Stealing pears. Stealing watermelons. Smoking cigarettes out behind the barn. Tying together someone’s little sister’s shoelaces. Throwing crabapples at old man Wozniak’s house. It just was what boys did when I was growing up, and whenever they decided to do it again, whatever “it” was, any old folks who happened to notice would shake their heads knowingly. “Sure enough,” they’d say. “One of these days those boys are going to get their clocks cleaned.”
I wasn’t sure what the expression meant, or why stealing watermelons should bring about a clock-cleaning. Living as I did in one of those cleanliness-equals-godliness households, a clean clock sounded pretty good to me. But no one ever suggested a girl could get her clock cleaned, so I didn’t give it much thought. Eventually, the boys grew up and the old folks dissolved into the mists of time and memory, taking the phrase with them. I hadn’t heard it spoken for years until last week, when Ralph arrived at my door and said, “Howdy, Ma’am. I’m Ralph, from Chappell Jordan. I’m here to clean your clock.”
The only difference between Ralph and the Old Folks is that Ralph meant it literally. The clock in question had belonged to my mom. As I sorted through her possessions after her death, I knew I would keep the grandmother clock she and Dad purchased in the late 1950s. Nicely-sized, with a walnut case and beautiful chimes, it had been built by a friend of my dad’s, a man obviously possessed of many talents. It ran for years without significant problems, although it did begin slowly to lose time and had to have its hands adjusted now and then.
It was a lovely addition to our home, and all of us enjoyed it. On the other hand, after Mom’s moves to Missouri and Texas, she never wanted it balanced and restarted. I argued the issue from time to time, but it was her clock and her decision to make. So it was that the clock took up residence in a Missouri living room and later a Texas dining room – elegant, attractive and sadly, utterly silent.
Shortly after moving it to my place, I called Chappell Jordan, one of the premiere clock repairers in Houston. Decades ago I lived an easy walk from their galleries, and often stopped in on the hour to enjoy the cacophonous chiming of dozens of clocks. What I knew was that Chappell Jordan had beautiful clocks and a good reputation. What I expected was a single appointment to set up the clock and teach me how to wind it. What I received was remarkably more.
It began with a promise that, in two weeks’ time, one of Chappell Jordan’s “clock guys” would show up to “evaluate the situation” and make recommendations. Ralph was that guy. He showed up precisely when scheduled, and he was an educator from the minute he stepped inside the door.
The first thing I learned is that I have a chain-driven, triple chime clock. Many clocks play only one chime (Westminster being most popular) but mine has a lever that lets me select among Westminster, Whittington and Winchester. Even better, I have an Urgos chime movement – German made and apparently very desirable.
Less desirable was the internal wear that had caused the clock to slow down. Over the years the bushings had become worn into ovals, and they were slipping on their pivots. The best solution was for Ralph to carry my clock’s innards to his shop, where he could “rebush” it, look for other signs of wear or burred metal and generally spiff it up for me.
When my clock came back, it had been cleaned within an inch of its pretty little life. Ralph reinstalled it, hung the weights, balanced the case, set the time and gave the pendulum a swing – it was, as they say, “on beat”, the tick and the tock perfectly spaced and rhythmic. (Ticking and tocking isn’t just for children, by the way. As another clock repair specialist likes to say, “If your clock doesn’t tick, I’ll tock to it”.)
With a few instructions on adjusting the pendulum, lifting the weights, setting the time and such, we were done. The only decision remaining was which chime to use, and that decision would be mine.
Clock chimes, I’ve learned, are far more than pretty, tranquil sounds. Each of the chimes reverberates with history. The Westminster Quarters, the tune most commonly used to mark quarter hours on a chiming clock, first were used in the University Church tower clock of St. Mary, Cambridge, England. In 1859, they were selected for the Victoria Clock Tower in London’s House of Parliament. After the four phrases are played on smaller bells, the hour is struck on the famous large bell,”Big Ben”.
Much older than Westminster, the Whittington Chimes rang in the Church of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, London, as early as the 1300s. Legend has it that a penniless boy, Dick Whittington (1354-1423) heard them as he ran away to escape his drudgery in a Dickensian house. The chimes seemed to say to him, “Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London Town!” On their advice he turned, returned and persisted in his labors until he became Lord Mayor of London Town and served three terms.
Many people around the world are as familiar with the “Bow Bells” of St. Mary-le-Bow as they are with Big Ben. For years, their sound has been a BBC interval signal for English-language broadcasts. Here, the BBC World Service is received in Germany from the Kranji Singapore relay, signing on in April of 2011 with the 1926 recording of the bells.
Clocks, of course, utilize the chime that Richard Whittington famously heard, rather than the Bow Bells. Here, a lovely Elliot Granddaughter clock chimes 6 o’clock in the Whittington way.
The chimes of Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire, England, have an interesting if somewhat sketchy history. Apparently the Norman conquerors weren’t any more fond of Saxon chimes than they were of the Saxons themselves. Walkelin, first Norman Bishop of Winchester and a kinsman of William the Conqueror, demolished and rebuilt the Winchester chimes in 1093. (For a wonderful tale of how Walkelin tricked William and became a noted clear-cutter of forests, click here.) The central tower containing the chimes fell in 1107, but it was rebuilt and still forms a substantial part of the present cathedral.
Interesting and pleasant as the Whittington and Winchester chimes may be, for now my chime of choice is Westminster. Resonant with personal history, bridging past and present, old and new in a truly remarkable way, it evokes my time in London and Liberia as surely as in my parental home, recalling a world where the simple chiming of a clock with a name – Big Ben – was enough to create a sense of “home”.
On the other hand, whether I choose Winchester, Whittington or Westminster, the regularity of the clock’s ticking, combined with the musicality of its chiming, seems to transform the very experience of time. In a silent house, emptied of television and other bits of modernity, an old-fashioned clock marks an old-fashioned time: a steady and companionable time, time marked out on a human scale, dependable and undemanding, flowing and spreading in eons and instants alike – a time capable of containing all the hours of our days.