Under the Eye of the Clock by Christopher Nolan

Nolan, Christopher - Under the Eye of the Clock

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstacy! Then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for the bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

From The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins

Ah, waiter, are there any any, where are, tell me, come,

Napkins, lovely all-of-a-starch-staring

Linen, preferably, or pauper-seeming, paper, waiter? Wearing

My gaygear goodsuit, ah, my dear, dim was it? dumb?

Well, this train’s tripping and track-truckling as I sipped

Soup, did, ah God, the hot of it! – yes, slipped, flipped

Into my lap, slapping, of this clear consommé, some

Spoonflung flashes, splashes for bosom’s bearing.

From G. M. Hopkins Takes Lunch in the Restaurant Car by Walter Nash

I was introduced to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins when I was an undergraduate, and took against it at first sight.  The multiple compounding, stylised punctuation, excessive alliteration, and subversion of grammar (using ‘achieve’ as a noun, for example) seemed to me to be overblown and self-indulgent: flowery for the sake of it. And I was smugly satisfied when my language tutor showed me Walter Nash’s parody.

Christopher Nolan and I would not have seen eye to eye on this, I’m certain.  Critics have compared his writing to that of Yeats and Joyce, like him both Irish, but it was GMH that came to mind as I read Under the Eye of the Clock, winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1987.

For example, there’s: ‘Free-falling, he created grand gospels of boyish certainty. Washed by sedentary, snared sacrifice, he descended within easy reach of hell, but severe despondency never could stop Joseph’s mesmerized worldwaddling in ink-blue heaven’s mobility of secrets.’  And ‘Austere casing wrapped him tightly, but fun, frolics and flutters marked out his future years’ canvassed beat.  He shrieked in fear now for dead dreams’ recurrence but man-nosed frankness heeded Hecuba and blooded him fraternally.’  And how about ‘Never able to limb his hushed boyhood, he nebula-nymphed his bony hayhurdles and cradled absolute joy where tried but wearied folk breasted help’?

But if that makes you think I didn’t like the book, you’d be wrong.  There’s much to marvel at. For starters, it’s a wonder the book exists at all: Nolan was born profoundly disabled and could write only by striking the letters on a keyboard using a pointer attached to his head – even that small movement required a huge effort on his part and someone to support his head under his chin as he typed. This also explains some aspects of Nolan’s writing style, his ‘briefness in language…why his rhythm of sound was jumpy and jarring on the ear.’

Under the Eye of the Clock is an autobiographical account of Nolan’s childhood (though cast in the third person as the story of Joseph Meehan).  Joseph’s everyday struggles with his disability make for a tragic story, of course. It’s also strangely uplifting.  He’s accepted into a mainstream school, communicating with teachers and pupils via eye signals. His friends are loyal and protective, ‘they treated Joseph with boyish naturalness’, and ‘greeted gaping students’ gombeen glances with numbed expletives.’ And there’s room for humour: his family shouting “Fire away ya divil ya,” as a signal for him to urinate; his school friends piling onto his wheelchair and haring around on it; Joseph sticking two fingers up to a crucifix and then being struck by the absurdity of ‘telling God to fuck off.’

Ok, so I wasn’t won over to the GMH style of writing – I tended to skim reading those paragraphs, I’ll admit – but Under the Eye of the Clock is still worth a read. Nolan believes in the power of writing to give him ‘access to the normal man’s world’ and provide a voice to the voiceless: ‘crass, crippled man dashed, branded and treated like dross in a world offended by their appearance’. And he uses that power not only to share what it feels like but also to ‘cast down the gauntlet – accept me for what I am and I’ll accept you for what you’re accepted as’.  And that makes Under the Eye of the Clock so more than an autobiography: it makes it a fragile hymn to the strength, ingenuity, perseverance, and at-times-sheer-bloody-minded-stubbornness of that inner mystery we call the human spirit.

** Worth reading

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