25 February 2016
Trouble in the Belfry
Raising a clanger
It is amazing what the human race will do for pleasure. This column has a fascination with politicians, but it often ponders what on earth makes normal people want to spend time trying to shin up the greasy political pole, endure the anti-social hours, learn bitter lessons to never trust anybody around them. All for what? For careers that almost inevitably, as one participant in the great game memorably said, end in failure.
But turn to the supposedly more wholesome and admired pastime of sport – and there it is all over again – the stupid commitments of time, the sacrifices of normal life, the backbiting competition – to which must be added the ever present threat of life changing injury. And for those serious about their sport, those who want to compete at county, national, or (sharp intake of breath) Olympic level, each step just magnifies the difficulties, the pain, the sacrifice.
So why, if you are enjoying a gentle pastime, the company of friends and colleagues, in some amiable pursuit, would you want to start to get involved in in sporting politics and the oft vicious world of competition? What can be more bucolic, good natured, and gentle, than the intensely traditional pastime of bell ringing? But peer around the belfry door and you may well find that not all is as you might expect to find it.
Probably there are very few people who have much to do with bell ringing. They may have been persuaded to have the ringers at the church to announce their wedding, and had to hastily find the cash to lend to the best man to tip them. They may be woken every Sunday by a quarter peal played to call the faithful to church and shake the unfaithful irritably out of bed. Those who love a good detective story will almost certainly have read Dorothy L Sayers’s “The Nine Tailors” about a death in a church bellchamber in frozen East Anglia – you will never hear a peel of bells ringing across empty countryside in quite the same way after reading that.
But like so many marginally eccentric English hobbies, bellringing has a surprisingly large number of devoted adherents. There were 40,000 at the last estimate who will not just turn out early on Sunday mornings but will also disrupt their Saturdays for the tiniest of honorariums; they will drive miles and miles on icy nights to raise the bells of rarely rung churches, and at least once a week miss East Enders or Coronation Street to meet with seven or eight others to practice, usually under the eye and ear of an autocratic tower captain whose rule is absolute. Such devotion must create wonderful friendships and a commonality of views, surely?
A sporting arena?
Well, no. An insight into what really goes on in those bell towers was given last week when “Ringing World”, the authoritative voice of campanology across these islands – the Shaw Sheet of the belfry, you might say – suggested bellringing should be reclassified as a sport. This did not seem too inflammatory a suggestion. Though ringing is at its core mathematical, remembering all those counts and changes and variations in perfect timing, it certainly keeps its adherents fit. Ringing a peal can often take hours of hard work whilst maintaining perfect timing and control. Strong arms and perfect breath control, to say nothing of powerful lungs, are an essential. If you don’t have them the first time you step into the bell ringing chamber, you will if you keep the activity up for long.
Indeed, Ringing World says that bell ringing is more strenuous than angling and shooting (the Editor has obviously not done much walked up grouse shooting), and if it were recognised as a sport would attract young people and much extra funding from government funds devoted to getting us all out of the house and into some healthy sport. The image of bellringing is all wrong, says Ringing World, and if it does not start to draw in the young it will eventually dwindle away, another rotting rope in the maintenance of church buildings and in the decline of the established church itself. Robert Lewis, the editor of Ringing World, commending an application to Sport England for recognition, said “This is very much the sound of England…great fun as well as a healthy physical and mental workout”.
So that all sounds a done deal; the bells will ring out as the young clamour at the bell door and the grants pour in.
Hang on, hang on. There are much more powerful forces in the world of bells to deal with. And they are not keen, not at all. The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, the governing body of English campanology, has turned the idea down flat. Sporting status, they say, might risk prejudicing bellringing’s relationship with various church bodies. Chris Mew, President of the Council, said “Where is the glamour of the sports field and where are the David Beckham’s of the belfry?”, missing the point that assuming sporting status is designed to produce those very factors.
Sport England likes the idea and is not to be put off by a rejection by the governing body. It has perhaps been studying recent developments in the Labour Party, and suggested that those keen on sporting status, those incipient Beckham’s, Rooney’s, and Pendleton’s waiting to step up to the rope and climb the belfry ladder, should start a breakaway body. Indeed there is one, the remarkably named Ancient Society of College Youths, founded before the English Civil War. But the College Youths so far have declined to get rebellious and also want to keep the present closeness to the church. (One does wonder what happened to that glorious vision of Victorian times, the muscular sporting parson; hunting, running, rugger, and cricket were all part of healthiness in spirit and body to him.)
But once politicisation begins, it is a slippery slope. In 2012 it was suggested that to mark the opening of the London Olympic Games the nations’ bellringers should grasp their ropes to ring in the world’s greatest sporting occasion. The Central Council – who we met above – didn’t like that idea either. Especially as the ringing was to last only three minutes and also involve hand bells, school bells, bicycle bells and…er…doorbells. They said that this would produce a frantic and atonal fanfare, though that was rather the point. The idea was quietly dropped, though some sporty bell teams rang out their church bells on the day in celebration.
Where will this all go? Sport England recognises, amongst other sporting activities, model aircraft flying, baton twirling, and quoits. Experience suggests that if money is involved, a slippery slope has been greased; and if David Beckham should be seen emerging from some rural bell tower in a light sweat, his upper torso bulging, it will be all over for the traditionalists. Even now the politics are starting to appear. The College Youths (who presumably would be delighted to get D Beckham into their Ancient Society) have already shown signs of cracking. Their spokesman pointed out that bell ringing in the C17th was regarded as a serious sport, and that it remains highly competitive. The historical precedent has been set, the money is waiting; it only needs the construction of modernist belfries at the 2020 Olympics and a new world will be rung in.
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