Following Jon Day’s appearance as Country Mouse last month, Thomas Marks now takes to the streets of London as Town Mouse, eagerly watching clocks for the coming of summer.
The clocks change this month, and London shrugs off its dark winter. I have always loved that active verb, ‘change’, since it lets me imagine the clocks flickering into life, adjusting their own mechanisms before they retune the mood of the capital. Out of Mean Time comes the kind light of summer: the hour’s leap forward seems so enigmatic, when I hesitate over it, that it might just as well be some trick of natural magic. Each year, it draws my thoughts down the river to Greenwich, to the meridian line – and to the unfathomable way that time fans out from this city.
You’d think it cause for precision, being the place that the world sets its watch to. And yes, a version of this city scurries to keep up with itself, like an urban white rabbit: making its train, over-timing, flexi-timing, clocking in and clocking off. ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’, bellows T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, reminding us that even our leisure hours are often regulated, even regimented. I think of this when I pass the jagged Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square, ticking off the seconds until the Games begin. Its obsessive accuracy makes it look like it wants to bully time to speed up.
I know no city as dense with clocks as London; not only on stations, hotels, and public buildings, but projecting or protruding from old cafés and pubs, from curiosity shops and, like a black joke, from the funeral parlours we otherwise try not to notice. The more I clock all these everyday clocks, the more outlandish their timings prove to be: many are so wayward that they might as well record imaginary local time-zones, while others have stopped altogether.
On Upper Street alone, I count five clocks telling different stories. The clock tower of St Mary’s, Islington has broad dials on three faces: walking south, it steals a few minutes on passers-by, as if pressing them to scuttle onwards toward the heart of the city. But head-on or facing North, its stopped clocks show both a quarter past nine and just turned three – and since it could be morning or afternoon, they seem a warrant to slow down, to dawdle or drift into daydreams. It’s no surprise, when you think about it, that London’s most famous nursery rhyme finds a chattering imaginative life in the acoustic timekeeping of the city’s churches: ‘Oranges and lemons, / Say the bells of St Clement’s’.
Other clocks give me pause each time I glance up at them, their designs an invitation to linger. This is especially true on Euston Road, where the stocky yellow train-shed arches at King’s Cross abut the flighty Gothic fantasy of St Pancras. The St Pancras clock-faces, on their prominent tower, have elegant spirograph patterns; their geometric perfection seems at odds with the immense irregularity of the building. I admire this, but it’s the King’s Cross clock that makes me smile. The building is devoid of ornament, except for a perky Lombard-style clock turret. Three wavy strands of iron spread out from the centre of each of its dials. It looks like a clock with five hands – two straight and the others buckled. The clock may keep precise, railway time, but its design speaks of time’s magic.
Photo: King’s Cross clock tower by Mira66