherine’s, a tiny village church in East Woodlands, a few miles away. They were short of men, so any reinforcements to the back row were welcome. Just after my voice broke, I sang my first Christmas morning service there as a newly minted bass. In fact, the only bass and with a packed church.

I slung my bike against a gravestone and just about squeaked in on time to find the music in my stall included Willcocks’ arrangement of “Away in a manger”. Easy enough, I assumed, flicking ahead to the next page of music. Until we started singing and I reached the semiquaver runs in “The stars in the bright sky” and nearly had kittens as I attempted to sight read my way through it. I learned two things – it wasn’t half as difficult as it looked and to read through the music before I started singing.

But, every year, the pattern was the same. Christmas began as the school term started, with unfamiliar, new carols and culminated on Christmas morning with the last, ever-familiar chords of “Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning” underscored with the 16ft pedal reeds of the ancient Norman and Beard organ as we processed out of the chancel’s polished brass gates to Christmas dinners and presents.

Even though I sang my last Christmas service in Frome twenty eight years ago, I still miss it.

 

Standard
Driving, Musings

Charging ahead or still on the grid?

Electric cars need to be plugged in every now and then. But what do you do if you haven’t got a driveway?

As the countryside around Bampton fills with huge new housing estates and commuters, even the lanes that lead to major routes are rammed in rush hour. Traffic on the A40 is moving so slowly that the County Council are rumoured to be considering parking meters.  We could do with the railway back again (we even used to have a station – fancy!), but there’s little chance of resurrection.

Witney_ A40_ RTA

The A40 from Witney-Oxford. Image from The Oxford Mail

And car pollution is back on the agenda.  Specifically diesel pollution from private cars. Politicians seem to think this is different diesel than the stuff used in domestic heating, lorries, trains, buses (peace be upon them) and taxis.  

Their response is as predictable as it is tedious; they’re wading in with a big tax-and-bannit stick.  The diesel car on your drive is now worth around 30% less and, if you live in the countryside, the alternatives are thin on the ground. 

So you might be thinking about an electric car.  And why not?  They’re green (at the point of use), they’re cheap, there’s no tax on them (yet) and, if you get the right one, they go like hot tar off a shiny chrome shovel.  That’s an attractive proposition.  Perhaps it’s time to convert?

If you live in a town, you might have a handy charging point nearby.  There’s an excellent project in Oxford – Go Ultra Low Oxford, for example. But what about people who decide to trade their conventional motors for a new electric car and park on the street, particularly out in rural areas?  

This is the practical problem I’ve recently tried to solve.

Of course, there’s an easy and simple route. Just run a wire from the house, across the pavement under one of those little plastic cable covers, to the road.  

electric car charging

With thanks to http://www.transitionblackisle.org/

But that sort of thing would fill County Hall’s offices with litters of Health & Safety kittens.  And there’s little point spending a stack of money on a new electric car only to find that someone spots the wire and bans me from charging it.  And my neighbours are lovely – I don’t want them having to lug prams and their bins over a semi-permanent pavement speed bump.

But surely someone’s thought about the thousands of people who aren’t fortunate enough to have a parking space or a driveway?

For once I decided to play by the rules and find out.  But that’d be a cinch – right?  After all, the Government are behind electric cars, so getting information and help in a county as pro-green as Oxfordshire should be easy.  

I start on the web.  There are grants for electric car charging points as well as electric cars themselves.  If you fancy a look – cars are here:  https://www.gov.uk/plug-in-car-van-grants and https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/government-grants-for-low-emission-vehicles for charging.  But these aren’t for on-street charging points, they’re for off-street charging for people with driveways.

That was no good to me, so I began by searching the County Council website (as the .gov website suggested I did) about how to get on-street charging points installed.  There’d surely be a whole library of helpful information.

Nope.  There was a slightly hair-shirted and miserablist page that said unless I was driving at least 50,000 miles I should consider a small petrol or diesel car.  I remember when the council’s transport supremo drove a rather smart, large-calibre Jaguar saloon, so this advice raised a wry smile and thoughts of Zil Lanes.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 08.38.47

From Oxfordshire County Council’s website

The page went on to suggest I contact a third party charging point installer for more information.  It also advised that I lift share (anyone fancy sharing to my meeting at Tower Bridge at 5am at short notice? Thought not), use a taxi, a bus or just not go anywhere.

This is what Chargemaster, who make and instal charging points, say in their terms and conditions:

You also confirm that there is garage or other suitable private off street parking within your premises, compliant to the conditions set by OLEV, allowing you to charge your vehicle safely and without creating a trip or other health and safety risk to yourself or any other party, with modern household electrics. Full eligibility conditions that can be found on the OLEV website on: http://www.gov.uk/olev.

So I gave them a call to check and to see if they could help.  Nope.  They were as helpful as anyone could be, but they can’t instal a charging point if you’re going to run a cable across a pavement.  They’d sell me a charging point but I’d need to find my own electrician to install it at my own risk.  They also said I should call the council.

Round One to Kafka.

Surely it couldn’t be this hard?

Before I picked up the phone again, I looked elsewhere on the County Council’s website to make sure I’d not missed anything. Nothing on electric cars.  Only the page above.  It was almost impossible to find a phone number for anything except paying parking fines, so I tracked down one for a completely unrelated department and gave them a call, hoping they’d point me right.

The lady I spoke to was as helpful as she could be and put me on hold while she asked her colleagues.  Apparently the chap I needed to speak to was the Network and Street Coordinator.  She couldn’t reach him, so asked me to send an email for his attention.

I did as I was asked, but somehow the email ended up in Council’s system for reporting potholes so they can ignore them.

Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 12.38.38

Pothole or electric car? Seems like OCC doesn’t know.

Round Two to Kafka.

It seemed I had fallen into the Pit of Careless Disregard that is in the basement of so many local authorities.

But I was determined to claw my way out.  More Googling sent me to the Air Quality team at Oxford City Council.  The very helpful officer there (no – seriously) said she wasn’t able to do very much as (logically) Oxford City Council just look after the City not the county.  Had I tried the County Council?

Round Three to Kafka.

Next, I tried our local team at the ever-helpful West Oxfordshire District Council. 

“Hi – I’m trying to find a way to run an electric car out here in Bampton. My house doesn’t have off-street parking, so I park on the road. Is there any way I can charge an electric car on-street?”

The reply from Wood Green was courteous, but sent me straight back to the County Council:

“Thank you for your email, can I please ask you to forward the details through to Oxfordshire County Council’s Highways department in the first instance?”

So I did.  And waited for the reply.  And waited.  In fact, I’m, still waiting.

I explained I’d already tried this route a couple of times.

They said they’d talk to the local Parking Team to see if they could give me some advice.  I couldn’t work out why the Parking Team were the source of all wisdom on car charging points, but I am not wise in the ways of local government.  So, more waiting.  It seemed sensible as I had no desire to pick up a ticket for charging my leccy car.

They didn’t hang about with a reply – within the week my in-box went ping:

“Thank you for your enquiry relating to installation of an electrical vehicle charging point in Bampton.Whilst there are grants available West Oxfordshire District Council, (WODC) does not have the resource capacity at present to make the necessary arrangements and installation of a charge point.

WODC would need to get permission from OCC as the highway authority.

There would be an on-going cost/resource implication relating to insurance, who would be responsible for maintenance, who pays for the electricity and who has overall responsibility.

It is unfortunate that OCC also appear not to have the resource capacity to deal with this which is why I suspect your query was passed back to us.”

No kidding, Katy.

The officer clearly wanted to help but was trying to claw her way out from a Sleeping Beauty-style thicket of red tape.  All I wanted to do was charge a car – something government wants me to do – yet everyone seemed keener on reasons why I couldn’t.  

Round Four to… oh, you know by now.

It felt like no-one had thought someone in a village would want to own and charge an electric car.  No-one had got a group around a table from each of the authorities and said “OK, these electric car things are going to be big. Let’s find a way to help people in rural areas charge them and hey, I bet some of them haven’t got driveways.”  Instead, I was passed from council to council, authority to authority, none of whom seemed to have thought people might want to charge a car at the roadside.

Individually, as ever, everyone at the councils I spoke to were terrific – helpful, kind, trying their damndest – but the structure they worked within tied them down.

And here – for the moment – my ideas, time and, bluntly, the will to live, have run out.  I’ve given up on the idea of an electric car, simply because I have no idea how I can find a way to charge it legally and safely.  And no-one seems to be able – or know how to – help. 

5474cbe3b5779_-_mercedes-benz500e-mbmedia

With thanks to http://www.roadandtrack.com/

So instead, I’ve done what Mr Gove told me to do and sold my old, economical, reliable diesel that did 50mpg – at a huge loss.  To replace it, I’ve followed that County Councillor’s example and bought a large, comfortable petrol car.  It’s an old V8 Merc that will hit 60 from 0 in under 6 seconds and does 26mpg but is still Euro IV compliant.  Ironically, that makes it exempt from the new London Toxicity Charge.  

After all, if you can’t beat ‘em…

UPDATE… August 18th 2017

I’ve just had a note from one of the Communities Team at Oxfordshire County Council about plans for charging points in Oxford City:

We will trial 6 different solutions over 39 bays which provide residents with a means to charge their ULEV car at or near to their home over 12 months. The long term aim of the project is to find a solution, or range of solutions which can be rolled out at volume across the city.

As yet we have no plans to expand the trial to the rural areas, but I am confident this will be a consideration going forward.

Sounds good.  There’s certainly a demand in central Oxford – and a growing one out here.

And I also heard from another OCC officer who proffered a superb, helpful real-world reply.  The long and short of it was “I can’t give you permission to run a cable across the pavement. And even if I could, you’d need the sort of public liability insurance that would make a supertanker owner sweat. But if you do decide to charge a car that way and no-one complains, we’ll not take action.

Maybe the V8 Beast’s days are numbered after all.

 

Standard
Musings

Driving from the back seat.

I’ve not worked as an advertising copywriter since June 2013.  I’m rather relieved about this.  A recent Twitter post about difficult clients reminded me why, so I dredged this out of my ‘drafts’ folder.  It’s a piece I wrote in March 2008 to try and illustrate why the traditional client/agency relationship in advertising was (and still is) screwed.

Imagine the scene…

Opens on a smart, glass-walled City lawyer’s office. Two people sit facing each other over a meeting table. They are lawyer and client.

Lawyer: “Now, Mr Client. Here’s the contract for the transaction. We’ve spent the last week working on it and it’s pretty much perfect. You’ll get the company, the buildings and the staff. They get £3.5m over five years, that’s what we agreed.”

Client: “Thanks – that’s great Mr Lawyer. Where do I sign?”

Now. Imagine another scene…

Opens on a smart, glass-walled advertising agency’s office. Two people sit facing each other over a meeting table. They are copywriter and client.

Designer: “Now, Mr Client. Here’s the copy and design for this year’s press ad campaign. We’ve spent the last week on it, tested it with customers and it’s pretty much perfect. You’ll get…”

Client (interrupting): “I don’t like green.”

Copywriter: “Sorry?”

Client: “I don’t like green. And we need a bigger picture of the product. And the copy isn’t ‘salesy’ enough. And… AAARRGGHHH!!!”

SFX: Agency bludgeoning client to death with a cafetiere.

Cafetiere

I have seriously though about introducing a £50 fine for each time a client says “I don’t like it.” I don’t actually CARE whether clients like or dislike the work we do (although it’s personally flattering when they do – which is very dangerous indeed).

What I care about is whether or not our work sells for our clients. I care whether or not it’s appropriate to the target market. I care whether or not it gets their message over clearly, simply and effectively. But I don’t give a stuff whether they like it or not.

Why?

Not because I’m an arrogant, stroppy ‘creative’, (not always, anyway) but because I give a damn about my clients’ work and its effectiveness. We spend all our time thinking about the people who buy from our clients, reading what they read, understanding how they think and use websites, printed material and ads. I’d like to think that, after (blimey!) nearly twenty years we’re OK at it.

Casual comments like the famous ‘make the logo bigger’ entail rather more than casual amounts of work; they’ll mean re-work and more work.  Vague requests like ‘can’t you make it a bit punchier?’ guarantee it.

Comments range from the reasoned and justified (“that ‘phone number’s wrong, you prune”) to the bizarre.  My all-time favourite was the client (now a senior at a high-street restaurant chain) who once told me to redraft a piece of writing completely because “I don’t like words that end in the letter Y.”

We don’t have a codified set of principles to fall back on in the same way lawyers can. The only way either of us is proved right is through the sales figures.  So I can’t prove to my mythical client that ‘punchy, salesy copy’ is about as appealing as being cornered at a party by someone who talks solidly about themselves unless they’ll let me test it against something that sounds like a human wrote it.

And, sadly, most clients don’t test.  They often don’t have time.  Sometimes it’s just too much bother in the JFDI, short deadline world of corporate marketing and advertising.  Instead, we plough on – one opinion butting against another.

And, slowly, as their work gets pecked to death, plenty of scribblers and designers stop giving a toss.  The expertise they’ve spent years researching, learning and testing to develop counts for very little against the determined onslaught of arbitrary but bill-paying opinion.

Clients get poorer work because of it too. This death-by-a-thousand-opinions approach creates a pecking cycle of work-amend-work until what started out as a sound Shire horse ends up as a three-legged donkey.

And, as people who see ads, we end up with poorer ads that, ironically, don’t sell. Because it’s not about the writer or the client being right – it’s about the customer buying something that keeps us all in business.

Standard
Musings, Watches

The 241 year old pendulum clock that’s more accurate than your watch

241 years ago today, John Harrison, one of Britain’s finest clockmakers died.  He left behind designs for a clock that makes the accuracy of that quartz watch on your wrist look pretty average.

Harrison

John Harrison (thanks to http://www.inverse.com)

Chances are, your quartz will be be reasonably sharp.  Probably just +/- 15 seconds a month.  Not shabby, given the low price of a mainstream quartz.  If you have a modern mechanical watch, +/- 15 seconds a day would be normal.  Still impressive, particularly with a balance wheel inside that has to revolve nearly 700,000 times each day.

But how about John Harrison’s pendulum clock built from a set of 241 year old plans? How long would it take to gain or lose a second?  Just to make the question more interesting, imagine it was designed by a man who’d started life as a rural carpenter who made his first clock out of wood.  Then imagine he’d decided not to lubricate the mechanism either.

How accurate would a clock like that be over 100 days?

This is Clock B, made by clockmaker Martin Burgess from John Harrison’s pendulum clock theory. Harrison was the eighteenth century English clockmaker who should have won the Admiralty’s Longitude Prize and pretty much invented the accurate marine timekeeper.  In January this year Clock B finally vindicated its designer’s 1774 claim that he could design a pendulum timepiece that was accurate to within a second over 100 days.

Harrison was living proof that you need more than talent to get on in life.  He endured knockback after knockback throughout his 63 year career.  The British Admiralty picked fault with each of his chronometers. Rivals criticised his work and publicly undermined him.  And his final assertions that his pendulum clock with his own grasshopper escapement could be accurate to a second in a hundred days were met with derision.

Harrison's H5 Chronometer

Harrison’s H5 marine chronometer

Little wonder that his snappily titled final work, “A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or True mensuration of time”, was so bitter. Later clockmakers referred to it as “…the ramblings of superannuated dotage.”

Two things in Harrison’s background seem to have combined to make him a remarkable and innovative clockmaker.  First, he was – in effect – a natural materials scientist.  He’s often portrayed as ‘just’ a rural carpenter, but that understates his affinity for, and experience with, the materials he used.

Rory McEvoy, Curator of Horology at Greenwich and a Harrison expert, explains, “Take the way he used metals in H3, his third marine chronometer.  The brass gear wheels in the movement are wide and very lightly made, yet they’re perfectly true. If you or I tried to produce wheels like that, with the inherent tensions within an untreated sheet of brass, we’d end up with something shaped like a crisp.”

Not only this, but Harrison instinctively understood the need to reduce – and even remove – lubricants from clock mechanisms.   As McEvoy explains, “Oil was the Achilles heel of any clock or watch. Harrison did away with lubrication altogether in his pendulum clocks and large timekeepers.”  Modern watchmakers are still trying to find ways to do this.

Second, he was self-taught.  That meant that he was able to think outside contemporary clockmaking practice.  As McEvoy explains it, “Harrison came at things from a different angle, almost from first principles.  He wasn’t indoctrinated with current watchmaking ideas.”

It was this fresh thinking that led to the plans for Clock A, an ultra-accurate pendulum clock, being realised by clockmaker Martin Burgess.

Burgess B clock

The escapement of Harrison’s B clock

Clock A was commissioned from Burgess in 1975 by the Gurney family, a Norwich banking family.  Completed in 1987 (proving you can’t rush good clockmaking) they gave the clock as a gift to the city of Norwich where it ticked happily in a local shopping centre, the Castle Mall, until it was removed in 2015.  Burgess had also started another Harrison pendulum clock, Clock B, but not finished it.  The parts for the clock gathered dust on a shelf in Burgess’ workshop until 1993.

In 1993, he delivered a paper at a Harvard horology symposium where he talked about the ‘scandalous neglect’ of Harrison’s work in pendulum clock innovation – and, crucially, mentioned Clock B.  Art historian and clock collector Donald Saff read the paper, tracked him down and persuaded him to sell him the unassembled and unfinished Clock B.  Saff then commissioned English clockmaker Charles Frodsham to complete the project.

Once the clock was completed in 2014, it attracted the sort of attention from horologists that premier league footballers would be familiar with.  They began studying the clock in March 2014 and how it worked…

It quickly became clear that Clock B was something very special indeed. McEvoy continues, “We looked at the behaviour of Clock B very deeply, and we found that any fluctuations in its timekeeping were cyclical.  In other words, they weren’t a problem because they were wholly predictable.”  So although the clock’s timekeeping varied by a few fractions of a second, in effect, it evened itself out.

Finally, to determine whether Harrison’s words were indeed “…the symptoms of insanity” as The London Review of English and Foreign Literature suggested, Clock B was sealed in a perspex case in January 2014 and trialled for 100 days.  

To ensure there was no horological tinkering, the National Physical Laboratory and Worshipful Company of Clockmakers oversaw the trials.  At the start, Harrison’s B clock was running a quarter second behind GMT.  After 100 days of running, it was a mere 5/8ths of a second behind.

Harrison B clock 1

Harrison’s B clock – thanks to http://www.rmg.co.uk

Guinness World Records have confirmed Clock B as the “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.”  But that bald description understates the achievements of both Harrison and Burgess.  This is a clock that is so accurate, its curator was able to measure the impact of barometric pressure on its going. “As the barometer moved up, so the clock slowed down with air density,” explains Rory McEvoy. ‘When we adjusted the clock to take barometric pressure into account, it was 96% accurate.  On most clocks, you wouldn’t even notice the error, let alone be able to correct it.  We don’t see this sort of accuracy until at least 150 years after Harrison’s death.”

You’d think that with pin-sharp accuracy like this,  Clock B would be a horological prima donna, throwing timekeeping tantrums if it was stopped or started.  But not so, says McEvoy, “Once it’s adjusted, Clock B is remarkably stable.  You can stop and start it without any problems.”   

So why did Harrison do it?  Why did he persist until almost the day he died in developing, defending and promoting pendulum clocks?  He had a vision that, one day, every port would have a public pendulum clock, accurate to within fractions of a second, for mariners to set their marine chronometers by.  This would mean they were able to calculate their position at sea to within a few nautical miles, thus missing shoals, sandbanks and rocks.  Harrison realised that accurate timekeeping wasn’t just a theory, it was a lifesaving practice.

So, today, the 24th of March, raise a glass to Mr Harrison’s 241st anniversary.  A remarkable man very much ahead of his time.  This year, take a trip to Greenwich and take a look at Harrison’s other remarkable marine chronometers – it’s well worth the visit.

Standard
Watches, Writing

Happy Birthday, M. Breguet

Today will pass in most people’s diaries with never a thought for the man behind so many elements of the watch on their wrist.  Abraham Louis Breguet was born 270 years ago today in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

Automatic winding, tourbillons, gong-repeaters, more accurate escapements, better hairsprings, shock-absorbing escapements, lubrication-free escapements… Breguet was responsible for either inventing or significantly improving them all.

Yet, for a man who brought such ordered beauty to watchmaking, he lived and worked through some of the most chaotic and ugly times in European history.

Imagine. It’s the 1780s, you’re a French watchmaker and your work is not only being bought by Marie Antoinette but the titled and wealthy glitterati of the day. Even better, the French Queen is – in modern parlance – your brand ambassador, telling anyone who’ll listen that you’re the finest watchmaker in France, if not the world.

Cut to May 5 1789 and the start of the French Revolution. Proof, if ever it was needed, that celebrity endorsement can end up being rather more of a burden than a boost.

Welcome to Breguet’s turbulent life. As watchmaker to the rich, royal and famous, hanging around in revolutionary France was likely to cut Breguet’s career short in more ways than one. Being both smart and commercial, he packed his tools and headed home to Switzerland.

And that’s where he conceived the idea of his single-handed Souscription watch. It was a perfect idea commercially, horologically and democratically. Anyone could make a down-payment (a souscription) for their watch which allowed Breguet to keep his cashflow running and start making it.

souscription-1

Breguet’s Souscription No. 580 from 1800. Image from http://www.artcurial.com

The watches were simple (by Breguet’s standards), and were designed to be repaired by any watchmaker. You’d set the single hand with your finger or a sliver of wood and wind it through the hand’s centre. That’s because the barrel is in the middle of the watch with the balance and second wheel engineered symmetrically around it. No need for friction-generating motion work either. Genius.

You could even have your Souscription fitted with Breguet’s montre à tact system that allowed you to feel – rather than see – the time by touching tiny protrusions from the watch case.

62mm of simple, classical gorgeousness with so much history inside the case there’s barely room for that beautiful movement. The only thing better than owning one would be the chance to have met the man whose workshop made it.

Happy 270th birthday, M. Breguet.

Standard
Watches

Rare vintage watch turns up in auction.

They always say ‘never meet your heroes’. The same often applies in Watchworld. That gorgeous IWC Portofino you thought was the pinnacle of refinement and gorgeousness turns out to look like an oversized Christmas chocolate coin on your wrist.

But sometimes it works out. Continue reading

Standard