THE clock is the first thing you notice in most public rooms and many private ones as well – whether it’s a great full moon of a clock hanging on a grand wall like a god with agitated fingers, juddering away our lives; or a little carriage clock ticking ceaselessly on the mantelpiece by the frame around a boy in uniform, for whom time was stopped before his first whiskers.
I am drawn to the clock in our back room. I watch the swing of the pendulum in those minutes of heavy dark, when day and night are yawning into each other and the spiders scurry in their slippers – then you can almost hear the earth groan, as the blind worms of time snout their tunnels, backwards and forwards.
Quiet grips the town. This is good for thinking. The street revellers have tottered home to fall into their beds and hangovers.
But our clock pulses on. I recall with a smile now, how I had grabbed it, beer-breathed, in a scramble of arms and legs at a shop’s clearance sale on the eve of our son’s second Christmas.
He’s 16 now. So the clock has matured into our family, a familiar face, though its beat, like his, remains strong.
And in such moments, particularly in this season of remembrance, I think of Willie McBride. His name was on a grave seen by the Scottish poet and songwriter Eric Bogle, who then wrote The Green Fields of France about the young men who were “butchered and damned” in the Great War.
Willie was only 19, but many around him were even younger, not much older than our son – or the clock on the wall.
Often, when we think of war and all those who died, then and now, in the deserts and the meadows with their strangely beautiful names, we believe that the loss belonged to the past. The truth is more terrible than that. It was the untouched and unseen future that had vanished for them.
Into the dark sky and beyond were carried the memories of those killed – the teachers whose wisdom was unheard, the parents who would never cradle children, the makers whose hands were stilled, the jokers whose laughter died, the singers whose songs are silence – and the lovers whose love is carved in stone.
For me and many of my friends who escaped war, unlike our parents and grandparents, there is a sense of guilt, almost shame, that we were not there doing our bit.
We were spared, it seems, by little more than a lucky toss of the dice, a mere quirk of fate. And now we are on the edge of old age.
Yet, if God is willing, we may still have more years ahead of us than Willie McBride and his friends had behind them when they fell. That is a strange thought to see in the face of a clock on the wall.
Day after day we read in the newspapers about men and women being killed in Afghanistan. We shake our heads and say of these soldiers, unknown to us: “But they were so young, all life was before them”.
For it is not the past but the future that has been destroyed.
Of course, war is a stupid way of solving differences. All intelligent people must agree on that. But it has been with us since the dawn of our kind. Maybe it’s just a rogue instinct countering the desire of most people to live as long as possible.
Like Eric Bogle, I have seen the green fields of France and the rows of white graves. In England, too, I have stood in village churchyards reading the names of the young men lost to war.
And I feel fervently that we should wear the poppy with pride.
It symbolises our sense of respect for what others have done.
But is there anything that the living can really give to the dead?
Perhaps the answer is simple – to live as well as we can and to cherish every second passing with the swing of that pendulum under the clock on the wall.
LISTEN to David Charters on his picture podcasts at www.liverpooldailypost.co.uk