Friday, 2 May 2008
Ringing the Changes
Well...I have been making the lofty ascent of the spiral staircase of the Old Steeple for a fortnight now. I have had four lessons. I would surmise as to whether I am improving...but in all honesty, I know myself well enough to know that I am not really the best person to make such an observation. For the first three lessons, I began as though I'd remembered nothing: anxious, and tense: wanting to repay the effort and patience of the instructors with actual measurable progress. I like to do things well. That involves taking them away, and puzzling over them in corners, turning them fore and aft, inside-out, and through a glass darkly. I am fine with a pen in my hand, and a snowstorm of papers. I am not good with muscle-memory and practical applications. The theory is fine. Give me a formula, and I can learn it. Formulae trip off the tongue like a mad poem, and are a joy. Implementing them is quite another matter.
I had read about the complexities of change-ringing, and had seen it in action! Watching the five expert ringers weave their pentamenter verse in the rhythmic movements which controlled the bells, was spellbinding. The measure changed as the conductor called out which ringers would change places in the ringing cycle, yet no-one flinched, stopped or jarred. Bell-ringing has its own ancient, fluid choreography.(These ringers are from Lincoln Cathedral.)
There are two main strokes in bell-ringing: backstroke and handstroke. One rings the bell down, the other rings the bell 360 degrees, back to the balance, wher it sits mouth-up. I try to visualise what is happening up there...up beyond the wooden roof where the brightly coloured sally disappears and reappears. Making sense of what's happening above my bonce, will hopefully help my hands reach out to catch the sally at the right time. Make me muscles react in a relaxed and understanding manner. No hasty grabbing. It is difficult to describe how difficult this is. I am carrying baggage, I know, in the form of my lack of co-ordination and maths phobia. I know I am seriously numerically challenged, and may well have two left brain hemispeheres sandwiched together. I had to give up driving lessons, as I just could not drive in a straight line, AND watch the road. I fall off the step in step aerobics.
Therefore, reading such analyses of bell-ringing, as proffered on Wikipedia, have left me a little disconsolate.
"Method ringers can trace their bells' courses visually in a diagram called a blueline.)Instead, a system of change ringing evolved which centres on mathematical permutations. The ringers begin with rounds, which is simply ringing down the scale in order. (On six bells this would be 123456.) The ringing then proceeds in a series of rows or changes, each of which is some permutation of rounds (for example 214356).
In call change ringing, one of the ringers (known as the conductor) calls out to tell the other ringers how to vary their order from row to row. Some ringers practice call changes exclusively; but for others, the essence of change ringing is method ringing.
In method or scientific ringing each ringer has memorized a pattern describing his or her bell's course from row to row; taken together, these patterns (along with only occasional calls made by a conductor) form an algorithm which cycles through the various available permutations.
Serious ringing always starts and ends with rounds; and it must always be true — each row must be unique, never repeated. A performance of a few hundred rows or so is called a touch; approximately five thousand rows make a peal (which takes about three hours to ring). A performance of all the possible permutations possible on a set of bells is called an extent; with n bells there are n! possible permutations. Since 7!=5040, an extent on seven bells is a peal; 8!=40,320 and an extent on eight bells has only been accomplished once, taking nearly nineteen hours."
Algorithm! Logarithm! Those are maths terms...that much I know. They are embossed in my mind's eye with a black skull and crossbones, imprisoned in apothecary's vials with a wax-sealed cork. They are in my mental poisons cabinet.
However...there is a chink of light. A little sunbeam has worked its way into the morass of gallic hapless shrugging and lack of self-belief.This week, my instructor dismissed the maths analogy.
"It isn't a mathematical issue." he commented, with genial assuredness. "It is just like riding a bike, or learning to swim."
I have done both of these. I may have run over the policeman's feet when he came to the school to teach us cycling proficiency - but he still passed me. I can officially ride a bike. Jumping off into the grasss verge if a vehicle approaches doesn't count. I can stay on the thing. And I have my 36 lengths swimming certificate. This means that I can do this.
The sun had washed the city with a golden arc as I left the tall dim tower. I stop to admire the peal board in the foyer, a tribute to four hours of concentration and stamina.
Spring had sprung, and the trees were heavy with fragile blossom.
After the week of unremitting rain, the limitless possibility of renewal lay before me and I walked with a lighter step.