The Weasel

Finding clocks in Greenwich to be inaccurate, I make for the amazing Cirque du Soleil and fall foul of the wit of Liberty's sale
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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK, a hack from the Evening Standard came up with the wheeze of checking the public clocks in Greenwich, site of Britain's millennium celebrations and synonymous with time throughout the world. He discovered that the Thames-side suburb was a "horological disaster area", with most clocks out by more than a minute or simply not going at all. Dr Kristen Lippencott, director of the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, suggested that someone could provide a useful service to locals by checking the right time at the observatory's clocks. "It seems they need it," she sniffed.

The trouble with this invaluable suggestion is that, as I discovered last Wednesday afternoon, many of the clocks in the Old Royal Observatory do not themselves display the correct time. Of course, the digital display outside the observatory is pretty much spot on. When I popped along, it read 13:24:22:58 for a hundredth of second. But the very first timepiece I encountered inside the observatory was an hour fast. The 18th-century long-case clock in the first Astronomer Royal's dining room showed the time as 2:30. John Flamsteed, a notorious stickler, would have choked on his porridge.

Upstairs, in the splendid Octagon Room designed by Christopher Wren, it was the same story. A grandfather clock once again showed the time to be half past two. But this clock didn't seem to be going at all. "It probably needs winding up," said a helpful warder. "It can't have been done today."

The wrist-watches displayed in the observatory's clock gallery were of variable accuracy. The Junghans Mega, which receives a coded time-signal from Frankfurt, was exactly right at 1:45 and so, in its humbler way, was the observatory's livid green Swatch. But a 1929 "Autowrist" self- winding watch was stuck at 2:40 and an 1887 prototype wrist-watch said it was 11:25. According to Mickey Mouse (c 1970), the time was 8:15.

Though described as "the most accurate long-term timekeeper available", the example of the caesium atomic clock on public display is, in fact, correct only twice a day. The hands of its tiny dial stubbornly pointed out the time as 12 noon or possibly 12 midnight, since it was not switched on.

Doubtless there are good reasons for such horological variation. Adjusting the setting of ancient clocks by an hour twice a year could be damaging to their mechanisms. It's probably impractical to wind up the wrist-watches every day. Perhaps the observatory lacks a plug for the caesium clock.

Even so, it is hard to account for the state of affairs in the Old Royal Observatory's shop. The two most impressive timepieces on sale are a twin-dial clock and barometer (pounds 165) and a "Weather Station" including clock, barometer, thermometer and hygrometer (pounds 295). In both cases, the clocks proudly showed the time as 4pm. Exactly an hour fast, they were considerably more inaccurate than the public clocks in Greenwich town centre about which Dr Lippencott was so superior. In case the shop has forgotten, we are currently on Greenwich Mean Time: "Spring forward, fall back".

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FOR THE second time in my life, I've been to the circus. The first time was three years ago, when I saw the Cirque du Soleil perform a dazzling affair called Saltimbanco. This week I went back to the Albert Hall for its new show, Alegria. A gamy mix of spectacle, disturbing masked characters and high camp, it would have been a perfect night out for Aubrey Beardsley.

With seat prices ranging from pounds 23.50 to pounds 45, the Cirque du Soleil is the Fortnum & Mason of the circus world. As the programme (pounds 7) angrily points out: "We have no illusions. The children of the streets will not see Alegria. Laughter is a luxury they cannot afford. Tonight, our cries of joy will become screams of rage because millions of young hearts will again freeze in the gutters of our goodwill." Sobering thoughts indeed from a multi-million-dollar enterprise that is shortly to begin permanent shows in Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida.

To be honest, the well-heeled audience did not appear too chagrined by this cry from the heart. Even for a grouch like me who is not naturally drawn to circuses, there was plenty to boggle the mind. One extraordinary coup de theatre (almost) merited the admission price in itself: a clown tore up a letter and suddenly the whole of this Victorian arena was filled with a blizzard of millions of paper fragments. It was simply astonishing.

I would, however, have been quite happy not to have seen the two Mongolian contortionists, both aged 14, who beamed cheerfully while stroking their chins with their toes, their legs having somehow reached round their backs.

Despite the rock band and the hi-tech trappings, the most remarkable achievement of Alegria was the effect of time travel. Transported by the sexy strangeness of the costumes and the sheer incredibility of the acts, we whizzed back across the centuries. For a couple of hours, the Albert Hall became the Colosseum.

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LAST WEEKEND, Mrs Weasel staggered back from the Bridgewater pottery sale with a pantechnicon-sized carrier-bag. It isn't as if we're in desperate need of additional crockery. By my estimation, it will take just one more eggcup or, possibly, a ramekin, and we'll have to up sticks and live in a hotel, leaving the porcelain to occupy Weasel Villas. Anyway, she had scarcely got her breath back when this Olympic-standard shopper plunged back into the fray of the West End.

In order to retain my few remaining follicles, I thought it best to accompany my dear partner on her foray to Liberty's "ludicrously affordable sale". The ironic nature of this designation was forcibly impressed on me when Mrs W instantly made tracks for the designer-label section on the first floor of this Tudor palace, where she was much taken by a pair of Issey Miyake leather trousers reduced from pounds 745 to a mere pounds 397. Ludicrous, certainly.

Via the promise of staggering kitchenware discounts, I managed to divert her to the basement. Leaving her disconsolately pondering a melon-baller (pounds 5.95 to pounds 2.95), I wandered into the neighbouring bathroom department. Since they were not in the sale, the scallop shells did not appeal at pounds 1.95 apiece - you can purchase them, still tenanted, at the fishmonger for less.

Nor was I tempted by a vast pile of inflatable mirrors (pounds 15.95 to pounds 10.50), we're not the kind who need to look at ourselves in the bath. I finally settled on a bar of glycerine soap ("call it a pound") which bore an unexpected philosophical inscription: "WISDOM". Should be good for a few thought bubbles, I mused. It was only when we got home that I found "FOLLY" impressed on the other side.

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