Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Streets Ahead: Tucker on Big Ben & Guiding

Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen David Tucker

Listening to it the other night.

Here it is. Or, if you prefer, hear it is.

Listening to it along with everybody else in this country (to say nothing of the worldwide audience)  – well, it got me thinking.

Thinking about what I say about it on my Old Westminster walk. When we get it in our crosshairs.

And thinking – “gee, with the ocean of information we’re all glugging around in compliments of the internet, am I surplus to requirements?”

Thought, “ok, let’s find out, let’s do a quick beauty contest – the almost minimalist ink-wash painting of my guiding over against what comes pouring through if you open the sluice gates of Google.

I’m anything but disinterested of course, but I think the ink-wash painting – the guiding – wins out.

Here it is (well, a précis of part of it).

“The tower is 323 feet high. The bell weighs 13 tonnes. The clock mechanism weighs five tonnes. So there’s 18 tonnes of iron at the top of that football field-high tower. The clock faces are 23 feet in diameter (to get that into perspective, flip that diameter onto its vertical axis and that’s approximately the height of a two-storey house). The minute hands are 14 feet long – that’s just about the length of a London taxi. They weigh 224 pounds. They’re made out of hollow copper. They travel 25 miles a year. The clock is phenomenally accurate – especially given that it’s a huge, mechanical, 19th century creation. It’s accurate to about a second a day. Charming detail: when it gets out the timekeeper uses an English old penny – he knows exactly where to put it on the balance beam – to get it back into true.

“What else? Well notice the lines of the Elizabeth Tower (as it’s officially known). Notice how they’re straight up until you get to the clock. See how the clock as it were bulges out. That break in the straight up line of the tower helps to make the clock even more of a focal point. It accentuates it. Draws the eye to it.

“What else? Well, it’s fun to know there’s a ‘prison’ in the clock tower. Ok, it’s just a single cell, but still. A single cell for miscreant politicians. A single cell that unfortunately hasn’t been used since the 19th century.

“And a quick bolt-on to that theme, where we are – this secret island – is, amongst other things, a place of secret prisons, one of which is in the clock tower. We’ll see a couple more secret prisons later on. Oh and when I say ‘secret island’ that’s not some half-baked reference to Great Britain – what the phrase refers to is Thorney Isle, which we’re standing on now. Yes, that’s right, Westminster was once an island. An island created by the forking arms of a tributary to the Thames.

“And then there’s the Ayrton Lamp. Look at the very top of the tower. It sort of resembles a slate grey ski ramp. Just beneath it you can see five elliptically shaped, gilded openings. Behind those elliptically shaped openings – in the room, the space behind them – there’s a very powerful white lamp called the Ayrton Lamp. When parliament’s sitting at night it’s lit. That’s how you tell. Look for that great white lamp beaming out from inside there.

“And if you’ll just take another three or four steps along here I’ll show you how you can tell whether they’re sitting during the day…”

But that’s another story. Another morsel, another link in the chain of the walk.

Nor was the “précis” the whole story. I sometimes talk about the tilt of the Tower and how long it will take for the lean to get into the Leaning Tower of Pisa league.  Or make the point that Big Ben can be heard from about four miles away.

And that its note is E flat.


Well, you get the idea.

Now does all the above come sluicing through those Google floodgates?

Short answer is “no”. Most of it does but not all of it.

Google “Big Ben” and you’ll get, give or take a few million, 714 million web pages. If you had a few million life times and devoted all of them to reading all 714 million of those pages you wouldn’t get “all of the above”.

Wouldn’t get them because some of what I’ve decided I want to say about Big Ben has come from connections that I’ve made that simply haven’t occurred to anyone else – e.g., the minute hands are almost as long as a London taxi.

But the main thing is the editing, the selection. You could work up something more or less passable were you to set aside a few hours and get the Genie Google out of his lamp.

But it wouldn’t be a very good use of your time. Not when you can get it from a London Walks guide at a cost of just a few minutes’ of your time. And a few pennies. (Pro-rate the few minutes out of two hour walk that the “presentation” of Big Ben takes and, yes, you’ve got a cost of just a few pennies.)

And of course the other thing is, if you log all those hours – do all that research – what happens then? You writing it down? Then are you going to be referring to those notes, reading them, when you’re actually there, before Big Ben? Reading stuff out from your notebook – or peering at your screen – rather than looking at the real thing?

How moronic would that be?

And that’s not the only “other thing”.

Because there’s also the realm of “who you going to ask a question to?”




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