J OURNEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DISCOVERY Birthday bells
Stephen Bayley celebrates London’s crazy and magnificent clock tower
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