For whom the bell tolls: Why are we so bothered about Big Ben and the rest?


Who'd have thought that in the summer of 2017 once of the biggest news stories in the country would be about that rather old technology of bells?

Or, to be more precise – a bell. Big Ben, as pedants never tire of telling us, is the great bell housed in the Elizabeth Tower at the north end of the Palace of Westminster. Controversy surrounds the decision to silence it for up to four years while renovations are carried out.

How on earth has a bell come to occupy such a major place in the debate, when the country is facing such massive changes and challenges as Brexit, a world closer to nuclear conflict than for a generation, and the ongoing economic malaise?

I understand that Big Ben is iconic – one of the quintessential images of Britain. Dodging tourists taking pictures of it is my main interaction with the tower, but it certainly holds a power beyond just telling the good folk of the Westmister Village the time.

Even if I'm slightly baffled as to why, there is just so much strong feeling over it being silent for a few years that it reminds us of the strange power of the bell. 

As I sit and write this I'm within the sound of Bow Bells. The traditional way of defining a Cockney – a genuine Londoner – was if they were born within the sound of Bow Bells, though confusingly the bells aren't in Bow at all but in the City of London, housed in the splendid St Mary-le-Bow church.

Arguably their most famous appearance comes in the old song Oranges and Lemons, which lists a series of church bells across London – pointing back to a time when the church bell was more than an amusement for tourists.

Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement's. You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin's. When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch. When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney. I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow.

These ancient parishes, mostly in the City and the East End of London, had a church at their heart. The people in the parish were called to worship by the bell – as happened in cities, towns and villages across the country.

Even those who didn't choose to go to church would have been told the time by the tolling of the bell. In our contemporary reliance on phones, watches and a million other devices to tell the time, it's easy to forget how important the village church bell would have been.

When I lived in close proximity to a chapel in east London, we were called to morning prayer by the bell. Its insistent pealing became a part of the daily routine and I missed it when I moved away.

It's not hard to see why the great English poet Sir John Betjemen became rather obsessed with bells. In the autobiographical Summoned by Bells he evokes the quintessential English country scene:

 I found St Ervan's partly ruined church.
 Its bearded Rector, holding in one hand
 A gong-stick, in the other hand a book,
 Struck, while he read, a heavy-sounding bell,
 Hung from an elm bough by the churchyard gate.
'Better come in. It's time for Evensong.'

Our American cousins know a thing or two about bells, though. The Liberty Bell is held up as a great sign of American freedom, while the foundry in east London where it was cast is under threat of closure, to great consternation.

I still, frankly, don't understand the outrage over Big Ben going quiet for a few years. Not in a world where there is so much other stuff to care about – children starving in Yemen, people flooded out of their homes in Bangladesh, yet another terror attack in Europe.

But then I do recognise their significance, their enduring ability to move and stir us, and their symbolism. It's that symbolism which rings through history in a profound meditation by one of the great English poets. With a deep Christian anthropology coursing through his quill, Jonne Donne wrote:

'No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.'