There's Trump, there's terrorism and there's Brexit – but what Theresa May decided to take a stand on was Big Ben

She is strong and stable on the bongs, and of little else

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 22 August 2017 19:52
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The PM has written to the Speaker of the House of Commons to protest against the silencing of Big Ben’s bongs
The PM has written to the Speaker of the House of Commons to protest against the silencing of Big Ben’s bongs

It is very strange how a lump of metal, albeit a famous and beloved one, can exercise such a hold on a supposedly advanced society. So it is with Big Ben, or whatever its “proper name” might be (we all know what it is we’re talking about, after all).

To witness some of the reactions you would think a plot had been discovered whereby agents of Kim Jong-un, the Russians, or perhaps the European Commission would infiltrate themselves into Westminster, shimmy up the Elizabeth Tower and somehow silence the chimes the nation no longer sets their watches by. It is treated as though it were a sort of audio equivalent of the ravens at the tower of London, or the apes on the Rock of Gibraltar, the absence of which presages a great national disaster. “If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it,” so the legend runs.

There’s terrorism, there’s the threat of nuclear conflagration in the Pacific, there’s Brexit – there’s a lot else to occupy our minds and the attention of our leaders. And yet the Prime Minister herself has urged action this day on the proposed silencing of the clock while it undergoes some maintenance work. She is strong and stable on the bongs, and of little else.

She has written to the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, on the matter, though of course it is not the Commons’ bell as such, but Parliament’s – so perhaps she should write to the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler too.

Perhaps she should summon Cobra. Perhaps she should ask the editor of the Daily Mail what to do (maybe she has…)

Big Ben chimes for last time before repair work begins

As Mr Bercow might say to an overexcited backbencher at PMQs: Calm down! The nation will not grind to a halt because of the absence of Big Ben. Are we such a superstitious and tremulous people that the absence of the bongs disturbs us so greatly – when only a miniscule proportion of the population can actually hear them in any case? Like those born within the sound of Bow Bells, it is a select group. There will be special provision made for events such as Remembrance Sunday, when the chimes form an important part of national pageantry; but otherwise, life will go on. It is really not worth impairing the hearing of anyone for the sake of sentimentality.

As indeed it has before. Four decades ago. At about four in the morning on 5 August 1976 there was an almighty bang, taken by some to be a bomb going off (it would have been an IRA one in those days). In fact it was the poor old bell cracking, scattering bits of shrapnel which embedded themselves all around the top of that famous tower. It had finally succumbed to metal fatigue.

Big Ben was silent for nine months after that. In that crisis-ridden year, when the UK basically went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by a loan from the International Monetary Fund, it might have been taken by some to symbolise a national malaise. In any case it was duly repaired, and the whole episode rapidly forgotten.

Before that, you have to go back to 1859 to find another time when the bell was silenced, then as now for four years after it cracked in an earlier part of its career. That wasn’t an especial augury of anything, except perhaps that the Liberal Party was formed that year, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty was published. Make of that what you will.

Theresa May urges Speaker to call time on Big Ben bong ban

The British have lived without the sound of Big Ben before, and its periodic silencing should be seen as much part of its tradition and heritage as the bongs themselves. You do wonder, though, what the foreigners who flock to Westminster in such enormous numbers to see it make of the British. In South Korea, say, it would long have been replaced with a Samsung HD-ready LCD readout with lasers or something; and in Germany by a state-of-the-art piece of precision mechanical engineering that would never break down, or in Trump’s America by a gigantically tall “beautiful” clock tower of gilded vulgarity, but of impressive proportions, maybe with Elvis as the clock “face”.

Instead, our most celebrated timepiece still runs with the aid of pre-decimal coinage pennies for counterweights, a sort of Stonehenge that tells the time, and without which we’re all plunged into a frightened aural eclipse. The arguments about Big Ben have become far too mawkish that they now remind me of that poem of WH Auden’s, read so often at funerals:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

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