Magazine article The Spectator

Time, Memory, Love

Magazine article The Spectator

Time, Memory, Love

Article excerpt

THE HORIZONTAL INSTRUMENT

by Christopher Wilkins

Doubleday, 10, pp. 272

The narrator of this marvellous novel, Robert Garrett, is a mathematical prodigy so advanced at the age of 20 that nobody in Cambridge, probably in all England, can teach him any more. He has attained that high level of mathematical sophistication at which the measurement of time implies philosophical questions. He is also an exceptionally talented watchmaker, descended from three generations of dedicated horological craftsmen. His father began teaching him how to use watchmaking tools when he was only five.

Watchmaking is in my blood. Not only has it determined the skill of my hands, but it has also laid down, I suspect, the internal architecture of my brain.

The book is divided into quarters. Each of them is headed by a drawing of a watch's coiled, fine hairspring and an apt quotation, such as this one from St Augustine: 'I confess to thee, O Lord, that I am as yet ignorant what time is.'

At the very outset, however, Garrett/ Wilkins declares his own definition of time: `Time is memory. Simple as that. Without memory, there can be no time.'

Alternate chapters are about the history of methods of timekeeping -- though the word timekeeping is a misnomer. Time is too slipperily abstract to be kept. The future does not exist (as far as we know) and the present is instantaneously evanescent. Now immediately becomes then. Time can be certainly regarded only backwards. The horological passages of the book recall many ingenious ways of recording time in arbitrary segments, by means of hour-glasses, for example, sundials, calibrated candles and the eponymous `Horizontal Instrument', a flat, circular brass plate, devised by William Oughtred in 1635 to represent the celestial sphere in two dimensions. …

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