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.

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