06 October 2008


Term starts here tomorrow, which means the streets are crowded with students.  What do they look like?  Well, I'd have to say they look...privileged.  Perhaps this is because it's Cambridge, so the people who come here are the best and brightest, or perhaps because it's England, and thus cool, so they've already put on their fall clothes, and people tend to look a little better-dressed in fall clothes.  Or perhaps it's because none of the loathesome habits of American student dressing seems to have permeated here:  no one wears tracksuit bottoms, or thongs, or baseball caps, or any of those things that make even the smartest look dumb.  And the women wear far less make-up.  Actually, that's quite interesting in its way.  By the time they get to about 30, English women just don't look as good as American women; it's really true.  But at this age they are much more naturally pretty, or perhaps just much more willing to trust to their natural prettiness.  So they wear much less make-up, and thus look fresher, younger, and prettier.

Anyway, the past few days have been rather slow.  I've stopped academic work for a bit, and I've been revising my novel.  This is hard work.  Uck.  On the other hand, it means I do a lot more writing.  In fact, thinking about this yesterday and today I calculated that between writing e-mail, writing letters, working on either the novel or the book, and writing this, I must write about 15,000 words a week.  Sometimes I sit in my room here and realise that although I've communicated with many people that day, I've actually only spoken to two.  It's weird.  Not bad, but weird.

Anyway, over the past week or so my days have involved a lot of travelling into and out of Cambridge to do little things -- what Byron would have called "buttoning and unbuttoning."  I got some business cards, but I didn't like the finished product, so the place re-did them.  I tried to buy a skirt, and a short sweater dress.  I tried to buy a hat.  I had to do some grocery shopping.  I needed to check and see if some books I'd ordered had come in.  I needed to buy some postcard stock to draw on and send to a friend:  buttoning and unbuttoning.  As a result, I've been following the same route into and out of Cambridge centre for the past seven days, and I've noticed one striking item.  I'd noticed it before, but only after seeing it every day for a chunk of time did I really notice it in all its vileness.  I would say it is perhaps the ugliest thing I've seen in my life.  Here it is:

Yeah, baby!  This is the Corpus Christi clock.  It's a new clock that's been placed in a glass case fronting the street outside Corpus Christi college.  They're proud of it!  They put it up where everyone can see it!  And see it they do.  People stop and stand in a little group -- there's always one out there -- silent.  They are stunned by its horribleness, and the reason I know this is because when I have said to them, "Isn't it hideous?"  they all say, "Oh, yeah."

This clock (which is huge -- probably six feet tall) was designed, paid for, and donated by a man who also gave the college money for a library.   He is a graduate of the college.  That thing on the top is a grasshopper (or as I like to call it, a grasshopper-fish-beast, although it is in fact a mixture of grasshopper, lizard, and stag beetle, named by its designer a "chronophage," or time eater).  As the clock pendulum swings back and forth, the blue lights you can see flash and flutter and settle, indicating the minute and the passing minutes, and the grasshopper's legs move back and forth, so it looks like he's galloping.  His jaw opens and closes.  In fact, the whole clock is a celebration of the grasshopper escapement, invented by John Harrison, the "humble Yorkshire carpenter" (so says Wikipedia) who also codified longitude.  The grasshopper escapement is a tiny hinge device that allows clock gears to turn without lubrication or adjustment, and thus its invention made possible both the watch and more accurate time-keeping.  Huzzah!  John Harrison.  But not so to the clock.  This is one of those items that is so ugly, and so useless, that it dazzles.  Did I mention that its only right once every five minutes? 

It makes me think of that moment in When Harry Met Sally when Carrie Fisher says to Bruno Kirby about his wagon-wheel coffee table, "It's so awful there's no way to even explain to you how awful it is."  That's exactly how awful it is.  It's speechlessly awful.

In any case, the one part of it that is not awful is the inscription underneath, which the picture doesn't show and which no one ever mentions.  It is, "Mundus transit, et concupiscentia eius," which comes from 1 John and roughly translates, "The world passes, and also its desire."  In its strictest sense "concupiscentia" means "greed," but as the English word concupiscence (lust or lascivious sexual desire) suggests, it more elastically means "fleshly desire."  I think I'd translate this passage, "The world passes away, and so do its earthly desires."  Until I finally looked the phrase up on the internet the "Eius" threw me:  I thought it referred to the grasshopper.  But now it makes sense, and even without religion the sentiment seems interesting.  And compared to the clock that surmounts it, it's veritable pearl of Latin beauty.

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