Tag Archives: big ben

The Leaning Tower of Westminster

So anyway, one of the significant stories this week revolving around Our Fair City is the discovery that Big Ben is, in fact, leaning. Some reacted with indifference, some with curiosity, those angry guys you see in the Wetherspoon’s at 2pm with a clenched fist of triumph. Some pointed out that technically Big Ben isn’t leaning, because the clock tower isn’t actually called that.

I have to admit, Big Ben (I am going to call it that, pedantry be damned) is not a landmark I feel any great affection for. That might be partly because I used to work opposite it, so it was just another part of my daily routine. I’m also not a huge fan of the architecture, which to my eye is just a bit too “busy,” if you know what I mean. Still, I’m not going to deny that it’s a significant part of our skyline and we’d all miss it if it was gone. After all, how would you establish that characters from American movies had arrived in Britain if not for a shot of Big Ben and a couple of bars of ‘Rule Britannia?’ Not easily, that’s for sure.

The clock tower was completed on 10th April 1858, part of Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament. The Gothic style being very much in fashion then, that was the architecture plumped for by the Powers that Be. The clock tower at the end was farmed out to Augustus Pugin, who you may see on the left there. Pugin was a noted architect of the Gothic style, and when not busy designing spooky buildings, he supplemented his income by looting from shipwrecks (I am not making this up).

After completing his design, he went mad, probably as a result of syphilis, and died in 1852. Students of architecture will note that this is a surefire way to ensure that your building includes lots of non-Euclidian geometry and possibly summons the Elder Gods, but there has been no sign of that thus far. It would certainly liven up the parliamentary debates.

As I said at the start, Big Ben is not the name of the clock tower, but the big bell, the one that sounds the bongs. The official name for the bell is the rather less interesting “Great Bell” (how long did it take you to come up with the name for that, guys?). It was originally cast in Yorkshire and brought down to London by water, its size nearly wrecking the boat carrying it. On arrival, the bell was found to be defective. It was melted down and recast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, from whence most of London’s bells originate. The method used to cast “Big Ben II” was an unusual method of casting, unique at the time and now used for bells all around the world. Oddly enough, Big Ben is actually cracked, resulting in its very distinctive tone. I’m sure a campanologist could tell us more.

The origin of the nickname is disputed. The official story has it that it was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the Royal Commissioner for Works at the time of the tower’s construction. Another has it that it was named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavyweight boxer of the time who was himself nicknamed “Big Ben.”

The clock is famed for its accuracy. However, should the necessity arise, it is possible to adjust the swing of the pendulum and thus change the time. On top of the pendulum is a little stack of old pennies. By removing or adding a penny, the speed of the pendulum is changed. You’d expect something a bit more hi-tech, or at least legal tender, but I suppose it’s worked this long.

The most recent news, to return to the start of this entry, is that the tower is actually leaning. In fact, this is not particularly new news, and I’m not sure why it should particularly come to prominence now. Thanks to all the many different tunnels dug under Westminster since 1858, the ground isn’t as firm as once it was, and so a degree of lean is to be expected. Wake me if it actually falls.

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Ebenezer Scrooge versus Sweeney Todd versus Big Ben

christmas-carol-poster-2You may have seen these posters around the place. Yes, they’ve made yet another version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which I swear must be the most filmed book in the  entire world ever. This version, as you can see, stars Jim Carrey in 3D motion-capture glory (I hear he switched the lights on in Oxford Circus last night, good for him). He also appears to be getting some sort of sexual pleasure from that bollard there. No doubt this will be explained in the film itself. I won’t be going to see it, having already seen the versions starring Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Bill Murray, Ross Kemp and Scrooge McDuck.

But I’m wandering from the point I started with, which is that the British posters feature, very prominently, the sight of Big Ben under construction. I have my own theory as to why this is, quite apart from the fact that Big Ben is shorthand for “You Are In London.” You may recall the Tim Burton-directed Sweeney Todd a couple of years ago. The publicity campaign for this ran into a little trouble over this image:

sweeney

If you take a look to Mr Depp’s right, you’ll see Big Ben emerging from the fog of Olde Londone Towne. This caused consternation among certain historically-minded folk, who pointed out that Big Ben (or, if you want to be pedantic, the Clock Tower) wasn’t built until 1859, and the story of Sweeney Todd is set at some point in the 1840s. The poster was pulled. The scene in which Todd sails under the 1894-built Tower Bridge was left in, which strikes me as a far greater anachronism (the filmmakers’ excuse was that it is depicted as still being under construction, builders at the time apparently being shite). One might also point out that the ship that brings him in would have docked at Rotherhithe rather than into the heinously busy Pool of London. One might further point out that Tim Burton’s version of London in Sweeney Todd is a Disneyfied vision of 19th century Olde Englande marketed towards weekend Goths, and actual historical accuracy might freak them out. Frankly we’re lucky Sherlock Holmes didn’t step in to save the day.

I actually quite liked the film, I should point out.

So anyway, yes. That, in my characteristic rambling style, is why I think the London version of the posters for Yet Another Christmas Carol make a scaffolding-clad Big Ben bigger than the main character – to show that they’ve actually done a bit of research unlike some we could mention. Of course, if you want my opinion, and you’re going to get it whether you want it or not, I think these people could save themselves a lot of trouble if they just went with St Paul’s Cathedral as the London landmark. It’s a better symbol for London than Big Ben, which isn’t even in the goddamn City.

Further Reading

https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2009/10/15/well-at-least-he-didnt-die-poor/ – The real-life historical figure that was the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.

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