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Keeping time in Guyana; public clocks and bells in this nation are both guardians of tradition and chimes of change.

Centuries of public time stand watch over the cities of Europe, Asia, and much of the Western Hemisphere. Yet today, with wristwatches everywhere, towering time-keepers probably seem more important as familiar silhouettes on the local skyline. The hand-rung church bell endures as one of the most resilient symbols of this long heritage.

However, in many of Guyana's markets, public buildings, churches, and private businesses, there is a glorious profusion of bell-striking tower clocks that are not regarded as fossils of another age. Public time is alive and well, both as architectural embellishment and as a bond with the challenges faced in the nation's past.

New public clocks have arisen in recent years in Georgetown, the capital, while many of the older clocks with their large bronze bells are beating with life once again. Beginning in 1990, the old clocks once again became capable of keeping accurate time. With help from the Smithsonian Institution, some Guyanese city dwellers are discovering to their delight that "antique" mechanical systems are capable of working as intended, simply with the application of some oil, cleaning solvents, and arm and back muscles to wind a crank once a week. They have also come to appreciate that hand-wound pendulum-regulated mechanisms also keep on ticking through periods of uncertain electrical supply.

Old tower clocks at Sacred Heart Church on Georgetown's Main Street, the Public Hospital, the Muneshwer Building, and the city's three public markets are showing how efficiently the well-engineered traditional timekeeper of the past can behave: the silent dance of gear wheels, the so-familiar "tick-tock" of the escapement mechanism, the slow arc of the large, heavy pendulum bob swinging hypnotically in its pit below, and the massive driving weights, looking for all the world like airborne anchors, suspended in the gloom far beneath.

One of Guyana's newest clocks presides over the main road to Cheddi Jagan International Airport, south of Georgetown. Two illuminated dials, each nine feet in diameter, provide time from Banks Brewery to surrounding neighborhoods, while giving the 1950s building a new, more friend y face. Emphatically modern, this clock was manufactured in Switzerland in 1994 and is governed by a quartz regulator housed downstairs in the brewery's research laboratory.

Another electrically driven clock shows precise time at the famous Bourda cricket ground in central Georgetown. This battery-powered mechanism of the 1970s gives an impulse every second to its pendulum, which advances the clock's hands in their commanding position above the cricket pitch.

The story of Guyana's clocks and bells, however, is told primarily by the older towers, such as the great 1881 iron clock tower of Stabroek Market, at the heart of the capital's commercial life, and the four-dialed wood steeple of a New Amsterdam church, some sixty miles down the Atlantic coast. The clocks within these towers are time capsules containing several kinds of knowledge: the skills of the tower-clock maker (a trade virtually extinct), the prosperity and intentions of the clock's purchaser, and the daily routines of the thousands who relied upon these clocks and their bells, perhaps for their entire lives.

With Britain's wresting of Guyana from Holland in the late eighteenth century came what appears to be the nation's earliest public clock, a single-dialed version obtained from the eminent London horologist, Paul Phillipe Barraud. Today that clock and its stout bell occupy a tower in the Law Courts of central Georgetown. In 1800, when it was manufactured, such clocks were still made individually, using the traditional hand Skills of the blacksmith and the iron founder to fashion both tile massive iron frame and the small, delicate parts of the mechanism. Clockmakers' guilds, the overseers of the trade, established strict rules governing terms of apprenticeship, scope of work, quality, and other issues responsible for maintaining the good name of the trade.

Georgetown's Barraud clock, together with the 1815 New Amsterdam clock of a competitor, Richard Ganthony, exemplify an age when the mastery of a craft such as clockmaking placed workers at the zenith of the skilled trades. Both clocks, but for a good cleaning and some general maintenance, remain capable of operating as efficiently today as when they were built, almost two hundred years ago. Such a tribute is all the more remarkable for the unforgiving heat and moisture of the tropies, which typically combine to eat away at any exposed metal.

The Ganthony clock, overlooking Princess Street in New Amsterdam, is inscribed: "The Gift of Wolfert Katz Esq. to the Colony Berbice." Local records tell of the planter and upstanding member of All Saints Presbyterian Church who ordered a clock for his plantation house, only to find that the four-dialed, quarter-striking clock was too large for his tower, and, at over half a ton, far too heavy. Out of such blunders are benefactors made, and the church was suddenly blessed with Katz's fine clock for its steeple.

In the 1840s, after a decent interval, the Katz gift inspired nearby All Saints Anglican Church to acquire a similarly enormous clock and set of bells from the London workshops of Thwaites & Reed. The dueling clocks became a fixture of New Amsterdam life, each voicing its church's claim to the public's trust as keeper of the proper time and scripture. One Depression-era writer wistfully observed of the Ganthony clock in 1930: "Its deliberate chimes in that quiet residential part of town, with its wide red road, ample grassy parapets, and shadowed gardens seem to bring down to smaller folk in a narrow, pinched time of some of the prosperous atmosphere of the spacious days of old Berbice."

Across the street, New Amsterdam's Botanic Garden today is just a shadow of its former self. A quiet green formality has been supplanted by that regrettably more necessary formality, a concrete courthouse. Of the gardens, little remains but some iron railings, a few stately flamboyant trees, a weed-choked manatee pond, and a ghostly cast-iron sundial pedestal appropriately decorated with iron foliage. The dial itself has drifted away.

Stabroek Market's clock is by far the nation's most familiar, its four twelve-foot dials giving time, or some slight variation thereof, to the heart of Georgetown and to boats crossing the Demerara River. In 1989 Mayor Compton Young and the City Council appealed to the Smithsonian for expert assistance in the repair of the Stabroek clock, their national timepiece. The 1880 clock had been made at the E. Howard Company, of Boston, Massachusetts. Graceful yet rugged, the clock is housed centrally in its tower some fifteen feet below the dials. The cavernous iron market also is American, the result of a testy competition between British and American engineers maneuvering in the 1870s for the right to build railways and undertake other jobs for the thriving sugar colony.

The only visibly British aspect of Stabroek Market is its large steel Bell, cast in Sheffield, and now heavily rusted by exposure to the nearby ocean's corrosive salt air. Since most large Bells are cast in Bell metal, a nonrusting alloy of copper and tin, how odd that a steel Bell was chosen for rooftop use in such an unforgiving climate.

On the market floor below, another bell clangs to open and close the stalls each day. Over three hundred dealers sell commodities ranging from silk and leather goods, through gold jewelry, hardware, tools, and books, to fish, rice, fruit, sugar, and other sundry needs of everyday life. Each group of wares has its own allotted portion of the market; the watch and clock repair shops naturally congregate beneath the clock tower.

High up within the confines of Stabroek's clock tower, a four-man Guyanese-American crew, working with hand tools, kerosene, rags, and lots of elbow grease, recently overhauled and rejuvenated the market clock. Beginning with the removal of the clock's driving weights and the disassembly of the large iron castings and brass gear wheels, the team worked relentlessly toward the heart of the clock, the escapement, which calls out its beat with each swing of the pendulum. Every piece was scrubbed clean of dirt and old oil and received an assessment of wear and damage. Many were carefully measured and photographed. A few badly worn and broken parts were removed for rebuilding at the Smithsonian's clock workshop in Washington, D.C.

The clock's supporting cast, hanging nearby, also required attention. The weights, pulleys, Bell hammer, and steel cables received examinations and a thorough lubrication. Typical of this work, the weight cables were fully paid out, checked for fraying and kinks, greased, and then slowly wound with a hand crank back onto the clock's winding drums. Once all was reassembled, Stabroek's clock awaited only a final oiling, the putting of its pendulum into correct beat, and the regulation of the pendulum's swing to allow the hands to advance at their customary rates. Finally, officials from Georgetown's city government climbed the iron staircase into the clock chamber for a ceremony marking the clock's return to useful life.

Unlike modern timekeeping instruments that often sit inaccessibly inside sealed plastic housings, Stabroek's clock comes apart and is reassembled with the turn of large steel screws and threaded nuts, exposed connections that make possible a multitude of repairs long into the future.

Like Stabroek's elegant Howard clock, the little "A-frame" clock in the gable of the gatekeeper's house at the entrance to Georgetown's Botanic Gardens is the product of a factory system that placed impersonal mass production over individual artistry and craftsmanship. This 1882 clock by James Benson of London lacks the weight and personal detailing of the Ganthony and Barraud clocks. It has no tower, no Bells to strike, and just one small dial to operate, but for over one hundred years the clock has faithfully governed the gardens' hours of opening, timed the coming and going of staff, and gently reminded lovers snuggling under nearby trees that their hours together are indeed fleeting.

Elsewhere, at the penitentiary, the hospital, the police barracks, the train station, the post office, the waterworks, the slaughterhouse, and at churches across Guyana, some three dozen public clocks have given the nation a seemingly time-conscious face. Bells blend with the cries of parrots and market dealers. Certain clocks run continually and some occasionally, while others function not at all. Much depends on the resolve of the individual clock keeper, whether church sexton, market worker, or town engineer. Nothing can stand in the way of a keeper determined to keep his clock ticking. Yet the surrounding culture is the real world in which the clocks exist. As the culture evolves, so too its impact on such cultural signposts as clocks and bells.

A machine's division of time is not every person's division of time. Among many residents, "the feel of the day" is a familiar time-sense in Guyana. Being just a few degrees north of the equator, Guyana's days are marked by a punishing sun that crosses almost directly overhead and sets year-round at about six o'clock. Predictable rain showers and even more predictable Atlantic tides and trade winds add a succession of natural cadences to everyday life. Such rhythms predate the clocks and Bells. They recall the worlds left behind by the peoples brought to Guyana's shores from Africa, India, and other far-off lands. Many patterns of neighborhood life remain tied to those woven by native Amerindians and by the immigrant ancestors of the modern population.

The customs and traditions of natural timekeeping practiced by successive waves of African slaves and indentured workers from India have constructed unseen time boundaries that become visible in the shadows of Guyana's clock towers. Sun, wind, rain, the tides, and deeply traditional forms of communal activity often dictate time awareness in the absence of precise needs for minutes, seconds, and hours.

Business appointments and work schedules may be set for a general part of the day rather than specific times. The notions of being "late" or "early" are without specific meaning or serious consequence. Ferry boats cross rivers when they are filled with passengers. Fishing vessels and Hindu worshipers watch the tides for guidance in their labors and devotions. People rise when the sun rises, rest in the heat of midday, and retire after the sun sets. The ageless backporch rooster stretches his neck to crow at dawn just as he did before Barraud's clock first landed on these shores.

One Jamaican historian, Earl McKenzie, may have identified a distinctive Afro-Caribbean time-sense when he wrote in 1973 that "time is not considered real until it has been experienced. Time is composed of events, so a day, a month, a year, is simply the sum of its events. There is no fixed abstract time which is independent of events, and which can be computed for its own sake."

In India, time has been reckoned for centuries as a cyclical rather than a linear progression, the past being continually projected and reprojected to help create the present. Reflective, rather than anticipatory time eliminates much of the urgency inherent in the ceaseless counting of minutes and seconds. Concepts of time awareness in Guyana, like religious customs and food ways, tend to resist technological refinement.

Guyana may be sending our modern, rapid-fire world of fabricated time intervals and smart time-saving technologies a new but also very old sense of time: noncompetitive time, one that is event based or results based, rather than speed based. Surrounded by the towering evidence of minutes and hours, quarter-chimes, and the peals of yore, Guyana also looks to the clocks and bells of the natural world, requiring entirely different rhythms, different forms of maintenance, different ways of seeing and hearing, and an expectation that other people's schedules need not always synchronize precisely with one's own.

Guyana's cadences also might proclaim a new middle ground of modern timekeeping, one that slips between natural and synthetic time, blending elements of both worlds. The time-conscious batsman carefully eyes the clock at the cricket ground but follows the sun home and to bed. The family gathers around the television at eight p.m. for the latest installment of "Lois and Clark," while outside in the trees, bright-yellow kiskadees conclude their noisy sunset concerto.

Like beauty, time and its passage are in the eye of the beholder. As Guyana shows so naturally, the clock ultimately works best that works for the culture. The feel of the day is sufficiently precise time reckoning for much of the nation, as it may be for much of the world. Clearly, Guyana's clock towers can be beautiful when they work, but they are equally beautiful when they do not need to work.

Since 1990 David Todd and David Shayt, both of the Smithsonian Institution, have been working with Gugana's citizens in a quest to understand their clocks and bells. The authors thank the Smithsonian's National Museums of American and Natural History and the Centre for the Study of Biological Diversity, University of Guyana, for their support of this project.
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Author:Shayt, David H.; Todd, W. David
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1997
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