Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Big Bong

No, this isn't an article about a Michael Phelps size smoking device. It's not even about San Francisco's famous marijuana clubs. Big Ben, the imperial size bell in the Tower of Parliament, will soon be celebrating its sesquicentennial. The Brits are justifiably proud of the bell that has tolled from the height of empire, through the Blitz, and on to our modern day. For a hundred and fifty years, Big Ben has announced "there will always be an England."

The bell officially first rang out in July of 1859, but it was put up into the rafters (if that's the right term) right around this time in June of the same year. It was not even the first bell. It was such a huge undertaking that nobody had ever cast a bell quite like it. So the first bell, like our American Liberty Bell, cracked while being tested. The first bell was tested in the foundry yard, so it never actually made it into the tower. That was in 1857, and it took another two years of calculating and reworking to get the right formula.

There are parallels with America's Liberty Bell as both became symbols of liberty and western civilization, with a certain Anglo twist. The big difference is that our Liberty Bell was preserved, crack and all, as a national treasure. England's bell rings out from a tower whose visage is known to almost everyone in the civilized world. The architecture and design correspondent for the London Observer, Stephen Bayley, says "that as silhouettes, only the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower rival Big Ben (although the Gherkin, I believe, is coming up fast)." During the darkest days of the London Blitz, the tower stood as a symbol of defiance, and could occasionally be heard in the background as Edward R. Murrow broadcast from the city under bombardment.

The story of the creation of the tower and the bell was pure English eccentrism. The architect who won the competition to design the structure, Charles Barry, hired Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin to do the metalwork, glass and surface decoration. Pugin was going slowly insane from some sort of mercury poisoning, and it was becoming unclear whether he would stay lucid long enough to finish the job. It was all part of the Westminster Palace reconstruction resulting from the London Fire, so they were charged with being traditional, but original. The result was a glorious Gothic, Greek, Tudor, Edward VI school hybrid.

As the Spectator UK hilariously describes it, "Pugin was charged with designing and decorating archivolts, squints and spandrels, lovingly detailed fleurons, spirelets, stoups and mullions, every detail of crockets and crestings, daggers and diapers, not to mention naiheads, mouchettes, escutcheons and dogteeth, all drawn in meticulous, demented detail." Pugin wrote one last insane letter taking credit for both the tower and the bell, calling himself "the whole machinery of the clock," downed a few flagons of brandy, and went off quietly to the Bedlam insane asylum. Barry, on the other hand, was knighted for his efforts.

Big Ben and the Liberty Bell will go on for many, many years to come. Given the current status of the world, let's hope England and America can do the same. Big Ben survived the Nazis. Will it be able to survive the Jihadis? The mosque currently designed to sit next to these architectural treasures would rival, and perhaps overshadow the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Palace and the Bell Tower. Londoners are beginning to show signs of open rebellion over that.


StanH said...

Good day Lawhawk! When I was a kid in the ‘60s I had the opportunity to go to Independence Hall, and saw the actual Liberty Bell which was across the street, both made an impression on my young mind. On the same trip we stayed in DC we saw the monuments for a week and took a short trip to see Mt. Vernon, this young man was further impressed. In recent years before my kids were grown we spent four days in Williamsburg and as an grown man was impressed again by the courage of the Founders. I to fear for the survival of this wonderful country anymore the founding of the USA is ignored by academia as a bunch of self-serving white slave owners, wow. In keeping with your bell metaphor, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” as go the bells of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell goes western civilization. God bless, and God help America.

AndrewPrice said...


Nice article. I think it should concern us all that England, the cradle of much of modern Western civilization, seems to be allowing itself to be converted into an place that stands directly opposed to the very freedoms and intellectual traditions that led us to the bright spot in history that we currently enjoy.

StanH, welcome to our little spot on the internet. Come back anytime! I agree with you on many levels. The Founding Fathers, their achievements, and more importantly the theory of governance that they established is the common culture that holds us together as a people and that makes this entire experiment that we call America possible. There is nothing like this country in the world and we need to protect it.

Unknown said...

StanH: Thanks for your comments. Good to see you in our little part of the internet world. Every American should visit our national historical sites as you did. Standing in front of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall can invoke a sense of both humility and purpose.

Andrew: As you know, I don't have a drop of English blood (some of my very distant relatives were likely to have been flying those Messerschmidts, Stukas and Fokke-Wolfs during the Blitz). But I have a very deep fondness for England, and the great republic she ultimately spawned here in the New World. If that wonderful thing that many have called "The Anglosphere" fails, western civilization fails. Let's pray that the spirit that the two great bells represent can hold us together through the onslaught.

Captain Soapbox said...

Lawhawk, good article! I think my biggest sigh due to the English came when the entire Geert Wilders situation came to a head. I couldn't believe a country like the UK would allow manufactured outrage to allow them to keep someone out of their country just for his views on Muslims being "offensive." But on the bright side I think they're learning, and their pride in their past will help steel them for their future.

Also the comment about some of your relatives flying those planes made me think of the old Douglas Bader joke about "Fokkers" too. :-D

AndrewPrice said...

Cap'n Soapbox, I too was thinking of a Fokker joke. Let's see if it's the same one:

After World War II, a French Ace was invited to speak to a group of elderly ladies. He began his speech with a story about his most harrowing dogfight.

"As I lookt in zee sky, I zaw three Fokkers to my right. . ."

The audience gasped.

". . . and three more Fokkers to my left."

The audience gasped again.

"I turned my plane toward the first Fokker and I opened fire."

The audience gasped again. Alarm, the MC of the event rushed to the stage.

"Ladies, please let me explain. A Fokker is a kind of German airplane that these pilots were flying."

Without missing a beat, the French Ace says, "No, these Fokkers were flying Messerschmitts."

Unknown said...

Captain Soapbox and Andrew: While I was trying to figure out how to tell the joke, you both got there ahead of me.

The Fokker joke is hilarious, but I remember that the Fokke-Wolf (more correctly spelled Focke-Wulf) had its own joke. No need to tell the joke--just the punchline. "Why would anyone want to do that to a wolf?"

John Keats said...

What we Americans fail to realize is how Big Ben stood in defiance against the German attacks, blanketed by the London skyline. Westminster Palace was bombed 14 times during World War II, yet Big Ben stood. When the lights in London went out during the nearly 60 consecutive days of firebombing that would claim 20,000 lives, Big Ben was visible against the yellows and blues of exploding projectiles.

Remind you of a particular country's national anthem?

Thank you for this beautiful post.

Writer X said...

I'm harboring a secret wish that the Liberty Bell will fall on Prez. Obama, or anyone in his administration--literally or figuratively.

Post a Comment