PETER MORTIMER ponders being summoned by bells
THE KERFUFFLE OVER BIG BEN being silenced for the next several years rightly leads many to wonder why their own local Big Bongs are overlooked while London’s BB gets all the attention.
Big Ben is pretty tuneless. You cannot whistle, tap your feet or hum the ‘melody’ as it goes through its stiff limbed motions every hour .The instinct is more ‘Stand to attention and salute!’
Big Ben may have grandeur but it lacks the lyrical poetry associated with the peal of many, much smaller bells. To appreciate some of the latter, tune in to the Radio Four’s late-night programme ‘Bells on Sunday’.
The title is a misnomer: the programme is broadcast at half-past midnight and is not on Sunday at all, but such facts are unlikely to put off the keen campanologist, nor indeed the disinterested listener such as myself who (even as a signed-up atheist) finds great therapeutic quality in the seductive peal of church bells.
Not that Big Ben peals at all. The verb which best befits alliteratively is ‘bongs’. My first twenty years were spent in a city boasting a loud bong (I accept the word has another meaning to stoners and dopeheads), and Nottingham’s distinctive Little John is said to be the loudest in the country after Big Ben.
The name is obviously associated with Robin Hood, but then so are most things in Nottingham, from the street and pub names through to the eponymous outlaw song which I believe they still play at City Ground when Notts Forest run out.
Little John is located in the city centre’s impressive-looking Market Square in the equally impressive Council House.
[As one city visitor once remarked in wonder, ‘Well, if that’s an example of a Nottingham council house, stick my name on the list!’]
My own upbringing in the suburb of Sherwood was more than three miles from the city centre, but given a favourable wind and a quiet environ you could hear Little John in his hourly glory.
Why, during Big Ben’s four years of silence, can the BBC not broadcast Little John or some of the country’s many other bell wonders? It would be a splendid nod to the regions and an indication that the country’s power base was not quite as London-centric as is usually suspected.
It would also give us a bit of variety, which for all its sonority, Big Ben does not. In fact Big Ben mirrors perfectly that pompous stuffed-shirt colonial-style nature which our national anthem also epitomises. It represents a presumed if false sense of southern superiority, which is why it is not particularly adored up in these far-flung climes.
Here in the North East, Newcastle’s more modern Civic Centre peels out the unofficial regional anthem, The Blaydon Races, Admittedly people rarely pause in the street to listen these days , even less stop. We are all too distracted by headphones, texting on our mobiles, or rapidly gulping down a Costa Coffee before rushing back to the insecurity of that zero-hours-contract job.
One of my own most vivid bell memories was shared with my partner Kitty when staying in the medieval Italian mountain village of Apricale.
Each small village in the valley rang out its hourly chimes, unsynchronised over a five-minute period, so the listener heard, one after another, a whole succession of delicious bell sequences from every direction and from both deep in the valley and from higher up on the mountain slopes.
Our own national supply of bell-ringers is apparently under threat, again probably a victim of our obsession with staring endlessly at a small screen rather than going out and doing something.
I am fascinated watching bell-ringers in action, that deep expressionless concentration as they tug in turn at their thick ropes like mechanistic models in those old-fashioned penny slot machines.
What astonishes me is their apparent lack of concern that they are yanking into motion – several hundred feet above their heads and secured by heavens-knows-what – huge metal items weighing many tons apiece. A crash helmet at least seems in order.
No matter. For the next four years the BBC will broadcast a recording of Big Ben in preference any live peals from any of the country’s other varied and splendid offerings.
Shame, say I. But seriously, would we have expected anything else?