Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 August 2019

London's Big Ben falls silent sparking fear and soul searching

A repair team has set to work on restoration of the Houses of Parliament’s famous clock. As a result the chimes of its bells have been silenced leading to a political row and misty-eyed nostalgia

Big Ben's famous bongs sounded for the last time before major conservation works are carried out. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Big Ben's famous bongs sounded for the last time before major conservation works are carried out. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

London // To a handful of members of parliament gathered in the courtyard it was an ominous development that could portend a national calamity.

To the thousands that gathered in London’s parliament square on Monday at noon, the sound of the final "bongs" of Big Ben ahead of a five-year interregnum was merely a memory to cherish.

A repair team has set to work on restoration of the Houses of Parliament’s Elizabeth Tower and its famous clock. As a result the chimes of its bells have been silenced to protect the hearing of the workmen on the site.

The secret appeal of Big Ben, aside from telling the time, is that onlookers can superimpose personal views on a global landmark. Belcassim Zatoune, a 28-year old visitor to London from Algeria, held up a sign against the Big Ben backdrop that read “contra Barca” in a show of solidarity with the Spanish city in the aftermath of last week’s attacks.

As the last of the 12 bongs that marked midday on Monday faded away, he said he wanted to show his feelings against a symbol of democracy. “I feel real pleasure at this moment. I am from the middle of Algeria and this Big Ben is very well known,” he told the National. “I wanted to make a comment about Barcelona so that all my friends, even those who support Real Madrid, can share this moment.

Others had made a shorter journey for the shutdown, which will be the longest period of silence by the mechanism in its 157 year history. “I can see it from where I live. I do live my life by it. I’m 72 and I’m worried it might be the last time I actually hear them,” said Denise Wiand, who lives just south of the tower, south of the river Thames.

Thomas Moser, a 54-year-old German tourist, said the experience was magical. “The crowd were really listening. We are here, we want to hear every single sound. It’s almost a historical moment.”

Stephen Pound, a veteran Labour MP, has led a revolt among parliamentarians over the prolonged hiatus. He wiped his eyes as he watched on with colleagues. “The bells seemed to be getting louder as 12 o'clock approached,” he said. “It was as if Big Ben will be saying goodbye.

“There is a lack of democracy, a lack of thought about this shut down that worries me. In a worrying, unstable world Big Ben is a bit of continuity that is cherished.”

For special occasions, such as the New Year countdown and the 11am commemoration of the war dead in November, the parliamentary authorities will allow the hammer to strike the bell. It is not the only adjustment. The clock works on a weighted pendulum that is balanced by copper coins and old counters. During the refurbishment, the clock will keep time driven by an electric motor.

A fierce political debate has raged over the decision with many Conservative MPs expressing outrage that a national symbol has been taken out of action for such a long time. With sensitivities running high over British national resilience when negotiations get tough over leaving the EU, the debate has taken on an added nationalistic dimension.

Nigel Evans, an ex-deputy speaker of the House of Commons, said the builders had done what only hostile foreign forces managed hitherto. “Health and safety have achieved what nobody other than the Luftwaffe has done since the Second World War,” he declared.

Health and Safety laws are widely seen as a European imposition on the right of British politics. Theresa May, the prime minister, has called for a change of heart. "Of course we want to ensure people's safety at work but it can't be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years,” a statement from 10 Downing St said. "And I hope that the Speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons Commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years."

Not all Conservatives joined the clamour for a repudiation of the safety laws. "There has been the most enormous amount of nonsense talked about this. Colleagues saying the House of Commons Commission is achieving something that even the Luftwaffe couldn't achieve, stopping Big Ben,” said Conor Burns, a parliamentary aide to Boris Johnston, the foreign secretary. “Big Ben was silenced for maintenance in 2007, it was refurbished between '83 and '85, it blew up in 1976 and was offline for a little while.”

Amid the discord, there was one reminder that the symbols do have meaning, particularly in times of strife. BBC radio played a clip from a woman who said Big Ben was vital to her and others survival at Europe’s darkest moments.

“This is nothing one can be funny about because it was one of the most sacred sounds that we heard during the war, we who were in occupied France. It was our lifeblood, it was our comfort and it kept us sane,” recalled Ginette Spanier, a resistance fighter later director of a fashion house who chose Big Ben’s bongs on Desert Island Discs in 1965.

Updated: August 21, 2017 06:20 PM