Once Round The Sun |
The idea |
I blame Kiefer Sutherland. As Jack Bauer in the TV show 24, he has 24 hours to save the world (well, America, actually) from some sort of terrorist atrocity, and in 24 episodes, each one hour long, we are shown every minute of his day. My wife and I gave up a whole day of our lives to watch him, and sometime during that 24 hours I had an idea. I’d do a photographic piece, probably called 24, which would last a whole day. 24 photos, one every hour. The photos would show time passing because they would be pictures of clocks, a different clock for each hour. Of course it would mean a day without sleep!
Part of the reason that I work with film rather than digitally is because I like the idea of film as a record of a sequence of events. The work builds up one frame at a time, so the final film is both the artwork and the record of making the artwork.
Unfortunately for me the spore of an idea quickly mushroomed in my mind. If I was going to photograph a whole day, which day should it be? Should it be in summer or winter? Soon I realised that to reveal the idea’s full potential, I would have to photograph more than one day. That way it would record not just a day, but the passing of the year. I couldn’t escape the pursuing logic that I would have to take at least four films, one at each solstice and one at each equinox. That way I’d see the ebb and flow of daylight throughout the year. A fifth solstice at the beginning of the next year would complete the year’s cycle, and a 25th photo at midnight would complete the day’s cycle. In my sketches I could see a small spot of light in winter broadening out towards summer, then shrinking again. A picture of our journey around the sun as a diamond of light, admittedly a slightly skewed diamond due to British Summer Time, but a diamond nonetheless.
So which clocks? I spent a few weeks cycling around London looking for suitable clocks. I ended up with a long list of more than 40 clocks, some as far out as Wembley, Harrow, and even Northwood where I lIve. Some clocks only had to look good illuminated at night, while some were only going to be shot during the day. Some on the cusp of daylight, would have to look good both day and night. With difficulty I whittled the list down to the twelve clocks you see here. Twelve clocks, rather than 24, produces a nice symmetry, 1 am mirroring 11 pm etc; the symmetry in the day echoing the symmetry in the year. Nearly all the clocks I settled on are within a short distance from 80 Strand, where I work. I hoped I’d be able to pop in occasionally to warm up, have a power nap or a coffee (and to use the loo!)
12 Midnight Big Ben |
To me as a Londoner, this is really the symbol of time, ushering in the new year and standing constant as Westminster governments wax and wane.
In the winter of 2004, I arrive with a bit of time to kill. I try reading the book I’ve brought, but it’s too cold, so instead I just set up my tripod and pace around trying to keep warm. The adrenalin is really pumping as the bells ring in the start of my year-long project. The fact it’s so cold is probably why there are no community policemen lingering around looking for suspicious goings on. Spring brings my first run-in with this slightly shorter arm of the law.
“Hello, hello, hello, what’s going on here then?” (Or words to that effect.)
“I’m just taking a photo of Big Ben.”
“I see, very interesting. Is it just for personal use?”
I explain the project to them and when they look a bit blank, I tell them it’s ‘Art’.
“I think we better have your name sir? We’ll just check you against our records.”
I tell them my name. He speaks into his radio,
“Caucasian male loitering by Big Ben. Wearing fluorescent yellow cycling jacket and jeans. Large sideburns. Name, Martin Wilson.”
A reply crackles through. “Well, sir, we do have a Martin Wilson on our records, but he doesn’t match your description. We’ll just fill out a report and you can be on your way.” I take the photo.
They give me a copy of the report and I get on my way. Back to the Strand for a quick toilet break before Victoria. As I leave, someone turns the lights off on Big Ben. Got to save electricity, I suppose. I’m hoping my other night-time clocks are still going to be illuminated.
1 am Little Ben, Victoria |
‘Little Ben’ is outside Victoria Station on a little traffic island, just in front of the theatre where Billy Elliot is playing. The streets are usually pretty empty at this time, except for a mobile snack shop where I buy a snickers bar (healthy because it’s got nuts in!) in a vain attempt to keep warm.
2 am Burberrys clock, Haymarket |
This clock wasn’t even on my original long list. I saw it first when I was killing time before the first Big Ben shot. It looked so good I crossed the clock at Angel off the 7 am slot and moved everything else down. Thankfully this also saved me a few miles of cycling.
At 2 am there are still quite a few people around, Ben Sherman shirts and short skirts coming in and out of the late-night bars in the Haymarket. If I had a pound for everyone who staggered up to me and posed unsteadily in front of my tripod, supported by their mates saying, “Go on, take my picture!”, I’d be a rich man (well, actually about £6 richer). “Are you going to sell that picture of Burberrys to all the chavs?” they say.
Pacing around the first winter, I also meet a saxophonist who’s just finished a gig. He tells me he’s going to spend the night sleeping in his car, because he’s too tired to drive home.
3 am St Pancras |
This was just bad planning. 3 am is not the time to be hanging around Kings Cross. Everyone else hanging around here at this time is up to no good. I feel a little scared. With my camera and tripod I can’t really make a quick getaway, and there seem to be quite a few lowlife characters around that it would be good to get away from. Thankfully, the first winter passes without incident and I make sure I am as quick as possible on all my later visits.
It is also unfortunate that there is building work at St Pancras. There’s a crane just visible in a few shots and then in the autumn they turn the spot lights off! There is just enough ambient street light to take the shot, but the slow exposure means that autumn is a little bit shaky to say the least.
4 am Exeter Street |
Photographing this clock I invariable find myself singing Prefab Sprout’s Faron Young, “You give me Faron Young, Four in the morning . . .“
Exeter Street is nice and quiet and close enough to the Strand to pop in to work and have a power nap. 4 am is cold, even in summer.
By the time summer comes, this clock is also running 15 minutes slow. I decide to take the photos when the clock shows 4 am (real time 4.15 am). This gives me a bit of visual consistency, but more importantly, it gives me an extra 15 minutes to nap. If I race back from St Pancras, I can set my alarm for 4 am and get nearly a whole hour of sleep. This leaves me 15 minutes to stagger blearily down the road and take the shot. Unfortunately it then means I have 15 minutes less time to get to Bayswater Road.
5 am Whiteleys clock, Bayswater Road,
facing west. |
It’s not that far from the Strand to Queensway. However, at 4.15 am when you’ve been up all night, it seems a long way away. On the way I do begin to wish I’d only chosen clocks in central London. Between 4 am and 5 am London is at its most peaceful. The short skirts and Ben Sherman shirts have all gone home. The only people around are street sweepers and a few workmen around the Queensway tube station. In the summer, a couple of policemen lean their heads out of their patrol car to see what I’m up to, but are quickly on their way when I show them some photos of the previous solstice,
and say it’s Art.
Now summertime’s here it’s light enough to ride through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, which have a serene beauty. On the outward journey, a shallow sea of mist laps the base of the trees, clearing on the return journey to reveal the remnants of last night’s picnics. A weak, warm sun is breaking through the early morning chill. I stop briefly just to take it in. On my ipod, George Harrison’s thin and fragile guitar rings in “Here comes the sun”. The brilliant sky brightens as I ride through the park, Telecom Tower a hazy silhouette over the Serpentine. Spitting and coughing through a cloud of flies, I watch a swimmer emerge from the Serpentine. I nervously cycle past another couple of policemen, expecting them to caution me for cycling on the footpath, but like me they are just out for the view. Onwards to the Strand through Hyde park, the ipod now playing Herbie Hancock’s space jazz Mwadishi, weird enough at the best of times, but to my sleep-deprived brain, unsettlingly spooky.
6 am Civil Service Supply Association Ltd clock, Strand. |
Photographed from the central reservation. London is slowly coming to life. Perplexed smiles from the early shift at Pret a Manger, taking in the morning deliveries. Streams of half empty buses racing through the otherwise empty Strand, as though the drivers are making the most of this slim opportunity to put their foot down. The buses always give this hour a bit of tension, as a wrongly placed double-decker can easily obliterate my view of the clock. Luckily there is always a window of a few seconds as the hour ticks over. Window cleaners also increase the tension in summer as they slowly work their way down the building, their hydraulic ladder potentially blocking out the entire clock. Thankfully they move slowly enough to prevent any disasters, and the dark shadow of the building opposite moves away to allow the warm early light to pick out the clock’s pink marble surround.
7 am 80 Strand from the Embankment |
Apart from in summer, I find this clock surprisingly dark. I suppose I’m used to the brilliance of its face as I roll up for work at a leisurely 9.30 am (or closer to 10!) Even in spring and autumn it seems to struggle to catch the cold light coming off the river. In winter it is just cold as I stand guard by my tripod, protecting it from the few (fool)hardy joggers out for a riverside run.
Summer is one of the good times. Sitting in the sun leaning against a lamppost waiting for the hour, with the Thames gently slapping its banks under Cleopatra’s Needle. Quite a few joggers now. My ipod provides the soundtrack, the jangly guitars and close harmonies of Teenage Fanclub capture that summer feeling.
8 am Royal Exchange, Cornhill |
This is always the point at which I ring home to interrupt breakfast or wake the sleeping. I’m always relieved that I’ve made it through the night. Even in winter the day has really begun. City workers on their way to work seem a bit annoyed that I’m blocking the pavement, and so close to the bus stop. One season I’m struck by a strange sleep-deprived notion - that there is an unusually high proportion of blonde women, perhaps something to do with power dressing in high finance. I try unsuccessfully to make a count that I can compare later with the world of publishing. I try to count the men too, and wonder if there is a higher preponderance of baldness, brought on by stress perhaps!
The spring equinox falls on a Sunday, so despite the daylight I still have the streets to myself. Killing time before nine o’clock I cycle across Millennium Bridge, a solitary jogger for company, and look in at the empty Tate Modern, wondering where exactly they are going to hang my masterpiece when it is finished.
9 am The old Daily Telegraph clock, Fleet Street |
To be honest, I rush this first time round. I think I have plenty of time to get some breakfast at work after Cornhill. The warm sausage sandwich with ample mustard helps me thaw out. By this point, my face is sore with the cold. The redness lasts for several days. When I come into work everyone thinks I’ve caught the sun. I think it’s the first signs of frostbite!
I’ve left my digital camera charging up overnight and begin to take some extremely dull journal footage. My intention is to take a little bit of film at each clock and this will become a little movie in itself. Although I persist throughout the project it does make for rather boring viewing. What I end up with is lots of wobbly panning shots of the pavement, my camera and the clock then a slightly mis-framed picture of my face saying, “well, er, it’s er, 5/9/11 o’clock. Er, I’m quite tired/very tired/very cold and tired”, then another wobbly pan back to the pavement and stationary London traffic. It’s a bit like Ellen MacArthur’s video diary, but without quite so many tears. This first short clip involves footage of my early bird colleagues eating shreddies or pretending to work. In fact it was chatting, and relaxing into my role as documentary film maker, that makes me nearly miss 9 o’clock!
Standing in Fleet Street waiting for the hour the second winter, a security guard comes to question my motives, “Why are you taking pictures of the building?”, and “What are you going to do with the photos?”. I say it’s Art and he goes away satisfied.
10 am Cambridge Circus |
This lovely art deco clock gracing the side of Pizza Hut is the cause of a fair amount of heartache for me. A month before the spring equinox I notice with horror that workmen are starting to surround it with scaffolding. At this point I question whether it is worth carrying on with the project. The scaffolding has turned a thing of beauty into something quite ugly. I consider shooting the next film with a completely different set of clocks, after all I have enough on my long list. But I eventually realise that the uncontrollable element of the piece is part of the record of the year - too much cloud, too much sun, broken clocks, broken lights, scaffolding. If these make their way into my pictures it will make the record of passing time more apparent. So I embrace the chaos and photograph the scaffolding, maybe even seeing some beauty in the uncompromising hard lines of its ugliness. What I don’t realise is that there is even more chaos waiting to be embraced. The scaffolding means that the clock isn’t changed to British Summer Time at the end of March. So for the summer solstice it not only has scaffolding around it, but one side of the clock is an hour slow and the other side has now stopped at 4.16. For the autumn equinox the scaffolding has gone, but now one side of the clock is 40 minutes fast and the other side has stopped at a completely different time. Both sides are reset to the correct time briefly in October, but by the winter solstice it has broken down again!
11 am Southampton Street |
Thankfully, the sad demise of the Sainsburys below this clock doesn’t affect its time keeping. Nice and convenient for a cup of tea and a rest at the office. There is usually a couple of Big Issue sellers and their dog underneath who are good for a chat. “It’s Art”, I say. As I’m marking the pavement with a wax crayon to mark my place for next time they offer me advice. “You don’t want to mark the pavement, mate, you should mark the wall. They clean this pavement every day.” Sure enough, overzealous cleaning has removed my marks within weeks. The mark on the wall remains. Later I come and reinforce my marks with a can of spray paint - even that only lasts a season.
12 Noon Big Ben |
By now, this is crawling with tourists. A few ask me to take their pictures in front of Big Ben. A couple ask me for directions. I think my fluorescent cycling jacket makes me look like a community policeman. I consider asking them if their pictures are just for personal use.
Halfway through now, I tell myself, I’ve just got to take them all again then I can go to bed. Only about another 13 hours. I go and get some lunch. In winter, vegetable chilli brings some extra internal warmth, but burns my sore, chapped lips.
1 pm Exeter Street |
The first of the return run. Unfortunately one side of this clock runs five minutes fast so when I saunter up to it relaxed in the knowledge that I have plenty of time to set up my shot, panic strikes as I reach the other side. It already shows 1 o’clock. I set up the tripod on my marks with lightening speed; lining up the shot is a fiddle. I press the shutter release, nothing. I’ve forgotten to wind on. I wind on. Press the shutter release. Nothing. My cable release isn’t screwed in properly. Finally there’s a satisfying click, but the minute hand shows 2 minutes past. When I take a break back at the office I mention it to my colleagues. Apparently it’s common knowledge that this clock is fast; it makes everyone think they are late when they come back from lunch. Next time I remember and leave plenty of time.
2 pm Cambridge Circus |
Scaffolding and broken clocks. In summer, autumn and winter when this side has stopped completely I can be a bit relaxed about my timing. So I take the opportunity to have a browse in ‘Fopp’ and ‘Ray’s Jazz’, even buy some Christmas presents.
3 pm The old Daily Telegraph clock , Fleet Street |
Standing by my tripod in winter a tourist asks me what I’m doing. “Art”, I say, “Pictures of clocks.” She replies, “I’ve heard there’s some place in Fleet Street where you can see seven clocks at once.” Fleet Street is big on clocks - I hadn’t counted but seven sounds about right. I tell her to try standing a bit closer to the courts. Perhaps the court clock is one of the seven. I’ve always meant to check this out, but
4 pm Royal Exchange Cornhill |
This is when I start to get really tired. In summer I can have a short nap in the sun by Monument Station. In other seasons, I just have to ride it out. Talking of riding, cycling starts to become very difficult. Usually I like to race anyone on the road who’s game, including cars and especially white vans (and modest though I am I’d like to say I usually win). Now my legs don’t seem to work properly, and it is here in the autumn that I’m overtaken by a little old lady, nonchalantly cycling along with a small poodle peering out of the basket on her handlebars. In order to preserve my dignity I decide it’s best to give up the chase before it gets nasty.
5 pm Strand from the Embankment |
I find out a little late that the spot I have chosen to take my pictures from is right next to a coach stop. Huge doubledecker coaches from places like Hamburg threaten to park in front of me and block my view of the clock. My backup plan is to take the picture from the central reservation. Thankfully, despite providing a certain tension, the coaches actually stop just out of shot. I get a few suspicious looks from a street sweeper who obviously thinks I’m going to disturb his nice pile of leaves before he shovels them up. I wonder what he thinks of the yellow crosses I have sprayed on the pavement to mark my place.
6 pm Civil Service Supply Association Ltd, Strand |
This was always a difficult time. Standing on the central reservation watching everyone else going home. By this stage I haven’t slept for 35 hours and I’m jealous of everyone. In summer it isn’t so bad. I’ve managed a long nap in Embankment Gardens - I’ve put Miles Davis’ Pangea on my ipod, a recent acquistion. I am hoping for brooding apocalyptic slabs of sound, with an unresolved tension that is bound to keep me awake. Instead the absence of any obvious melodic direction softens any fragile hold I have on being awake and rocks me to sleep like the sweetest lullaby. Luckily my alarm is set for 5.45 pm and I arrive at my spot on the central reservation wobbly but in plenty of time to play the lottery with the hordes of buses once again threatening to block my view of the clock. I get a few more uncertain smiles from the late shift at Pret a Manger. In spring and summer my friend Andy meets me here, to keep me company for the last few hours. I’m extremely grateful as there will be few people left at work when I next return. Having someone to talk to helps keep me awake. However, I can sense from Andy’s blank expressions when I open my mouth that I have pretty much lost my grip on the simple rules of language and am now spouting pure gibberish.
7 pm Whiteleys clock Bayswater Road, facing east |
To get here I basically take part of my normal commuting route at pretty much my normal commuting time, but it feels oh so different. My legs are no longer responding to messages from my brain. When my friend Andy has joined me he is irritatingly fresh and it is a supreme effort to keep up with him. As he casually rides along with his hands behind his back, idly chatting to me, I have my head down and am ploughing into my deepest reserves of stamina. When we make it to Queensway, we meet an enthusiastic foreign student who is convinced that I must put the final piece on the internet and he leaves me his e-mail address so I can mail him when it’s finished. More than once I am only just in time to catch the hour; I have remembered that this clock is slightly out, but can’t recall whether it is fast or slow. Of course it turns out to be fast. In summer there is no time to set up my tripod, so I just stand in roughly the right spot and take the shot hand-held. I get a little too much of the nearby lamppost in the frame. In autumn, it’s slightly more relaxed and I also get the sunset I have been hoping for. The sky is a pale pink behind the startling green white of the clock’s fluorescent illumination.
On the last winter, cycling to this clock once more on my own, the words from a song by T Bone Burnett play incessantly in my head, “I love this town in its evening gown”. The Christmas lights in the hotels on Park Lane sparkle like a diamond necklace against the black velvet of the park. After a year of living with this city, moving with it through day and night, I feel a touch of sadness (along with relief) that the project is nearly over.
8 pm Exeter Street |
With Whiteleys clock fast, and this clock still 15 minutes slow, I have time to get something to eat, despite the long ride back to Central London. The hummus falafel that Andy and I get from Gaby’s in summer is so good that we make a note to return later and get another one. In winter and spring it is definitely dark at 8 pm and in autumn the day is fading fast, but in summer it is easily light enough to see the scalloped green tiles that surround the clock face. My parents come to meet me here the second winter, to see me in action on this project they’ve heard so much about. I hope they plan to stick around until midnight and give me a lift home, but unfortunately after the hour passes (15 minutes late, of course) they are off home to warmth and bed.
9 pm St Pancras |
In summer, it’s great to see this clock in the light as well. British Summer Time slightly skews my diamond of light, stretching it out much further into the summer and autumn evenings than into the mornings. Andy persuades me to come and explore the building work going on at the station. Returning in autumn and winter I do a fair amount of cursing the builders for switching off the spotlights. One curious and slightly drunk Australian couple I meet can’t understand why I’m taking pictures of what basically looks like a dark building site. I show them pictures of previous nights. They still think I’m crazy, but wish me luck anyway.
10 pm Burberrys clock, Haymarket |
At 10 pm Haymarket doesn’t seem as crowded as I expect. At 10 pm, unlike 2 am, there is still something going on inside Burberrys. I can see rails of clothes being moved around and lights on inside illuminate the arched window behind the clock. The window’s brown light and checked grill always make me think of the cover of James Brown’s album “Revolution of the Mind”. I can never shake this out of my sleep-deprived brain. Although the streets are emptier than I expect, crowds suddenly cause me quite a problem in the second winter. I have cut it a bit fine arriving, and as I’m setting up with only a few minutes to go one, or maybe more than one, of the theatres up the road ends its show and the streets are immediately thronging with a stream of theatregoers, moving like a flood up the pavement in front of me. There are hundreds of heads passing in front of my camera and my
long lens is wobbling about uncontrollably. I simply have to wait for a gap in the crowd and just hope that there isn’t too much camera shake. it is 2 minutes past before I finally release the shutter.
This is usually a good time to sit in a cafe and get an overpriced double expresso. In the spring, Andy and I search unsuccessfully for somewhere where we can get a coffee and watch our bikes, as I have left my lock in the Strand. I take the picture instead and we return with a lock to take our coffee break before Victoria at 11 pm. Unfortunately we relax a bit too much and only make it to Victoria with a mad dash down the Mall, pure force of will and fear of failure moving my legs.
11 pm Little Ben, Victoria |
Little Ben actually has a tiny chime as it strikes the hour. I don’t recall it ever sounding at 1 o’clock though; perhaps there is a by-law against public noise after midnight. The small ding as 11 o’clock strikes always takes me by surprise, especially as it usually sounds just after I’ve taken the shot and I’m packing away. As we cycle back towards Big Ben through the empty streets, like true cyclists we jump a red light. A policeman puts the fear of God into us by shouting at us. He is carrying a semiautomatic machine gun.
The second winter I can’t wait for midnight. I’m tired and a bit fed up, not at all excited. I sit in the draughty hanger of Victoria Station in a vain attempt to keep warm. The coffee shops are shut, so I eat a banana from my bag instead and try to read the book I’ve carried like a dead weight for the last 23 hours. Despite this excitement, time passes slow.
12 Midnight Big Ben |
The end of the day and eventually the end of the year. The adrenalin pumps as I take these shots, as there is always so much riding on them. I’ve had too many projects where jammed shutters have ruined a nearly complete film, and I’ve had to start back at the beginning. The fact that this might happen now is always at the back of my mind and the fear always makes its way from the back of my mind to the pit of my stomach. During the second winter, as I am setting up, my friends in fluorescent yellow approach, the community police. “You can’t take photos here,” one of them says. This is the final shot of a year’s work and it looks like he’s going to stop me taking it! “What do you mean?” I exclaim exasperated. “People must take about a million pictures here everyday!” “Ah, yes, but there is a by-law against using a tripod,” he says. "If you write to Westminster council they might grant you permission.” Somehow I get the distinct impression that he is making all this up, however I calm down. The only way I’m going to get my shot is if I stay cool and appeal to his mercy. I explain the project to him, “It’s Art”, I say. “I just need to take this one last picture - then I’ll be gone forever, no longer a threat to the democracy of the free world; after midnight, the nation can sleep in peace.” (Actually I didn’t say that last bit.) He reconsiders - thinks he can cut me some slack and turn a blind eye for the next five minutes. I thank him. “But I’ll have to check you in our records,” he says. “Can you tell me your name?” So once again the radio crackles, “Male caucasian, yellow cycle jacket, large sideburns. . ." He fills out another report and I take the picture. As the shutter fires I’m almost ready to give the community police officers a hug, I’m
However, there is never time to stand and appreciate the moments of relief. I pack up my tripod as quickly as possible, heave my rucksack onto my back and sprint off to Baker Street as fast as I can. The last train has already gone. The train I’m trying to catch doesn’t go all the way home. I’ll still have a three mile ride when I get off. If I miss this train, the next one is at 6 am, so it’ll be a night spent on the floor of
I’m afraid to say I jump nearly all the red lights. In fact in autumn I actually have a small prang with a car that leaves me limping for a week and £120 poorer! Thankfully I still catch my train, keeping myself awake until my stop. My legs barely turn the pedals now and it’s a slow three miles home. My speedo tells me that somehow I’ve managed 50-60 miles since the night before. The streets of surburbia are empty and the house is dark when I roll up at about 1.30 am.
I don’t set my alarm and I collapse into bed 43 hours since I left it last.
Let’s just hope the films come out!