The Tale of the Town Hall Clock

I wrote this shortly after joining Local Government, in 2001….

The Tale of the Town Hall Clock

Once upon a time there was a town hall clock.  It was quite a famous clock because it kept very good time, and people for miles around liked to see it, and hear its chiming bells.  Lots of local people would depend on the clock to tell them the time, as they opened their shops, as they rushed to the railway station, and left the pub in time to see the football on telly.  The clock was important, and the man who wound the clock was proud of his job, and enjoyed it even though he had to climb 300 steps every day to wind it.

Once upon a time a few years later the clock had started to fall into disrepair.  Some of the cogs started to stick when they shouldn’t have, the face and hands got a bit dirty, the hammer on one of the bells got a bit sticky and so the chime got slightly out of tune and a chunk got knocked off the nice brickwork around the clock when it was hit by lightning one night.  To make matters worse,  the pendulum developed an interesting wobble.  As you can imagine, the clock wasn’t so good at keeping time any more, and people found they couldn’t depend on it so much.  The man who wound the clock still kept winding the clock, every day, but his tread on those 300 steps became a bit more weary.

Once upon a time a few years after that, the clock was in a very bad state.  The face of the clock was cracked, and the minute hand came loose one day and fell to the ground – they put it back but it was a bit dented.  The cogs got really dusty and dirty and started to grind against each other rather than neatly fitting together.  And the more they ground against each other, the less well they fit together and it got worse and worse.  Because of the friction in the mechanism, the man who wound the clock found that he had to wind the clock more often, so he had to climb those 300 steps twice a day.  The clock was very inaccurate now, and really didn’t look very good at all.  The man who wound the clock started to become ashamed.  Even though he was working even harder than he had before, and doing what he did as well as he could, the clock really wasn’t working.  Children would shout at him in the street “‘scuse me mister, have you got the time?!” and run away laughing.

One upon a time a little while later the people in the community decided that they wanted to do something about the clock, to fix it.  They realised that other town hall clocks were much better than theirs, and they really wanted to sort it out very quickly.  So they got some clock repair people in.  The thing is, although it wasn’t a very good clock, they did still need and use it, so the repair people were given the job of repairing it while it was still running.

And so one person started bending the top of the pendulum into shape, and another one started to replace the cogs – which was always tricky because swapping one cog for another in a moving clock  is very tricky.  A lot of people got their fingers nipped quite badly.  Other people started trying to straighten up the minute hand, while a builder let himself down from a rope to repair that nice surround.  It was chaos because all of the people got in each others’ way, and the man who wound the clock found himself constantly blocked as he climbed the 300 steps to the top with people and cogs and chime hammers coming up and down.  He was really unhappy – these people who were supposed to be helping were making it much much worse.  People started to laugh at the clock winder and he started to find it difficult to get to sleep, and his eyes got red and tired.

Once upon a time a while later it was still not getting better at the town hall clock.  All this running up and down stairs and getting in each others’ way wasn’t much fun for the repair people either, if you think about it.  Some people would laugh at them and say “are you still at it!” and other people would get angry with them and say that they must be very bad pendulum balancers, cog shifters and hand straighteners.  And the harder they tried to do their jobs really quickly the more they got in each others’ way.  They started to get angry with each other and started saying in the pub that the reason it was all so slow was because of the other ones.  Sometimes people believed one of these stories and sacked a hand straightener, or a face cleaner.  But even that didn’t make much difference because they had to find a new hand straightener or a new face cleaner, and it took them a long time to learn how the others worked, and so they got in the way a lot more than the old ones had done.  Some of the repair people quit because it was getting on their nerves, and went off to balance other peoples’ pendulums instead.  The clock winder was, by now, having to climb the stairs three times a day to wind the clock and it was really really hard work.  He started to get very crabby and some days he wouldn’t shave before setting off for work, even though he was usually meticulous about his appearance.

Then, one day the clock winder sat down on the seat opposite the town hall clock to catch his breath, and scratch his stubbly chin, before starting his climb of the 300 steps, and he saw all the people working away at the clock, bumping into each other and usually making things worse.  And he sat, and he thought.  And then he thought and he sat.  And he sat until his bottom ached and he thought until he felt his brain might start bleeding.

Just before tea-time he jumped up and shouted “STOP!!!!” as loud as he could (which was quite loud, actually).  All of the repair people stopped, and looked down at him, as he waved for them all to come down to the ground.

When they all got down he said to them.  “This is what we’re going to do.  All this getting in each others’ way is silly.  We’re going to do this very differently.  You’re not all going to work at once, that’s no good.”

But the local people who had gathered to hear what he had to say said “no, no, don’t be silly – that’ll take ages, and we’ve waited long enough, we must make these repair people work even harder.”  They kept on like this for a while until the clock winder had a headache.  Then he shouted (even louder than before) “SHUT UP!!”.  They all went quiet.

Then the clock winder said, ever so softly, “this is what we’re going to do….

Firstly, we’ve got to get the cogs in place.  The cogs are the heart of the machine, they are the most important part. Cog shifting is really fiddly, and we have to give the cog shifter enough room so that she doesn’t get her fingers nipped all the time.

Secondly,  we don’t have to have everyone else sitting around while she does that.  There are times when she’s cutting the cogs and calculating the ratios when the pendulum balancer can get in to the mechanism and adjust the oscillator nuts.  Because the pendulum is the next most important part of a clock, you see.

And we’ll carry on like that – we’ll give the person with the most fundamental job access to the mechanism, but carefully plan it so that whenever possible someone else can be doing something.  Then we’ll work through until we can start properly on the outside of the clock.”

But the local people began to grumble “but it’ll be ages before anyone can see that we’re working on our clock – all the stuff will be going on inside the tower, and people will just see this tatty clock with a bent minute hand”

“You’re right”, said the clock winder, “but you see although it might not look very good, the clock will actually be starting to tell the time better – people may not realise that because the improvements will be gradual, but the clock will actually be a better clock.”

The local people still grumbled, and so the clock winder said “well, okay, how about this: instead of the pendulum being the second job we do while the cog shifter isn’t busy, we’ll straighten out the minute hand instead, then do the pendulum afterwards.  It means it’ll be a bit longer before we’ve got really accurate time, but it will look like something we can proud of sooner”  The local people nodded at that and work began the very next day.

And for the first couple of days it was even worse!  All the repair people had to think a lot more and talk to each other a lot more.  The cog shifter had to become a lot more organised about how she did her work so that the minute hand straightener knew when to be around.  But after the next couple of days, when the repair people got used to it, it all started to get moving much better.

The repair people enjoyed themselves much more, and the clock winder could sometimes hear them singing as he climbed the 300 steps to the top.

Then one day, just as the clock was nearly completely fixed, the pendulum balancer came to the clock winder and said  “do you know, since the clock was made some people have invented a gearing device which means that we could run a crankshaft down the tower so that you could wind it from the bottom, instead of having to climb those 300 steps to the top.  I’ll put it in tomorrow – it’s the last thing we’ll do.”

The clockwinder was delighted, and all the local people were really happy, because they had a really lovely and very accurate clock, with hands that were as straight as straight could be.  And the clockwinder and the people kept a close eye on the clock in future, and when things started to go a bit wrong, they fixed it straight away, and kept the clock very clean, because they could all remember how bad it had been before.

The repair people did well too – everyone heard about how well they’d repaired this clock and they found lots of offers of work pouring in, and wherever they went they repaired the clocks using the method the clock winder had invented.

And the clockwinder slept really well, and the redness in his eyes went away, and he was really glad that he didn’t have to climb the 300 steps any more.  Although on nice days he still climbed to the top, where he would stand and look out over the town and the countryside, and all the people who were looking at the clock would see him there and wave, and he’d wave back.  And he smiled.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jess Crowe says:

    I like the parable Jonathan, really nice!

    However wouldn’t a more dystopian / realistic final step be that the repairers’ final bit of work was to invent an automatic winding mechanism so that the clock winder was no longer needed and was made redundant but the townspeople were happy because it cost them less to pay some of the repairers (possibly now in a spin-off social enterprise) a maintenance fee?

    Too cynical?


    1. jonathanflowers says:

      Well if we were taking it literally I suspect that the most articulate 50% of the townsfolk would say “I’m not paying taxes for that, I have a watch, and aspire that my children will afford a watch too”!


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