The Bells

We used to live in a little cubical building,
nave’s length from a bell tower.
An aisle’s length, not quite, but every friday night
it was a measured space, although not by paces;
in concussions.

From 6pm to 8pm the Ringers would gather – I imagine from curious little offices in narrow stone buildings, places where they can still sell you insurance over a desk and keep your details in a drawer (with a curly metal key). Then the bells would begin to sound, individual drops at first, like rain on tin, dong, dong, ding, dong. Ringing them up. Hauling on them harder and harder, swinging them out of their slumber (they sleep like flying foxes, clinging to the unders of beams in the belfry). Hauling on them until they stand on their heads. Slipping into the stop position. Awake and ready, above the beam. Just poised there. Um, how to describe: upside down? Not moving, waiting. The largest weighs two tonnes. And some maniac 80 year old is right underneath hauling on its tail.

The sound in our flat was deafening. Most friday nights at 6pm found us weebling away down York St toward China-town, which is also deafening but more intimate. Everyone at home in a foreign land. And it come with bonus spring roll!

But not every Friday night:
Once I climbed the twisty stair to the bells and rang with the ringers.
Stepping into the ringing chamber was a little like  finally discovering that cicada in the grass – the one whose chirping you’ve heard every night of your summer life. You hunt him with your ears, and finally your fingers. You part the grasses. And he goes silent. You look each other, embarrassed, a weight of unexpressed intimacy, each having inhabited t’other’s imaginationing. Ringers and Rung for.

“You rung?”
“Well… [glance aside] … yes… I suppose we did? I didn’t realise we were ringing for anyone.”
“I came though, so I think you must have been. Isn’t that what ringing is about?”

The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world. To the musical Belgian, for example, it appears that the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations. When he speaks of the music of his bells, he does not mean musician’s music – still less what the ordinary man calls music. To the ordinary man, in fact, the pealing of bells is a monotonous jangle and a nuisance, tolerable only when mitigated by remote distance and sentimental association. The change-ringer does, indeed, distinguish musical differences between one method of producing his permutations and another; he avers, for instance, that where the hinder bells run 7,5,6, or 5,6,7, or , 5,7,6, the music is always prettier, and can detect and approve, where they occur, the consecutive fifths of Tittums and the cascading thirds of the Queen’s change. But what he really means is, that by the English method of ringing with rope and wheel, each several bell gives forth her fullest and noblest note. His passion – and it gives a passion – find its satisfaction in mathematical completeness and mechanical perfection, and as his bell weaves her way rhythmically up from lead to hinder place and down again, he is filled with the solemn intoxication that comes of intricate ritual faultlessly performed.

(Dorothy L. Sayers, The Nine Tailors, 25).

The Ringers showed me something they were working on: a special peal to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. [The bridge lives just up the road; its on-ramps, like arms, embrace the Bell tower.] Weeks later I was at home while they rung it. It went for hours, maybe 5? There was nothing even remotely resembling a melody. But I knew its genius: the written notation for the changes. The bell ‘music’, as manifested on the page, was shaped like a coat-hanger, or a Harbour Bridge…
Are you marvelling?
And maybe 9 people in the world knew this?
Everyone else just had to put up with the insane racket.

The bells were worshipping the Bridge.
It’s just that the language of bells is inscrutable.
As is the language of cicadas.
Except to lady cicadas
(I assume).

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard. Their message has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.

(Psalms 19:1–4 HCSB)

Plays the strange music of the world:
in the plenitude of its intelligibility, found inscrutable.
Heard and not heard. Seen and unseen.
Or rather, heard and not understood, seen and unrecognised.
Hence, the slow-shaking incomprehension of the Universe
when addressed with that fundamental human question:


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