Big Ben turns 150: Where does the time go?

Big Ben at dusk, 2004. Photo: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia CommonsToday is the 150th anniversary of Big Ben’s first chime, and has a charming report on the celebration, which was highlighted with the playing of a new composition by Benjamin Till that involves ringing nearly 200 bells across central and east London. Some hadn’t been sounded in 60 years.

It was July 11, 1859 when the big clock bell on the tower of the Palace of Westminster first rang. (Originally “Big Ben” referred to the bell, not the clock, but most people have come to think of Big Ben as the whole package — bell, clock, and tower.) It’s had a few outages since then, including wartime blackouts, fire and maintenance, but Ben has come to be the heartbeat and certainly, with its bell and Quarter Chimes, the sound of London.

And, my, but it’s English: Through thick and thin, come rain or shine, we will soldier on. (Or is that the U.S. Postal Service?) I love that the bulldog nation’s timepiece is also its signature sound, and that the anniversary has been made into a musical event.

Till based his new work on the macabre yet oddly beloved nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons, which fresh-scrubbed British lads and lassies have been chanting for ever so long. The lyrics refer in riddle form to the sounds of church bells across the city:

“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” say the great bells of Bow.
“Here comes a candle to light you to bed.
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.
Chip-chop chip-chop — the last man’s dead.”

At which point, I suppose, there won’t always be an England anymore. At least, not an England with a head on its shoulders.

I’m not English (although some of my forebears were) but I think what I like most about Big Ben isn’t its storied British steadiness and precision but its imprecision. Compared to modern electronic and nuclear timepieces, Big Ben marks the time with the unsteady gate of a drunken folk dancer. The computer on which I’m typing would have a massive coronary if its internal clock were suddenly to coincide with Big Ben’s beat.

On the other hand, Ben is musical. His inconsistencies are his art. He reminds us that for most of life, close is not just good enough, it’s preferable. I come from a time and place where the answer to “What time is it?” was “quarter past three,” not “3:17.” So you were two minutes off. So what? Were you timing a missile launching? Ben has hands. Hands are human. To be human is to alter your gait, just a bit.

So ring those bells. Syncopate that sound. Music’s not a metronome. And life moves forward through its mistakes, not its consistencies, which can only wish they were as interesting as hobgoblins.