Boothby’s Ghost

In which The Author has further technical difficulties

Robert John Graham Boothby, Baron Boothby, KBE, (1900–1986) was a Scottish Conservative politician who is perhaps best-remembered for his ‘colourful’ private life. His numerous affairs with both women and men made him the subject of salacious gossip during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1964, he was awarded £40,000 by the Daily Mirror in an out-court settlement; the paper had alleged that he and the Labour MP Tom Driberg were procuring young men through their friendship with the Kray Twins, in return for ‘favours’. After this, Boothby married for a second time, and became something of an elder statesman within the Conservative Party. In a television interview after Boothby’s death, one of his friends compared him to ‘an erratic alarm clock’. That’s why he’s made his way into this blog, nearly three decades after his death.
We once had an ornament which lived on our mantelpiece in Trecynon before we moved to Llwydcoed in the spring of 1986. It had a wide brass-coloured base and a narrow stem, upon which sat a peculiar clock. I can best describe it as being like a cross-section through a tea rose – a flat base, two curved sides leading to points, two sharper curves heading up from those, and flattening out at the top, where a brass-coloured ring was fixed in the centre. The vague resemblance to a flower was made more pronounced by the fact that the body was bright red. The clock face was unremarkable, marked in Roman numerals, with two rather grand hands, a straight black rod to tick off the seconds, and a short plain red bar for setting the alarm.
It wasn’t even battery-powered. It was clockwork, with knobs at the rear for winding it and setting the time and alarm, and a little slider to regulate the timekeeping. We’d had it since I was young, and when Dad and Mother split up it stayed with Dad. Something in the upheaval must have upset the clock – either mechanically, emotionally or spiritually – because as soon as we moved to Llwydcoed, it stopped keeping proper time.
It supposedly had an eight day movement, but we were lucky if it worked for more than eight hours at a time. The alarm would sound for no reason in the middle of the day (or, worse still, in the middle of the night), either in a rather apologetic imitation of a proper ring, or just the occasional ting at random intervals. Hence, when Dad and I heard the memorable description of Lord Boothby on the TV news, our own erratic alarm clock acquired a nickname which stayed with it for twenty years.
I don’t know what happened to our Boothby after Dad passed away. I shouldn’t think Mother gave it a home. After all, she’s got at least four clocks in the house (not including the ones on the Sky box and the cooker), and I don’t think any of them display the right time. The one in the small living room is reasonably accurate, but I wouldn’t use it if I was aiming to catch a train. The one above the fireplace in the big living room is another old friend from my childhood, and I think it stopped working even before Boothby had its breakdown. It’s a nice ornament, though, so I can see why it’s still on display. As the old joke has it, at least it’s right twice a day.
Of course, being a Twenty-first Century Boy, I’ve no time (pun intended) for old-fashioned clocks. They might look nice, but if you’re going to faff about with them once every eight days (or even twice a year) they’re too much like hard work. On Monday last week, Metro ran a headline which read Queen seeking someone to look after her 1,000 clocks. Buckingham Palace apparently had a vacancy for a horological conservator, to maintain all the royal timepieces. For £31,200 the lucky candidate gets to travel to all the royal residences, winding and checking everything from turret clocks to pocket watches. I decided a long time ago that there was a much easier method of keeping time.
As I told you in Modern Physics Vol 2: Time, about ten years ago I engaged in a one-man war with the local bus company. I bought a battery-operated alarm clock from Argos, which sets itself using a radio signal generated by the atomic clock at the National Physical Laboratory. It cost me about a tenner, and it was money well spent. I just put the batteries in, waited a few minutes while the clock established the radio connection, and bong! – it was immediately in sync with Greenwich Mean Time or British Summer Time. I was able to challenge the more unhelpful bus drivers whenever they claimed that they weren’t running early, because I knew bloody well that they were.
The battery life is remarkable, and it draws so little current that I can recycle the batteries from my camera, once they’re no longer powerful enough to work in that, and still get three or four months’ life from them. It’s got an easy-on-the-eye LCD display which turns itself off completely at night, and it just needs a little nudge to light up for a few seconds before going dark again. The alarm is rather harsh, but I don’t often use it – my sleep pattern is so shot that I’m usually awake long before I need to be. (I think the last time I used the alarm was during my overnight stay in Manchester, nearly a year ago.)
A couple of years ago, the battery-powered clock in my living middle room died after several years of sterling service. I bought a wall-mounted radio-controlled clock, again from Argos, which lives neatly above my Reference Library. It sets itself at the beginning and end of British Summer Time, and a single AA battery will last for at least six months. I don’t need a well-paid flunky to see to my timepieces – whether upstairs or downstairs.
However, over the past month or so, it appears that my regular bedtime companion has been possessed by the ghost of Boothby, the ‘erratic alarm clock’. One morning, I was woken in the small hours by a regular soft ticking from the bedside table. My clock was flashing on and off for no apparent reason, and the ‘ticking’ was the gentle click it makes as the light comes on. I was baffled, and nudged it a few times to try and get it to stop. It made no difference. I had no choice but to lay it face-down on the table to counteract whatever mysterious force was pressing down on it. When I propped it back up the following morning, the display failed to light up at all.
This performance has been repeated several times over the past few weeks. I changed the batteries yesterday, and it doesn’t seem to have made any difference. I was woken again in the early hours of this morning by some impromptu flashing and ticking from Boothby’s Ghost. There seems to be no reason for whatever’s possessed it to act like that. For the time being, it’s lying face-down on the bedside table, and I just pick it up whenever I need a timecheck before putting it down again. I’m fairly sure it’s not what the manufacturers intended.
My brother had a battery-operated Casio alarm clock when he was young, which played a proto-polyphonic version of a Mozart theme. Towards the end of its life, it regularly produced some strange, tortured noises at random intervals throughout the day and night alike. I think it went into the bin eventually, as it was beyond help. It seems as though, as a family, we’re doomed to be tormented by electronic clocks.
Mind you, I once went to sleep listening to Radio 3, and was woken the following morning by the radio, in the middle of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird suite. I thought the world was ending. Compared to that, I can cope with a gentle ticking for a few seconds before I have chance to knock Boothby Junior onto his face.
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