Saturday, 31 December 2011

It's A London Thing No.58: Happy New Year!

It’s a London Thing is our series in which we turn the spotlight on a unique aspect of London – perhaps a curious shop, sometimes an eccentric restaurant, a hidden place, book or oddity. The subject matter will be different every week. The running theme, however, will remain constant: you have to come to London to enjoy it. It’s A London Thing.

London Walks Guide Adam writes…

For many, there’s a ho-hum quality to Big Ben. We’ve seen it a million times. It’s like when Hey Jude by The Beatles comes on the radio – it’s so much a part of the aural furniture that many of us hardly even pay attention any more.

Yet Hey Jude is still a great song. More than great. Maybe you could make it a New Year resolution to listen to it more closely next time it comes up on shuffle or on the radio,

Similarly, Big Ben is a really great clock. A fantastic clock. In fact, let’s not mess about – especially at this time of year – it’s the finest clock on God’s green earth.

There. I’ve said it. I’ve got a bit of a thing about Big Ben. In many ways it’s not just A London Thing… it’s THE London Thing.

A clich√©? Absolutely. If any lazy filmmaker wants to establish that we are in The Big Smoke, he can do so with one frame of Big Ben. My own personal New Year’s Resolution is to stop using the clapped out epithet “iconic” – but given as how it’s still 2011 as I type, here’s one last turn around Parliament Square for the tired old clich√©: it’s a London icon.

But it’s the sound of the bell, rather than the look of the thing that truly floats my boat.

For a year or so, many years ago, I lived in Pimlico. And in the dead of night, with the wind blowing in the right direction, I could hear Big Ben chime the hours. The sound made every dark night of the soul just that little bit lighter.

To this day I find it reassuring: I know I am home. Home in London. I love leading London Walks from Westminster that meet at the top of the hour – it gives me a chance to hear the bell again. I never tire of that sound.

At six o’clock on BBC Radio 4 the chimes of Big Ben herald the news. To me, it is a familiar and kindly old friend preparing me gently for the tales of war and fiscal calamity to come.

If I’m not in the room when the bell chimes, my four-year-old daughter calls for me so that I don’t miss it. Often I’ll switch the wireless off after the bells, not wishing the news to besmirch the warm feeling engendered by my two favourite sounds: my daughter’s voice and London’s most famous bell.

Just this very evening, as I typed this piece at the computer, my wife turned up the volume on the kitchen radio so I could hear it at the other end of the house. It was a lovely New Year gift: exactly what I wanted.

I’m setting this post to publish at 11.59p.m on the 31st December 2011. The last minute of the old year. A minute later, Big Ben will chime in London’s third Olympic year, the fireworks on the Thames will burst into life and the revels will begin. Amid the chaos I will hear the bell and smile to myself and be thankful. Thankful that I am a Londoner, and that Big Ben is my local town clock.

Big Ben: It’s A London Thing. Happy New Year.


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