October 19, 2015, by Guest Blogger

Nina Allan on clocks, watches and time travel

British Science-fiction author Nina Allan explains the inspiration behind her award-winning collection of short stories, ‘The Silver Wind’.

‘The Silver Wind’ consists of six interlinked stories. All are on the theme of time travel, or travelling through time. Although each of these separate ‘chapters’ can be read as a standalone story, I have always thought of the book as a single entity, to be read in sequence as you would a novel. I think of ‘The Silver Wind’ as a story-cycle.

The book took shape over the course of several years. The first two stories, ‘Time’s Chariot’ and ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ were written as companion pieces: two separate interpretations of a set of characters and circumstance, two separate but connected attempts at beginning a novel. I wrote at least three different versions of the longest story in the book, ‘The Silver Wind’, before settling upon the future-dystopia set in the part of southeast London I was living in at the time, and then yet another, single point-of-view incarnation of the fourth story, ‘Rewind’, before I realised that what the book needed was a chapter that gave the main female character, Miranda, a point of view. The clocks and watches belonging to the grandmother who appears in the final story, ‘Timelines’, are all real. They belonged to my own grandmother, Hilda Lily, and were fixed, shining points in my own childhood. The silver half-hunter that was originally the property of my grandmother’s adoptive father Raymond was actually the grounding inspirational image for the book as a whole.

I love clocks and watches. They have an everyday magic about them, a quality that arises out of William Morris’s stipulation that for an object to be truly beautiful it must also be useful, and that useful things should be made to be aesthetically pleasing. There are few man-made constructs more formally lovely than a well engineered timepiece – and a lovely watch is the epitome of contented self-containment. When I first began thinking about the themes and ideas that would form the background to ‘The Silver Wind’, I suddenly realised I had no idea how a mechanical wristwatch actually worked. I felt I couldn’t begin to tell these stories without knowing more about the mechanics of time, and so I began reading everything I could find about the history of timekeeping. I found this part of the process wonderfully inspiring. I was especially delighted to discover that in the digital age there still exists a company of elite watchmakers, master craftsmen who continue to refine techniques that have been steadily and continually in use for hundreds of years. Of course, one of these genius artisans was going to end up in the book…

The main theme of The Silver Wind though is time itself. We are accustomed to thinking of time as a fixed, objective quantity, yet clock time as we experience it is an artificial construct, and infinitely malleable. Anyone who’s ever waited for a bus or been late for an important appointment will be aware of how no ten revolutions of a clock’s hands are ever subjectively the same.

A clock is in the most literal sense of the word a time machine, a machine for telling time. I wanted to write something about that, too. The hero of these stories is Martin Newland, an ordinary man with the qualities of the extraordinary we all share. I like to think of him as my Time Traveller, in homage to the novel that made me fall in love with the idea and possibilities of time travel in the first place, H. G. Wells’s perennially magical ‘The Time Machine. Martin has his own particular problems, griefs and talents, but he is also in a sense an everyman. Like all of us, he yearns to know where he is headed, to learn what the universe is finally about. His struggle to come to an accommodation with infinity is perhaps the theme that most unifies these stories, but the stories themselves deal with those small acts of creative defiance that allow the artist – and thus Martin himself – to transcend ordinary mortality, and to become time-less.

Nina joins Dave Hutchinson and Pr Farah Mendlesohn at a free event at the Nottingham Contemporary on Monday 26 October. Book your place online

Image credit: Maria Tiurina

Posted in LiteraturePopular Culture Lecture Series