Sunday, 27 April 2008
Vertigo and Campanology
I have always loved church bells, and like to sing the rhythm of them, into myself, when I hear them. They are not heard much, these days. Nevertheless, they are most wonderfully Luddite, being heavy and complex and high-tech, in a very low-tech sort of way: a sort of metaphysical conceit in the form of a ton of ancient metal. I like that.
Seemingly, there are five-thousand bell-towers in England, thirty in Scotland, and thirty in the US. Towers with the sort of bells which can turn 360 degrees, when rung, and which need specially trained peeps to do it. Peeps with a head for heights, and who can count. And climb. And concentrate. Not, I could say with confidence, someone remotely like me. Ah well...what is life, without a challenge or two? As D.H. Lawrence wrote, "if you take a leap, you are bound to land somewhere." Yesterday, I took a leap in the dark. Well...it was getting dark, at seven pm. And the leap? Well, it was more of a stalwart and stolid climb. But it gave me lactic acid surges, so it qualifies to be posted here.
I have to say that I am pretty unfit. I don't drive, and walk a lot, but still, any unexpected burst of anaerobia turns my ample thigh-muscles into a quivering blancmange. (The thighs may be ample, but the muscles inside may not be. Just sayin. Ed.)
That Ed fellow follows me around. I think he is my healthy-living conscience.I think he looks like this. (Now he is saying he wants a larger photo and a centre-spot. Sorry Ed. that's all the publicity you're getting here. Get yer own blog.)
So, there I was, a plus-size lady with serious vertigo, heart clattering, climbing a twelvth-century church tower, for her first lesson in bell-ringing. Nobody told me that there were 121 large stone stairs to reach the ringing chamber, and umpteen more to hit the actual bell-chamber itself. I guess the ringers have real thigh muscles, and don't really notice it, or the terrrifying gradient of the spiral staircase, with its long, sheer and unremitting drop. Waa! There were others having a trial lesson too...all skinny, I have to say. And brave. They all chose to go out onto the parapet around the top of the tower, where the general public do not gain access. I have to say that my visit to the ancient bells involved hugging the cold stone walls with my back, and being told to move away from in front the particular bell which was about to be rung from the chamber below.
It is funny how being overweight can make you self-conscious in all sorts of odd ways and situations. Perhaps it is just the general feeling of vulnerablility which focusses attention upon it. "Here I am. The fat lady, who is also now, 'vertigo lady', and 'poor binocular vision, making her slow to climb back down to the ringing chamber lady". Oh well...I cracked a few jokes whilst we waited for everyone to gather together. Not that I play the clown, far from it. I am just one of those people who is uneasy in silent situations which might theoretically be social. And I was very high off the ground. Hearing nesting pigeons cooing somwhere at your elbow, makes you realise just how far you've soared. So...we went back down to the ringing chamber. It is such a wonderful place! An Aladdin's cave of intriguing artefacts, going back, I am told, as far as the eighteen_hundreds. These are juxtaposed with more eclectic and seemingly arbitrary curiosities. .
There are scale-models; heaps of bell-ringing magazines; certificates; old framed sepia photos and lithographs; broken carpet-sweepers and bits of radio equipment which look like they were abandoned up there, sometime after the Second World War.
I wish i knew what was inside this lovely old cupboard!
There are a gazillion ancient hymn books tied up neatly with string, touched with the golden strips of fading sunlight just sifting through the arched windows, and lluminating the patches of dust on the threadbare red carpet. I wonder how long it is since it ws swept. The instructor tells us it was donated by a local pub, and that it took several washes to rid it of the faint odour of beer. I find that very cool. Also...one has to admire the endeavour of those who shouldered the burden of the carpet shampooer, up those interminable and cardio-mungous stairs.
I feel high-up, and the base of my spine is reacting, in some way, making me feel a mite dizzy. There is no open drop, but I can feel that I am high. very, very high. The bell-ropes drop down from the roof, tied with loops at the end, like seven nooses. It is a little unnerving.
I had asked the instructor beforehand, if it really was possible to shoot up into the rafters when ringing a bell, or if that was only on, "Tom and Jerry". He had answered a little too non-commitally for my liking. It turns out that yes, if the bell is facing mouth-up, and you don't give the end of the rope an exploratory tug before ringing, you can indeed shoot up into the stratosphere...or ringing-chamber roof. Oh aye..
The ringers begin their practice-session, and it becomes clear, just how complex the exercise really is. Each bell rings two seconds after the rope is pulled. The ringer listens for his/her own bell, within the five to seven which are sounding above. Each ringer rings within a twentieth of a second of the previous person. They change places in the ringing cycle, which causes the rhythm of the bells to change. It is all very complex. The sheet music looks like an EEG trace, but perpendicular, and you follow the line across as it passes the number of the bell you ar ringing. I think. As a person who had to write right and left on her school gym shoes, and lost the numerical plot forever when letters moved traitorously into maths, I am not sure. I am completely spatially challenged.
After watching the ringing for two hours, and having a very brief preliminary ring myself, I felt a little whimper of positivity. Maybe this could be a hobby! I am heavy and awaiting abdominal surgery, and cannot run far. Knee-lifts are not really the boogie either. So bell-ringing might be for me, if the height thing can be overcome, and the spatial thing, and the counting thing. Because, climbing those interminable stairs is a wonderful thing. Only a handful of people ever go there. The same handful, year in and year out. It is a mysterious and special place. If more people learn to ring, the bells can ring again for Sunday service in the church below. Wonderful old bells, drawing people in. And I will be taking exercise. And keeping away from the temptation of evening nibbling, which is my achilles-heel. Those hundred calories I'm still allowed, are just the road to ruin. They somehow get shoved out of the way by the thousands of calories that I am not allowed, but continue to welcome with open arms, or should I say, mouth :(
The bell-ringers had an other-worldy air. Having a quiet drink with them afterwards, their 'other-ness' was clearly apparent, in the bustling twenty-first century pub. Sitting in the corner, doing a quiz from a Sunday paper, they stood out: serene, self-posessed, un-selfconscious. They seemed to come from professional backgrounds, as far a i could tell: some working, some retired. None of the women wore make-up; most had gone happily grey. All wore timeless comfy clothes in a range of hues. I etched their dignified features in charcoal, in my mind's eye. Faces full of character, like a troupe of mediaeval strolling players. It was oddly moving. I felt I was looking into a time-tunnel, still watching them, ringing, down through the centuries, and the bells singing out. I hope I can learn this skill, and feel good about learning something new. And work those unused thigh muscles! (And, mayhap, kick-start a few spatial neurons from their cryogenic sleep.) Awake, axons: awake! You are needed to ring for victory. Help a hapless luddite stay on the ropes, and not fall on her face...where she might break her phone, and be forced to set up the skeery new upgrade.