Bye, bye Big Ben’s bong
I FELT surprisingly sad when I heard that the “voice” of Big Ben will remain silent for about three years for repairs.
I really have no nostalgia for the London of my childhood, except when I hear that thrilling reverberation, which carries in it the history and essence of the city.
I love the sound so much that earlier this year, when I finally got a smartphone, Ken downloaded the chimes of Big Ben as my ringtone.
It means I can enjoy the chimes during the “silent” period, though they will bong out for special occasions such as New Year’s Eve and Remembrance Day.
The 158-year-old edifice is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and has been voted the most popular tourist destination in London. The renovations will cost about £29 million and, they hope, keep everything running smoothly for the next 158 years. The work on the clock won’t occupy all that time but the occupational health and safety people fear that if the workers are constantly exposed to the huge volume of the chimes, they may go deaf, or nuts, or both.
The bell we call “Big Ben” (possibly named after the worthy Sir Benjamin Hall, not Ben Hall the bushranger) was not the first one made for the tower. A bell was cast at Stockton-on-Tees and transported on a wagon pulled by 16 horses, amid great public jubilation. This was shortlived: the bell cracked so badly in testing that a new one had to be made, this time by the Whitechapel Bell foundry in London. This also cracked, when struck by a too-heavy hammer, but they chipped out some metal, turned it slightly and it sings away, still unrepaired, which is part of its endearing, “fuzzy” sound.
There have been a number of interruptions to the chimes, ranging from ice and snow, to flock of starlings sitting on the minute hand, to hot weather and World War II bomb damage. There was another, almost comical glitch, when a workman repairing the bomb damage in 1941, dropped his hammer, bringing everything to a grinding halt.
The image of Big Ben has become “shorthand” for filmmakers wanting to indicate location. It has featured in more than 13 films, including a particularly silly 1978 version of The 39 Steps starring Robert Powell. Radio and TV stations regularly use the chimes in news bulletins.
For some inexplicable reason, in 2006 when repairs silenced the clock, BBC 4 broadcast British birdsong and “pips” instead.
Why not use a recording? That’s what I’d like during the current quiet period but maybe the volume necessary would be just as bad for the workers.
There is, by the way, a bigger bell than Ben. He’s called “Great Paul” and hangs in St Paul’s cathedral, but better not tell Ben.