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Tempus Fugit

Tempus Fugit

I take my hat off to anyone who seriously embarks on a New Year’s Resolution. Such stoic souls strike me as being either extremely optimistic or extremely strong willed. Or both.

Perhaps we’re atypical, but all we want to do during cold days and long nights is hunker down and indulge in a hefty dose of hygge. Something akin to hibernation is the MooreMundi modus operandi during the winter months.

Of course, everything changes once the clocks go forward. Each spring, with our batteries fully charged, we're rearing to go, full of energy and enthusiasm. So it was this spring when we decided to embark on a programme of self-improvement, part of which involved joining a local gym. Within about five minutes of getting on the treadmill, however, the novelty factor had started to wane and it soon became clear that I needed something to occupy my mind as well as challenge my body. Many people, including Mr Moore, find music helpful but that didn’t seem to work for me so I hit on the idea of listening to podcasts.

This being so, I have the gym to thank for the chance to listen, uninterrupted, to what turned out to be particularly engaging episode of Radio 4’s Start the Week. Entitled Play and Creativity it featured amongst its guests Steven Johnson, author of Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. Challenging the traditional theory that innovation and societal advancement depend on sustained hard work and deliberate application, Johnson made a convincing case for fun and wonder being equally powerful drivers to creativity and change.

Johnson illustrated this theory with various examples, but the one which really stood out for me was that of eighteenth century British cotton production. Johnson argued that this was stimulated by wealthy women who fell under the spell of the gorgeous calico and chintz imports which had arrived on these shores from India. From this perspective, the initial trigger to the huge change wrought by the emergence of our cotton industry was that of self-indulgent delight. Disparagingly referred to as 'calico madams’, these women didn’t demand this fabric because they needed it for any practical purpose. It wasn't about utility. It was about desire. They craved it because they were seduced by its aesthetic and tactile appeal. Much like my own love of clothes and shoes. I don’t need another winter coat. The ones I have hanging in our wardrobe are perfectly serviceable. They will keep me dry and warm. But that doesn’t stop me from drooling over the gorgeous maroon coat in the Ted Baker AW17 collection with the wide faux fur sleeves. In so many ways, the world has changed almost beyond recognition in the last three hundred years but, as the French say, plus ça change.

Change was at the heart of The Design Museum's Cartier in Motion exhibition which we visited last month. Curated by Norman Foster, it explored the forces which led to the creation, and subsequent development, of the world’s first ever wristwatch by Cartier in 1904. At that point in history, Paris was in the warm embrace of the Belle Époque, buzzing with enthusiasm and positioned at the vanguard as it marched towards modernity. Parisians must have marvelled as advances in technology and engineering ushered in a new era characterised by automobiles, motion pictures and the world's fledgling flying machines. Although all of these early twentieth century wonders have since become twenty-first century norms, there is one sight which would probably provoke as much astonishment today as it did in the early 1900s: that of a large airship flying low over the rooftops of Paris. Sometimes on a leisurely flight, it's pilot stopping off for lunch along the way, sometimes engaged in a race against the clock, such a description might sound like a bizarre 'Monty Pythonesque' flight of fancy (forgive the pun), but it's not. There really was a man who did just this. His name was Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Feted for his daredevil antics, initially in dirigibles and then later in an aeroplane, Santos-Dumont was driven by a desire to set new world records for speed in flight. But he encountered a frustrating problem: he couldn't easily reach for his pocket watch to check progress whilst in transit without jepordizing control of his machine. Frustration in one person can, however, act as the spur to inspire another. So it was in this case, for a chance conversation between Santos-Dumont and his friend the jeweller, Louis Cartier, resulted in Cartier coming up with the novel idea of strapping a small timepiece to Santos-Dumont's wrist, thereby enabling him to check the time without taking his hands off the controls of the dirigible.

 Alberto Santos-Dumont and the watch that bears his name created for him by Louis Cartier.

Alberto Santos-Dumont and the watch that bears his name created for him by Louis Cartier.

This is, I think, a perfect example of Johnson's theory. Santos-Dumont may have been deadly earnest and fiercely ambitious in the pursuit of his aeronautical pursuits, but ultimately he flew because he wanted to, not because he needed to. It was thus Santos-Dumont's pursuit of pleasure which acted as the spark to fire Cartier's imagination, thereby leading to a horological revolution which has stood the test of time. Watches may have evolved from their analogue antecedents, but even today's cutting-edge smartwatches do, of course, remain firmly attached to our wrists.

Whilst there are doubtless other examples of humankind's progress which highlight the role of serious and diligent application, we're persuaded by Johnson's theory that there really is something almost magical about having fun, and that play can exude a power with the potential to unlock and release boundless creative energy.

Talking of energy, I have a confession to make. We've let our membership of the gym lapse because, try as we might, we just couldn't muster the necessary level of enthusiasm to keep going. All that panting and sweating might have been good for us but, quite frankly, we just didn't enjoy being there. Yet have no fear, we're still intent on improving our level of physical fitness and have hit on the idea of joining a tap-dancing class. If nothing else, it'll be a laugh and hopefully keep our winter blues at bay as the nights draw in. And if I need a little extra boost, there's always that lovely Ted Baker coat just waiting to be given a good home. 

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