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World

When All The Clocks Stopped In Swansea

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You know the old saying, even a broken watch is right twice a day? Well, in a city in Wales, eight of the city's 16 public clocks have only been right twice a day for days. They're all stuck at 12 o'clock. Eight clocks stopping at 12 might seem like a sign of the apocalypse. In this case, all that foretold is a retirement. David Mitchell, the man who has maintained the city's clocks since 1985, stopped them on purpose. His contract with the city was about to expire. Mr. Mitchell, who was a fellow of the British Horological Institute, joins us from Swansea, Wales. Thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID MITCHELL: Thank you. My pleasure.

SIMON: Why did you stop the clocks?

MITCHELL: I stopped the clocks because, A - my contract was running out, and, yes, I am eligible for retirement 'cause I'm 72 now. But the hand-wound ones, they're big cast iron weights. If the weights, when they run out, fell over, it would take three men to reconnect all the wires going through the pulleys and things, so it was on a safety grounds that I stopped them.

SIMON: Why did you stop both hands at 12?

MITCHELL: Well, I stopped them at 12 o'clock because every time I get a clock on my working license, and my father-in-law before me, people seem to think, oh, that clock is at 12 o'clock. And they look at their watch or something, and they'll say, oh, it's stopped. Whereas if I left it at any time, they don't seem to pick it up quick enough.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Mitchell, may I ask, are there a lot of other people doing a job like yours or is that number dwindling these days?

MITCHELL: It's dwindling. Ordinary clocks, like grandfather clocks, grandmother clocks, wall clocks, the number of clock repairers and watch repairers, they just - people aren't coming into the trade. People have asked me, why don't I teach somebody? When I started the job, I did all the cleaning and all the odd jobs around the shop because I was working in the jeweler shop. But today, I'm working on my own. And if I employed somebody, I haven't got the work for him or her - 'cause there are a lot of lady watch and clockmakers now - but I haven't got the work for somebody to - or the money - for me to train them.

SIMON: What's the hardest part of a job like that?

MITCHELL: Well, I suppose the tower clocks. It is winding them up because it's not like winding a domestic clock. They're big crank handles, and the weights. The steel weights weigh three or four-hundred weight each. So that is - and climbing towers up the - one of the churches has got 147 steps before you actually get to the clock to wind it. So I mean, that's the hard part. I don't look at it as hard. It's a job I've done all my life, and I just love working with my hands. I don't read books. If I read a book, I can't remember what's on the page I've just read when I'm reading the next page. But if I see somebody doing a job today, I can remember what they did 20 years ago. I can still see that person doing it, and I can do it. And I've been involved with these clocks for 57 years. I've only ever had one job in my life, so it's part of my life. They're like my family.

SIMON: David Mitchell, horologist in Swansea, Wales. Thanks so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you, sir.

MITCHELL: It's been a pleasure to speak to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.