Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Thursday, 19 April 2012
On this day, April 19th 1012, Alphege, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, was killed by soldiers of the invading army of Denmark at Greenwich, London.
I only know this because those polite people of Bath Abbey put a flyer telling me that they will ring all of their ten bells from 10.00 until 2.00 today, to mark the 1000th anniversary of his death.
Saint Alphege, as he became after his martyrdom, was - in AD 980 - also appointed Abbot of the monastery which dominated the centre of Bath around the Roman Baths, so the present abbey church has strong links with him, and still maintain a chapel there in his honour. Another set of Alphege facts which I only know about because of the advanced warning, despite having lived in Bath all these years.
The little flyer put through our door is also an advance apology, because the Abbey states that it understands that bell ringing can be very intrusive for people living or working nearby, and asks for our patience and understanding.
How thoughtful and considerate of them to go to the trouble of printing the leaflet and distributing it, as compared to the church of St. Michael Without - directly behind our house - which practices bell-ringing at least once a week for at least three hours at night without advanced warning, and without seeming to get any better at it despite the practice having gone on for at least 35 years to my knowledge.
I really do not mind the bells of Bath Abbey - they are ancient and of very good quality, but the bells of St. Michael's are tinny, out of tune and un-muffled Victorian buckets, rung by over-zealous amateurs (do you detect a hint of bitterness in my tone?).
The clock on my computer has just reached 10.00 a.m. and the Abbey bells should start any second now. I might end up listening to all of it, because I keep getting waves of stomach-ache, and I have not yet decided if I am ill enough to not go to work. One minute I'm fine, the next I am not, and this is how I have been since yesterday.
I only discovered the 'correct' way to listen to bells about 30 years ago, whilst sitting at a cafe in some old town in Europe, in the shadow of a huge church which was ringing theirs. Listening this way is also a good method of determining the quality of the bells, for reasons given below.
When you are close to old bells being rung in unison, let your mind go as blank as you can, then listen to the sounds between the actual rings - the harmonics of the notes, rather than the notes themselves.
After a while - if the bells are good enough - you will tune into the other sounds to the virtual exclusion of the notes to which the bronze bells have been tuned, and then the magic begins. It is impossible to describe what these sounds are like, but you will be transported by listening to them - that is their function. Good-quality bells are designed to put you into a very spiritual state of mind, and the makers of them understood this very well. They have absolutely nothing to do with playing a catchy little melody - any melody there is merely a framework on which to hang the other sound. The other sound should come through and overpower the worldly tune that the actual bells are pealing.
Once you have tuned into this sound, you will never hear church bells the same way, ever again.
For me, the proof that this sound I heard at the cafe was other-worldly was that it carried on in my head for quite a while after the bells had ceased ringing - and, by the way, I was only drinking coffee. I turned to a woman who had lived in the shadow of the bell tower there all her life, and asked if she could hear the sound that I could, and for a while she said she could not, so I guided her way through the cacophony, telling her what to listen out for. Then - all of a sudden - she was tuned in and transported like I was. We both sat for ages, listening with broad smiles on our faces.
They have begun ringing for St. Alphege now, but the wind is blowing most of the sound away from me.