Quintessentially English

Time waits for no one, but one thing it doesn't alter is the British fascination with all that is utterly naff.
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The Independent Culture
In a provincial clock shop, time accumulates like silt. You'd have thought that nowhere could be more up to the minute, even if not all the clocks told the right time; all march in synchronisation, sweeping along, rhythmic and unstoppable, like the distinct blades of an enormous harvesting machine.

And in some moments, time does appear like that: when a relative of mine learnt he was dying, the only concession he made to his new state was to develop a terrible fear of clocks. He continued, so far as he could, to live the same life, to the same rhythm, it had had for years: he went to the pub whenever he was sober, and returned home when he was drunk. But on every mantelpiece he could reach, he turned the clocks to face the wall.

Everyday time is not like that. We keep it safely girdled in clock faces, and cased in brass or steel. This means that any clock is essentially frozen in the moment when it was made, in a time that is measured as humans measure time, in associations and memories.

And so, in the shop where I had gone to buy a cheap alarm clock, I found myself plunged back 40 or 50 years. Stacked on the walls, waiting - how many years? - for buyers, were those tall wooden barometer sets, with a clock and a thermometer built in, otherwise seen only in homes last furnished in 1939. There was a small turned wooden stand, something between a mushroom and a truncated sundial, which turned out to be a table rest for fob watches. There were office clocks from the Fifties, built to beam like the morning sun on rooms full of typists and clerks.

Yet the place was doing a thriving, old-fashioned trade, repairing watches and mending their straps: while I was dithering between plastic alarm clocks, whose styling was no more than 10 years old, at least four other customers came through. All were served with grave Fifties' courtesy by an extremely elderly couple who seemed preserved by their surroundings, as if so much time had silted here that the river had meandered, and started, around them, to flow backwards.

The economics of the clock business are mysterious. Paying more for a time-keeping device hardly increases the accuracy with which it tells the time; almost everything you can buy today has an electronic mechanism inside that costs nothing and works perfectly for ever - or at least till the year 2000.

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IF THE price of a watch is set by reference to its use as jewellery, and clocks are priced as ornaments, a premium is applied for bad taste. No doubt this explains the profusion of clocks in B&Bs. It is possible, and patriotic, to believe that the dreadful bad taste of almost any English hotel room, that the English themselves can afford, is purely coincidental. You know what I mean: the knitted covers on the lavatory rolls; the flounced stiff nylon sheets; the muzak at breakfast; the pervasive smell of carpet cleaner and the wallpaper so vivid it is like ammonia in the eyes. All these were exemplified by a converted Georgian farmhouse on the edge of Dartmoor where I stayed with my wife, six years ago.

Everything we ate there, including the vegetables, had obviously been warmed direct from the can. This cuisine affected our baby daughter so powerfully, that when she decorated a huge swatch of the pink carpet, we couldn't feel guilty at all.

This kind of decor seemed such a grotesque distortion of the beauty that England can contain that I used to feel it was all a con-trick on foreigners. But it is not. Nor is it an accident. These are the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual ugliness.

The English are not so much haters of beauty as lovers of tat. Side by side with our ferocious snobbery, and probably the only thing that makes it bearable, is a deep national passion for naff. Not even the Belgians or the Germans can really beat us at this sport. Down the road from our clock shop is another mysterious piece of the provincial economy: a shop that sells mantel ornaments: little models of country cottages; china dolphin families all cuddling together; hand-carved wooden wizards bowed over blue crystal balls. You won't see worse things than that even in the windows of a German art gallery. You won't even see worse in an English Craft Fair.

And if anyone still doubts the essential, life-giving naffness of the Brits, the summer over the last week should have cleared away all doubts. As the sun blasts down on sweaty bare chests, string vests, tattoos and ankle chains, you realise that the only natural covering for a British body is the Union Flag, as worn by discerning football followers everywhere.

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I SAY "dildo" more often than most people. This is probably because I was a religious writer for a long time; and so had to establish my naff credentials by swearing a lot. But it can lead to some embarrassment.

The remote control on the television is known in this house as the dildo. By extension, this applies to any useful widget, which explains why last week I asked a fellow journalist who passed me her Psion hand-held computer where the stylus that controls it was - except that what I actually said was "Where's your dildo?" She bore up bravely.

The Psion really is a miraculous widget. It is a little smaller than a Filofax, and does all the usual computing things - renders you completely dependent, baffles you, gives a charming backlit grin, then loses all your data. My geek friends all prefer the far more futuristic Palm Pilot, which has no keyboard at all. This may be because it is smaller and lighter, but I think it's really because you have to learn an entirely new alphabet to communicate with it and they feel uncomfortable with languages that too many other people speak. Journalists, however, need something they can type on; ideally it would also have a long battery life. It doesn't need a colour screen at all. The Psion does both, and fits into any pocket.

This would have been miraculous enough at the last Lambeth conference 10 years ago. It shows technology has almost surpassed the paper notebook in speed and ease of use. But the Psion does more than that: it plays chess, which notebooks don't. It sends faxes, and receives them, at least in theory. It ought to come with a pencil sharpener, so that people with normal-sized fingers could type on it, but that is a small imperfection.

The one thing the Psion will not do is replicate the full functionality of Microsoft products: for instance, if you type into Word 97, the phrase "I'd like to kill Bill Gates" and ask for synonyms, the programme replies: "I'll drink to that."

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