Festina Lente by Julie Barker

Julie Barker lived and worked in South Africa as a scriptwriter and story producer for television. In 2015, she completed an MA in Creative Writing for which she wrote a novel called Other People’s Countries. From 2013 to 2016 she worked in the TV Drama department for BBC Scotland as a Story Editor, and worked on River City. She produced a short film, The Hide, which won Best Drama at the 2017 Women over Fifty Film Festival in Brighton. She is currently working on a series of memoir pieces; Festina Lente is one of those extracts.

 


 

Festina Lente

 

Dear Archibald Knox,

In 1903, sixty-three years before I was born, you made a clock. It is silver, with a round face. Instead of numbers there are letters enamelled in blues and greens with the Latin phrase, Festina Lente, which translates into Make Haste Slowly, or the more common phrase More Haste, Less Speed. The hands have red enamelled hearts at their ends, and the face rests on a rectangular column. The column has art nouveau flowers engraved on it, which remind me of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. If you look at the clock from any angle, the flowers appear to move because of how their shape was sculpted on the reflective surface.

Somewhere in my distant and forgotten past, a set of parents, or even grandparents went to Liberty’s of London to buy a present. I suspect it was for a wedding, but I will never know.

On a South African winter’s evening when I was about seven years old, I became aware of an unusual silence while sprawled in front of my grandfather’s fireplace. As if a devoted heartbeat had ceased, and all that was left was a hollow absence, devoid of sound. I looked up at the mantelpiece and noticed that the small silver clock had stopped. My grandfather showed me how to hold it. The clock stood upright on my lap, cold but not too heavy. He gave me the key and taught me to wind it so that I would not overextend the mechanism.

My grandfather was a man who took excellent care of his possessions, and was concerned with–some may say obsessed by–the contents of his will. He explained that, as the firstborn grandchild, I was entitled to inherit his large mahogany grandfather clock and the family bible. However, because I was a girl, this could not happen. Both items needed to be carried down the male line. He was a colonial man who had old-fashioned notions of gender. He was deeply apologetic. He assured me that one day I would receive the silver clock instead, as it was more suitable for a girl.

I’m sorry, Archibald, but at that point clocks–large or small–did not impress me.

When my grandfather died, he kept his word. By this time I had grown to love old things. I placed the clock on my mantelpiece and continued to wind it up when needed. It became a stationary compass of sorts, a link to the few quietly secure moments of a tumultuous childhood while pointing to a future ripe with hope. I breastfed my first child staring at it, numb with lack of sleep. It starred in a short film once. Occasionally people would admire it–not many though; it was humbly unobtrusive. It moved with us from house to house, always occupying a mantelpiece, and sometimes became the object of conversation.

I moved to Glasgow in 2013. After three months, a massive house pack, a content purge and transportation of the cherished family cat, my husband and children arrived with the clock in their hand luggage. We began our new life.

In May of 2016, I encountered an adaptation of William Morris’s Utopian novel, News From Nowhere, published in 1891, in which a character from the present visits the future. You have probably read this book more than once; in fact, you could have been the inspiration for the central character, William Guest, who wakes up one morning to a transformed London. Although it is clearly in the future, the thrumming pulse of that huge city has been transformed into a lush and rural landscape. People don’t work, there is no such thing as money, and the beauty of art and craft is everywhere. In this Utopia the central premise is the celebration of beauty; in limited possessions, natural surroundings, and flexible emotional attachments. It is a world where humanity is living the highest ideal of itself. In the end, William learns that this life needs to be fought and won in his present reality. So he returns to his old life to do just that.

Later in 2016, I lost my job. It was a devastating blow as I was the primary earner in my family at the time. I spent three months applying for every job imaginable, probably close to a hundred. I received very little response and five interviews. With each interview my confidence faltered. I signed on for benefits. Fraught with anxiety, diminishing savings and escalating credit card debt, I took to walking in forests and meditating while trying to find a way to earn a living. On one particularly dark day I got lost and lay down, spent with fear. It occurred to me that my usefulness to my family and the world had come to an end. When the damp earth seeped into my back I realised I had some power left, namely the ability to damage my children for the rest of their lives. I got up and kept walking. Not all powers are wanted. The ones I needed, like self-respect and courage, I would have to fight for and grow.

I came home to an empty house. I found a letter from the Department of Work and Pensions arranging a meeting to discuss my benefits. I sank into the sofa and through the burning blur of tears stared at your clock, gracefully adorning a Glaswegian mantelpiece.

The following week I polished and wrapped it carefully in a cloth bag. Our lack of money was critical. I had reluctantly decided to get the clock evaluated. I went to my first appointment of the day, a meeting with the Department of Work and Pensions. A cadaverous young man was hunched over a keyboard with missing letters. After an unsubtle interrogation, he accused me of benefit fraud. I had delayed in declaring my husband’s recently acquired six month contract because he wasn’t earning enough to cover our bills. The young man told me I would no longer qualify for benefits, and I would have reimburse the total sum I had been paid. His delight at my misfortune was contaminating; I too began to believe that I deserved poverty and would never know anything else again.

I crept out of the job centre and drove to the auction house. A tired nicotine smelling man watched as I hauled out my clock. His demeanour changed when he examined the markings on the underside. It was quite possibly the most animated he had been that year, judging by the thin and arched eyebrow of his associate. I looked at your clock on the stained tablecloth and realised it deserved better.

I learnt that the clock was designed by you, Archibald, a prominent influence in the Arts and Crafts movement, and one of the most far-reaching design movements of modern times. It began around 1880, and grew from a concern about Industrialisation. Not only did it break down divisions between architects, and craftsmen, it believed that design owed its inspiration to nature and real materials. That every day things should be made with love and celebrate beauty. It worked to change the dehumanising effect of Industrialisation and also strove for equality. For the first time, women were embraced as architects and artisans.

I sent photographs to a London auction house and allowed them to process the clock for auction. Six months later the hammer settled on a substantial amount of money, enough to dig my family out a bottomless hole of debt and start again. The first time I’d ever heard your name I was raw from the wounds of my own failures. Your clock had been an enduring companion, its silvery reflection a landscape of my changing life. Finally, at just the right time it could also become my saviour. These are the things dreams are made of; this is what the presence of the divine means.

I imagined you, a solitary child roaming the Isle of Man, your artistic mind absorbing those intricately ancient Celtic Crosses. And in your design heyday for Liberty’s, those same eternally intertwined patterns pouring out like a primeval inspiration into molten silver. How the designs echoed the seemingly fluid permanence of a precious metal. I wondered at you working in the alien detention centre on the Isle of Man during the war, after such a successful career.

Then I visualised you after that, a bearded and self-effacing man with a pipe clenched between your teeth as you brushed watercolour on paper. Until you were exhausted, and would sit back to view your roughly hewn strokes, which became the ruggedness of an old Elm tree or an island coastline. Your paintings were also a spontaneous coupling of nature and design. I read that your grave’s inscription says: ‘Here lies Archibald Knox, humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful.’ I felt you reaching towards me through the grace and splendour of your clock and I heard you breathe: ‘beauty changes lives.’

Liberty’s never acknowledged the designs in your lifetime. Did you realise that your work would become so valuable? Festina Lente. Well, you did take your time. The clock was never really mine, as it belongs to the ideals of the Art and Craft movement. However, I was lucky enough to know it for a substantial period of my life. But more than anything, Archibald, who you are and how you created beauty has given me a new way of being.

Yours Sincerely,
Julie Barker


You can follow Julie via her Twitter, @burningsky6.