The authority of the clock

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[1348 AD] … word had reached them yesterday, spreading fast through the countryside, that a machine to count the hours had come to Shaftesbury to be put in the church and anyone could go to see it …

… It took them half the morning to get there and for the last quarter of the journey they could hear a bell, growing steadily stronger, ringing first once, then after they had gone perhaps another mile twice more, then three times as they approached. It was set up on a wooden frame outside the Abbey, on display, waiting to be lifted up to the platform now being built inside the tower …

‘It is ten hours in the morning,’ shouted the man, ‘by the precise authority of the clock,’ and a burst of cheering went up. Ferney suddenly turned away. ‘Let’s leave,’ he said, ‘I’m thirsty.’ He sounded unhappy …

James Long
Ferney (extracts)

Further to my musings yesterday about time and timelessness, I return, as so often before, to one of the most moving reflections I’ve ever read about ‘the precise authority of the clock.’ James Long’s glorious ‘Ferney’ is a novel about love, and about time, on many levels and through generations. Here (around 1348, so far as Ferney can recall), crowds walked miles to see the new ‘machine to count the hours’ that was about to be installed in the tower at Shaftesbury Abbey. Deeply fascinating a sight on one level, yet Ferney and his companion Gally soon enter into deep and concerned conversation about the very reshaping of our humanity that the clock would chime into existence. Ferney was not happy – not at all taken with the idea of a machine’s having ‘precise authority,’ and – with the prophetic perception of the seer – detailed for Gally why. For this little (and I think, very worthwhile) contemplation alone, I cannot recommend Long’s 1998 novel highly enough. And there’s more in it. Much, much more.

2 thoughts on “The authority of the clock

  1. You have well and truly piqued my interest, Simon. Going to check this out. I fear we have all become slaves to time and schedules in some form or fashion. Some of my happiest days are those that stretch before me with not a single obligation in sight, but rather just the rhythm of the moment. Wishing you just such a day….💕

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