Aged 20, I spent one of the formative years of my life in Germany. It was a year out from my university studies in German and French, when I was supposedly working as a language assistant in a German Realschule, and enjoying an immersive language experience.
What I ‘knew’, back then, was that I was going to be a writer. During those sometimes lonely months, I wrote two novels. The first, Hemlock, was set in an imaginary Mitteleuropa, in which the eponymous hero is fleeing from a vengeful nemesis, who is seeking to exact punishment for some monstrous, though accidental, injury. When she finally catches up with him, after many winding ways and sufferings, Hemlock learns to his horror that she has been dead all the time.
It wasn’t very good…
My second attempt, A Fractured Time, was a semi-autobiographical, stroke wishful-thinking, account of a young man who is going abroad for a year in the middle of his university course, leaving behind his girlfriend, the love of his life. Simon – was that his name? – feels that for this all-too-short period of his life he is free, but presently the System will take control of him and he will be trapped for the rest of his working life in a cycle of time-keeping daily drudgery of work. He will be a prisoner of, or in, time. But for this brief moment he is free, a freedom symbolised by the breaking of his wristwatch, the manacle which holds him in thrall to the tyranny of convention and normality. This summer, while he’s waiting for his watch to be mended, while he’s spending a last few weeks with his girlfriend before going away, is the time-out-of-time, the ‘fractured time’ of the title. It comes to an end… he goes away… but he has glimpsed the possibility that there exists Something Other than the slavery he longs to avoid.
The theme of Time continued to preoccupy me. I contemplated a third novel which was going to be about a young man who discovered the Meaning of Life. He is the son of an obsessive master clockmaker, whose clocks rule the lives of those who ‘own’ them, but the son is determined that he will escape from this tyranny of Time. I didn’t write more than the first chapter, because I realised that I didn’t have a convincing answer to the question of the Meaning of Life…
What is Time? It’s the element in which we part-fleshly, part-spiritual amphibians live, like a fish lives in water. Yet even St Augustine writes, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”
It was partly this reflection on Time and its meaning, that drew me to a spiritual search, and ultimately to faith in God. Years and years later, I’ve stopped worrying quite so much about Time. Time and eternity are mysteries I don’t want to hurt my head trying to understand, so I have learned simply to Let Be.
But a funny thing happened. My old wristwatch – which I’ve had for more years than I can remember – is getting a bit tired. And when I was in Ireland last week a pocket watch took my fancy and I bought it.
And suddenly I feel again that a wristwatch is a kind of a manacle. But a pocket watch is something else. It requires much more of an effort to take it out of your pocket and open it and look at it. So I find I’m not looking at it every few minutes, the way I must have been doing a lot of the time. I’m hoping this will mean I am not so much the slave to time, that Simon feared adult life would make him. Will this help me to live more in the present moment? learn how to measure the passing of time more accurately in my own mind and body and environment, like our ancestors did? simply find other ways of checking the time every few seconds, like knowing where there’s a clock in the room, or looking in the corner of my phone or computer screen?
I don’t know. I read that pocket watches have enjoyed a small revival in popularity, because of the appeal of steampunk. So perhaps that’s another new image, or hobby, or activity, for me to begin to explore?