Old Father Time

Monsieur V has an all-absorbing pastime, almost an obsession: he loves acquiring and mending clocks. He is normally to be found in his atelier in the narrow street going up to the ruined castle from the market place in Caylus. A handwritten sign points the way, but you could be forgiven for missing it.

A small, round man with lively, beady eyes, wearing the countryman’s uniform of corduroy trousers and beret, he sits reading the newspaper or fiddling with his clocks, waiting for people to turn up. When they do, he gives them a guided tour of his cramped premises. The place is crammed with clocks, mainly grandfather clocks, but smaller ones are displayed on every available surface. They include an ancient mechanism, which he has restored and specimens that have curiosity, if not aesthetic value, such as a small clock inlaid into a misshapen bottle.


The Statistics Freak adores clocks too. I bought him one for an important birthday (I won’t tell you which one). It’s a pretty, pot-bellied long case clock, known as a Comtoise, probably made just over a century ago. Made of deal, our Comtoise is crudely painted with flowers and incised with curlicues. The SF chose it over its more elegant and imposing rivals, since he thought – and I agree – that it would go best in our house.

This type of clock originated in the mountainous Jura region, where farmers whiled away the snowy winters by making clocks. The first Comtoise is dated to 1693. During the 19th century, they were sold throughout France by colporteurs (travelling salesmen or hawkers). Thanks to the railway, these clocks spread widely outside the Jura.

The face indicates that the clock comes from Boisson Horloger at Castelnau. There are more than 20 places called Castelnau, all of them in the south of France and none in the Jura that I can find. It’s possible that Boisson was not the maker, but the retailer. It’s also possible that, by the end of the 19th century, the manufacture of Comtoises had spread beyond the Jura. Above the face, a classic scene shows Mary and Joseph, with Mary riding side-saddle on a donkey or ass, holding the infant Jesus.

Comtoise 2
Comtoise clock face

The clock has a beautiful, melodious chime, since the bell was cast and then crafted by hand, so we are told. It chimes the hour a second time, at an interval of two minutes, which is apparently a distinguishing feature of a Comtoise.

When Monsieur V delivered the clock, it took him about 1½ hours to get it going. The problem is that the mechanism is very sensitive indeed. The whole thing has to be completely level, which in our house is a virtual impossibility. It’s therefore wedged with pieces of old business card (I knew they would come in handy one day) and slivers of Perspex. It greatly objects to being touched and if you vacuum within a metre of it, it stops. The clock is a presence, almost a personality, and the SF despairs if it stops since it’s so hard to get it, and keep it, going again.

Such clocks were normally placed within sight of the front door, Monsieur V told us, so that people could look in and see what the time was without interrupting their work or soiling the house with muddy boots. It now performs the same function for me, straight ahead of my computer screen. I always look at the clock to see the time, never at the digital display on my screen or my watch, so if the clock stops it completely throws me.

Monsieur V has a gently mocking sense of humour. I took a friend who was staying last year up to see his atelier. I reminded Monsieur V that he had sold me a clock and then told him, “Elle marche bien” (it works well). Wagging his finger in front of my face, eyes twinkling, Monsieur V replied, “Ah, mais vous savez, vous ne verrez jamais une horloge en train de marcher!”  (ah, but you know, you’ll never see a clock walking). Of course, I should have said, “Elle fonctionne bien” – fonctionner being the correct word for ‘work’ or ‘function’. But every French person I know, except obviously Monsieur V, uses marcher.

However long I live here, I’ll never quite get it right.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. What a beautiful clock – if senstive! We found the remains of a grandfather type clock in our attic when we moved in. The bell in the village church, when it’s there (it’s in the process of being renovated at present) chimes the hour twice over in the comtoise way.
    Thnaks for another lovely, interesting article.


    • You have certainly found some interesting things at your place. All we have found is an old buffet in the barn, without doors or drawers and lurching drunkenly on uneven legs. We have been contemplating (for 8 years!) having it restored, but it would be about 1,000 euro and there are so many other priorities.


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