The importance of numbers on watches

the book:

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

published 1969 chapter 14


[Narrator Henry is on a train to Istanbul, and has met and is sitting with a young woman called Tooley]

Her hand was on my knee, and the enormous wrist-watch stared up at me with its great blank white face and its four figures in scarlet, 12 3 6 9, as if those were the only important ones to remember – the hours when you had to take your medicine. I remembered Miss Keene’s minute gold wristwatch like a doll’s which Sir Alfred had given her on her 21st birthday. In its tiny ring it contained all the figures of the hours as though none were unimportant or without its special duty. Most of the hours of my life had been eliminated from Tooley’s watch. There were no hours marked there for sitting quietly and watching a woman tat. I felt as though one night in Southwood I had turned my back on any possibility of home, so that here I was shaken up and down between two segments of Bulgarian darkness.

observations: And that’s why Graham Greene is a great great writer. Who else could see the point of the two different watches and express it so well and so perfectly, and make it sound so obvious? Henry twice has his fortune told in this book – by reading tealeaves and palms -  so in this section he is reading the runes, and his future, in watches.

Miss Keene was his one early attempt at romance, doomed to dwindle away, though things will change now that he is travelling with his aunt. It would seem very likely that Henry’s own watch would be straightforward and have all the numbers on it.

The era, 1969, is nicely distant from now – the characters travel by train and boat rather than plane, and the use and possession of cannabis is taken very seriously indeed. An impressive item is that in London Henry is able to call the phone number represented by CHICKEN and order ready meals (of for example salmon) delivered to his home- although commonplace now (and, one suspects, in the US in 1969) this would have been very rare and unusual at the time in London. It would be interesting to know if this was a real service GG knew about and used.

Links up with: Travels with my Aunt featured here, and was one of the triggers for this entry. There’s a girl here too poor to have a wristwatch at all - ‘Wot d’you think we get ’ere? Miners’ wages?’ Frank Bascomb is another protagonist with a penchant for fortune-tellers.


  1. I read this book years ago and enjoyed it very much. My husband is a bog Graham Greene fan and he has just started to reread the books he first read as a teenager. He says it is a completely different experience in his forties, which I can well believe.

  2. Yes I agree - I read them all when I was a teenager and find them quite different now - Evelyn Waugh the same. Of course that's probably true of many books, but we only test it out with the worthwhile authors I suppose...


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