Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

11 December 2009

Sixty Years of Wrist Watches

Today they give them away for coupons at petrol stations but sixty-two years ago a boy’s first wristwatch was not so easy to get; it was something coveted long and hard.

I bought my first one when I was fifteen. I’d started work on two pounds a week as a messenger boy around the West End of London. Two fresh notes from the Westminster Bank were handed to me weekly by the old dragon in the office (she was probably all of thirty years old) in a small, Dickinson ‘Seal-Easi’ brown paper envelope which, by order of my mother, I was forbidden to open. The pay packet would lie uncomfortably in the inside pocket of my Fifty Shilling Tailors tweedy sports jacket until I arrived home on Thursday evening, whereupon she would peel it open, stow the contents in her handbag, then give me six shillings - three florins - from which I had to pay for my bus fares to work (tuppence ha’penny from The Greyhound, Streatham to Baker Street) Woodbine Cigarettes and the odd Eccles cake from the ABC tearooms next to the bank.

I first saw the watch in a padlocked display case outside a shop on the corner of Oxford Street and Bond Street. It was silver (nickel-plated perhaps) with luminous green hands and Roman numerals on its rectangular face. Its brand was ‘Carbell’ (I’ve never heard of one since) and it cost exactly two pounds. I determined to have it and after some weeks of giving up smoking and of saving on buses by riding to work on my bike it became mine.

I was incredibly proud of it and acutely conscious of its weight on my arm. At first I couldn’t work out whether it should be above or below the bony bumps of my wrist but it soon found itself below, which was just as well because I contrived on all occasions to have my sleeve as short as possible in order for it to be on show. Several times a minute I would bring my arm around in a wide arc and study the watch’s hands, frowning importantly and hoping strangers would come up to me and ask the time.

I would correct it (rather too often now I come to think of it) by the wireless ‘pips’: I would study closely the minute hand to see whether I could detect its movement: and, at night, having fully wound it (taking care not to overdo it for fear of breaking the spring) I would expose the hands closely to the sixty-watt light bulb in the centre of my bedroom’s ceiling so that their luminescence would glow coldly (but quickly fading) under the bed clothes.

It was, of course, a cheap watch. But I had little conception of quality in those days; a watch was a watch, you either had one or you didn’t. Sadly its life was quite short. There were two things I wasn’t very familiar with when I was fifteen, one was having baths, the other wearing a wristwatch. The calamitous conjunction of those rareties occurred when I lowered myself into the bath with the watch still on my wrist and then saw, with horror, bubbles arising from around its flimsy case.

It never worked properly after that and I abandoned it. I can’t remember what happened to it. But like first love I’ve not forgotten it.

Affluence came upon me. My wages went up, my mother stopped robbing me. The day came when I could replace my Carbell.

This time I bought an ‘Oris’. I have no idea what it cost but I believe it had ‘brand values’ even in those days. Indeed, were I still to have it, it might be worth something as a minor classic. But it was undistinguished (or was I becoming urbane?). It sat thinly on my wrist, told quite reliable time, glowed weaker but longer than it predecessor. It also had a ‘sweep’ second hand which allowed me to set time exactly. The only obnoxious thing about it was its name which some of my so-called friends used to poke fun at … “ ‘ere comes ‘Orace with ‘is Oris” … that sort of thing.

Thereafter my wrist was graced by a series of unmemorable timepieces. I was never seduced by the doubtful cachet of status brands or those ostentatious baubles that hang like gilded bevelled cog-wheels from the hairy arms of the the nouveau gauche. All I desired was to know the time.

But now, at the back end of life, I own four watches, three of which spend most of their lives in a drawer. The first is the ‘Roamer’ self-winding day-and-date job which I bought at ‘mates rates’ thirty years ago from the manufacturers’ reps when I looked after their account as their advertising agency account executive. It still goes if I pick it up and wiggle it around for a while; in fact I recently had it serviced, literally for old time’s sake.

The second is a Japanese Seiko alarm watch. Of all of the watches I’ve owned this one will, I believe, one day be a collector’s item because it is a ‘Bellmatic’ model - a clockwork alarm. I bought it when alarm watches were rare, before quartz-chipped, battery-powered models became common. I wanted it for practical reasons; I am forgetful and I needed something to remind me of appointments. It’s a thick, stainless-steel piece whose alarm lasts for just a few seconds. But it’s so mechanically efficient that I can not only hear the bell clearly, I can actually feel the mechanism vibrating on my wrist. Mind you, I’ve never worn it near deep water; it’s so heavy that if I fell into the sea wearing it I would drown.

When my father died aged seventy-six in 1983 my mother asked me to help her sort out his few personal belongings. He was a simple man, a poor man, modest and completely non-materialistic. I was surprised, therefore, to discover that he owned a gold Bulova ‘Accutron’ watch.

‘I didn’t know dad had this.’ I said to my mother, holding it up, ‘I don’t recall ever seeing him with a watch on his wrist.’

‘Oh, he never wore it,’ she replied, ‘It’s just that all his life he’d wanted to own a good watch and he bought it with his redundancy pay from Cross and Blackwell.’

It’s a classic, much trumpeted in its day for its extreme accuracy which, it was claimed, came from the frequency of its built-in ‘tuning fork’: unlike those old-fashioned timepieces it didn’t tick, it hummed; it still does.

The Bulova, and an Omega ‘De Ville’ which was given to me for surviving twenty-five years in a company which I joined as a middle executive and ended up owning a fair share of mark the farthest up-market I’ve ever reached, clock-wise. They only come out on special occasions - funerals mostly these days - or when I’m going out politely.

But the watch which gives me the greatest satisfaction is the Japanese Casio I wear every day. It cost about $NZ80.00 which, I’m sure, is a relatively lesser sum than I paid for my Carbell in 1948. It demonstrates as well as any gadget could how far technology has come in half a century. Unlike my first watch, this new ‘state-of-the-art-leading-edge-Casio-‘Illuminator’-Data-Bank-Alarm-Chrono’ is phenomenally accurate; has digital as well as analogue displays either of which show hours, minutes and seconds; has a stop watch; an alarm that sounds for twenty seconds; facility to memorize twenty telephone numbers; gives the time in a score of world locations at the push of a button; goes ‘beep-beep’ on the hour every hour; is waterproof up to 50 metres, and has a light that I can switch on in the dark (I was never quite at ease with all that luminescence).

I can’t honestly imagine myself buying any more watches. These four will see me out. I think I’ll leave an instruction in my will that they’re to be buried with me: one on each wrist, one on each ankle. A sort of horological symmetry in the cemetery.



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By Don Donovan