J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Birth­day bells

Stephen Bay­ley cel­e­brates Lon­don’s crazy and mag­nif­i­cent clock tower

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

OING. That most fa­mil­iar of Lon­don’s sounds is now 150 years old. Be­cause I am for­tu­nate enough to live near West­min­ster, I of­ten hear it dur­ing soli­tary mo­ments at night in the bath­room. Its som­bre, mag­nif­i­cent me­lan­choly is re­as­sur­ing and, some­how, a lit­tle bit dis­turb­ing, as time pass­ing al­ways is. In Mrs Dal­loway Vir­ginia Woolf wrote: There! Out it boomed. First a warn­ing, mu­si­cal; then the hour, ir­rev­o­ca­ble. In peace and war, trou­ble and strife, mourn­ing and cel­e­bra­tion, here and now, Big Ben re­minds us of our­selves. Our per­ma­nence and our tran­si­tori­ness.’’

Big Ben is, of course, not the name of that most fa­mous clock tower, the uni­ver­sal sym­bol of Lon­don, but the name of the gi­gan­tic bell that hangs in its bel­fry. The first Big Ben was cast in War­rens Foundry in Stock­ton-on-Tees in north­east Eng­land. War­rens’ met­al­lur­gi­cal reach was be­yond its met­al­lur­gi­cal grasp and the orig­i­nal bell cracked in Oc­to­ber 1857 while un­der­go­ing sonic tests in the yard. Its frag­ments were used for a new cast­ing made in Whitechapel. It rang on July 11, 1859, and the West­min­ster Chimes are adapted from a tune by Han­del.

But Big Ben has be­come an eponym for the idio­syn­cratic 96m struc­ture that ac­com­mo­dates it. In an in­fal­li­ble sy­naes­the­sia, the sound of the bell im­me­di­ately evokes an im­age of the tower and, there­fore, of Lon­don it­self. That even its sil­hou­ette is an un­am­bigu­ous ref­er­ence to the city teaches im­por­tant lessons about ar­chi­tec­tural mon­u­ments and their con­tri­bu­tion to na­tional iden­tity. As sil­hou­ettes, only the Statue of Lib­erty and the Eif­fel Tower ri­val Big Ben (al­though Lon­don’s Gherkin, I be­lieve, is com­ing up fast).

No ef­fec­tive for­mula ex­ists to cal­cu­late the value of na­tional iden­tity, so we can safely say it is price­less. Civil­i­sa­tions are re­mem­bered, Trea­sury of­fi­cials sit­ting with their grim cal­cu­lus just op­po­site Big Ben please note, by

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