Risk and Reward

From the beginning of time, my dad, Colin, had the Town contract to look after all the public clocks. They all had to be wound once a week, oiled and adjusted regularly and when the clocks changed in spring and autumn, he was the man who did it. As we lived in a village and relied on public transport the latter task was problematic as he could only change the clocks before the last bus left on Saturday evening so 10,000 people had a time zone all to themselves for about four hours every March and October – there were many letters to the paper.

There were three clocks. One in the town hall on the Square dating from the 1760s that you reached by climbing up a hidden stairway behind the grand ballroom and crawling along under a magnificent 18th Century roof. The staircase was full of abandoned municipal finery including the big zinc gas box device they used to sterilise library books when there were outbreaks of scarlet fever and rows of decidedly provincial oil paintings of provosts.   

There was another clock at the Harbour in the Harbour Buildings another 18th Century relic. You went through three open warehouse floors all shiny hardwood and smelling of potatoes. On the top floor, there were four huge abandoned wooden aeroplane propellers leaning against the wall. Intended for the old and long-closed down airbase the world had moved on and they had been stranded since 1921. In Manhattan, the loft space would be worth millions, in Montrose the building is now derelict.

And then there was the Steeple clock in the spire of the parish church. Through the vast oak doors from the street and then up the corner spiral staircase from the porch – 146 steps to the bell ringer’s gallery and then another open wooden stair to the glorious piece of 19th Century engineering that drove four clock faces and chimed the quarters and hours on the Great Peter bell – several tonnes of 17th Century Dutch bronze.

The steeple winding was a proper workout. Three big weights (“going”, “chiming”, “striking”) to be ratcheted to the top once a week with a massive winding key of brass and oak. 

Now there was another job to be done for the Town, and this is where our story starts today. For 300 years, Great Peter, struck by hand, sounded the 10 pm curfew for the town. Mr Johnstone did this job from the 1950s to the late 1970s. What you had to do was climb the wooden ladder to the belfry above the clock. Climb up another ladder to sit inside Great Peter and then as soon as the clock had finished striking 10, you swung the clapper manually and hit the bell 200 times in two minutes. If you got the timing just so the sound would resonate and on a still evening you could hear it 10 miles away. The hotel next door to the Steeple just loved it.

And then one glorious day Mr Johnstone announced his retirement and my dad got the curfew job. I think we were better off as a family by about £15 a week and the Council got to put off buying an electrical chiming system.

Every night for the next 20 years at 9.35 pm dad left the house, crossed the park, walked past the museum and up the Kirkyard Steps, opened the great oak door, locked it behind him, went up the 146 spiral steps, up the wooden staircase up the ladder to the belfry and then climbed inside Great Peter rang the bell 200 times and then reversed the journey to be back in the house at 10.30.

It was a contract job, so if you wanted a holiday, you had to arrange your cover. I did it a few times so I suppose I should add curfew ringer to my CV.

Dad always watched the weather forecast after the 9 O’clock News on the BBC. It was a weather obsession. In the beginning, I think this was because he only had a bike, no car, so he had to make clock deliveries in good weather. Over the years though the weather thing became like astrology. Particular tasks could only happen if the wind blew in a specific direction. It eventually became a bit of a drag. A storm laden front approaching from the south-west would give him something to talk about for days, and he would confine the family to the house to avoid disaster (I have no idea what disaster but I’m still here so it must have worked). 

The thing was that watching the weather forecast before heading off to ring the curfew was an exercise in pointlessness. You’d only be out for an hour at most, and you could see what you needed to wear by the simple expedient of opening the door to see if it was raining or not. Colin’s problem, I came to realise, was that he was utterly and hopelessly risk-averse. To my knowledge, no one on dry land in Montrose has been killed by the weather in living memory (the sea, unfortunately, is a different matter). However, for dad, the possibility that things could happen around him over which he had no control was anathema. Perhaps it was why he was such a dammed good clockmaker. Everything in his professional life was adjusted, oiled, kept just so and to time within the limits of the machinery. He rarely travelled further than his bike would take him and had no interest in life beyond his home island. His dad had had a terrible time in France in 1914-18 and Colin wasn’t going to risk crossing the Channel as a result. Adventure, in short, was to be actively avoided.

All of which brings us to the business point.

In theory, my dad should have been successful in business. He kept his costs down, looked after his regular clients, had the contracts from the Town, and he could overhaul your chiming clock every couple of years. The problem was that his regular clients got old and died, the next generation told the time on digital things that you could buy for £4.99, and the Town mechanised what they could and left the rest to rust when they money got tight. The precision and conservatism that kept him going through the 60s and 70s quite literally killed him in the 80s (he got bowel cancer, and the stress didn’t help).

Me? Well, like my dad, I’m a professional. I too like precision and I like things to be just so. I work with people, though, and, like the weather, people don’t always give you precision and clockwork reliability. So I’ve had to adapt, I’ve understood that actually, you do have to take risks because if you stand still, you will, eventually, fail no matter how meticulous you are in delivery.

My business risks? Well, firstly setting up Snedden Campbell; next came the specialisation in medical technology – setting myself up as an expert. After that, the understanding that I had to cover a vast territory to feed my focus – I just had to forget the Great War and head to Europe. And these risks, so far, have paid off.

What’s next? Well in this bright post-Brexit world (everyone in the UK is taking a risk whether they like it or not), I’m off to Dubai, Israel, India, South Korea and Singapore between now and September. Dad wouldn’t have done, but I will. 

Better check the weather before I head to the airport, I suppose.

Posted on: 24th January 2020 by Ivor Campbell

Into his fourth decade of search Ivor has a voice with stories to tell, observations to make and the odd picture to share. Mostly related to the day job.

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