Watches, Writing

When a watch tells more than the time

Watches, perhaps because they are so much more personal than almost any other artefact, have a knack of telling stories that bring the past vividly into the present. Here’s one of them…

In the gathering darkness of the evening of September 28th 1944, a group of six German Kampfschwimmer (military frogmen) slipped into the Waal river in Holland and began swimming silently towards the road and rail bridges at Nijmegen.

Bridge at Nijmegen

Their intention? To lay explosive charges under the main supports of the bridges – key strategic objectives on the way to Arnhem – and deny their use to the allied forces.
By 0600 they’d laid their charges under the bridges’ main supports and started navigating back to their lines. In another hour it would be daylight.

By 0630 they were confident they had made it back into German-held territory, and so swam towards the riverbank. But instead of being greeted by their own side, they found themselves surfacing under the noses of Sgt George Rowson and his men of the 43rd (Wessex) Reconnaissance Regiment. They’d swum the wrong way.

G H Rowson Reconnaissance Corps

Understandably, Sgt Rowson and his men were keen to ensure the next stop for the group of Kampfschwimmer was a prisoner of war camp, but only after (as was customary) they’d relieved them of their watches and any other spoils of war.

Rowson explained, “They were wearing these rubber suits and also each had a watch on one wrist and a compass on the other.” It’s likely the compasses that had led them astray were made by Panerai. The watches in question were the rather more reliable ref. 3646 diving models made by the same Italian manufacturer for the Decima Flottiglia MAS, or underwater unit of the Royal Italian Navy.

WW2 Panerai 1

Before the Allies liberated the city in 1944, German forces raided Panerai’s Florence workshops, taking many of the watches. The diving models were shipped to Venice, close to the Italian Maggiore Wolk’s kampfschwimmer training facility on San Giorgio in Alga before they were issued to individual divers.

And this one, in turn, now found its way from the wrist of its nameless German owner to Sgt Rowson’s.

As an early Panerai, Sgt Rowson’s new watch was powered by a ref. 618 Rolex movement, supplied by maker Cortebert. These were chunky, 16 ligne engines, beating at a relaxed 18,000bph and with 17 jewels. Relaxed, but still accurate, reliable and eminently regulatable, they had micro-adjustment screws on the balance and a power reserve of around 36 hours. Sufficient to still be ticking when you get captured because you’ve swum the wrong way, clearly.

WW2 Panerai 3

The watch needed to be large (47mm) so it could be legible in low underwater visibility, hence the clear, cutaway and luminous-filled numerals on the dial. Where a modern watch would use phosphorescent luminova, this Panerai uses radioluminescent radium.

Over time, the radium filling in the numerals has faded so as to be barely visible whereas the lume in the steel, blued hands is still much clearer and brighter.

WW2 Panerai 4

Logically, the 12-sided caseback and brevet-marked crown both screw down tightly to the case to make the watch waterproof. These early ref. 3646 casebacks seem to have hand-applied engine turning on the inside of the caseback, but only around the circumference. They’re still stamped “Rolex”, unlike the later models where Rolex markings were removed.

Sgt Rowson was clearly eager to ensure his new watch didn’t find another home by mistake. He carefully engraved the case back by hand with his full name, rank and the year he liberated the watch from its German owner.

Since leaving the bench, it’s been a well-travelled watch. Starting in Italy, the Panerai made its way (via the wrist of the unfortunate Kampfschwimmer) to Holland and thence to the UK and Nuneaton. After the war, Sgt Rowson passed the watch to his son who seems to have barely worn it.

WW2 Panerai 2

Now the family is selling their WWII heirloom. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly it doesn’t run anymore, the watch comes with its original broad leather strap. Even more unusually, it also comes with a fragment of its original owner’s rubber diving suit.

This isn’t the first ref. 3646 to turn up in interesting circumstances post-war, although it may be one of the most engagingly storied and best provenanced. In 2016, a Cheshire man found a ref. 3646 in a chest of drawers while he was clearing the contents of his late father’s house. He had no idea of its worth (his father had bought the watch at a car boot sale for £10 some years earlier) and casually strolled into a valuation day at a local saleroom with the watch in his pocket, thinking it might make as much as £500.
It sold for rather more.

Panerai watch documentation

Apparently, post-sale, the auctioneer needed to explain to him exactly how much his father’s car boot £10 Pam had made. ‘When I told the vendor afterwards it sold for £46,000 he thought I had said “£4,000 to £6,000” and had to repeat it three times before he believed me.” Rather better luck than that of a certain kampfschwimmer in 1944.

Birmingham-based auction house, Fellows, have put a rather conservative estimate of £30,000-£40,000 on Sgt Rowson’s watch. Given that there are few ref. 3646 models on the market and those there are carrying c.£70k prices, the hammer could easily fall somewhere north of £75,000.

WW2 Panerai 1Sgt Rowson’s watch may not work any more, but the history it comes with is unique and the story it tells is priceless.

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Musings, Writing

The irony – presenting school prizes

As well as the day job and a bit of scribbling about watches, I work with the splendid Speakers for Schools organisation.  In February ’17, John Marston, the headteacher at St. Birinus school in Didcot invited me to speak to some of his students.  I talked to them about how important it is to fail intelligently.  In October John asked me back to present the prizes and school colours – and give a speech – at the school awards evening.

The irony was far from lost on me.  I was a sod at school.  Not an endearing, cheeky chappie type sod but a nasty, difficult little sod.  My teachers would have been very glad Continue reading

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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 on the screen that’s significant, not the watch.

GshockWhy?

On 10 December last year, just before 10am, I was away with the fairies as surgeon Mr Tristan Barton, quite literally, screwed 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 NHS 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.  And, bluntly, the fact I could run at all.

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 last year with a huge amount of good humour, Caroline (world’s finest brownies) and her superb team at Bath’s RUH Casualty, the kind and patient Steve Laver, my anaesthetist, who is reassurance personified, Mr Tristan Barton for some damn fine surgery, physio 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.

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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.

 

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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.

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Writing

Cargoes. Updated.

Car goes.

British racing Jaguar from Surrey’s leafy verges,
Wafting home to pebbledash in sunny Haslemere,
With a cargo of brown envelopes,
And sherry and golf clubs,
Sandalwood aftershave and a crate of beer.

Gleaming blacked-out Bentley coming from the night club,
Growling through the avenues to a Mayfair mews,
With a cargo of blondes,
Brunettes, footy mates,
Gold Rolexes, paparazzi and a boot full of booze.

Thrusting little Audi with its foglights blazing,
Butting down the M6 to the sales away-day,
With a cargo of laptop,
iPhone, Boss suit,
PowerPoint, pointy shoes and bonus pay.

With profuse apology to John Masefield.

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Musings, Writing

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

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