Sure, it’s great when Big Ben goes ‘bong.’ It’s a grand-looking edifice, completed in 1859, a widely revered symbol of London and British democracy. As a landmark it is loved by tourists, and loved more symbolically by Londoners and Britons who have grown up with the “bongs,” as those strikes of the 13-ton bell on the hour—their number depending on the time--are known.
Now, the Elizabeth Tower, which holds the bell itself, is having a $37 million restoration, hence the silencing of the bongs until 2021. The stern-sounding bongs happen after a little introductory peal called the Westminster Quarters, which play on the quarter hour, and which will also be silenced. Parliament and its MP occupants will reside in bong-less peace for four years.
The bongs were most ubiquitous to ring in the New Year—and provide an excellent accompaniment to dramatic film and TV cliffhangers set on New Year’s Eve.
The bongs would signal the beginning of News at Ten, the ITV main evening news show. They feature on the opening credits of current affairs comedy panel show Have I Got News For You? They play before the midnight news on BBC Radio 4, and fade out as the headlines are read. Some are very upset at the prospect of no bongs.
This might seem a little much. The bongs could only be heard near Big Ben itself beside Parliament. Otherwise, London is a noisy city, and the bongs themselves were not a part of the city’s wider routine. They happened. You didn’t wait for them to happen, and unless you were traveling to experience a bong for a specific reason, you left the bongs to themselves.
But the end of the bongs bought outrage, and hand-wringing over bell-ringing, with Conservative ministers and press—like the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph—particularly stirred to their Union Jack core that the bongs would be brought to a temporary halt.
The bongs must be silenced, say officials, because of the deleterious effects on the hearing of those workers tasked with repairing the bell. Their hearing would apparently be put at “serious risk” if the bongs were allowed to continue while the work was carried out.
The extremely posh Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who doesn’t so much sound as if he has a plum in his throat as much as swallowed an entire plum orchard, told the Daily Mail: “I think Big Ben ought to be kept striking as much as possible during the repairs as long as it doesn’t deafen the work force. It would be symbolically uplifting for it to sound out our departure from the EU as a literally ringing endorsement of democracy.”
Fellow Tory Peter Bone chimed in (sorry): “Big Ben should bong when we come out of the EU, absolutely. We are being liberated from the European Union superstate and Britain will again be a completely self-governing country. Where will the eyes of the world be? On Parliament and Big Ben. It would be very strange if at midnight on that day it does not chime out, very bizarre. It is the heart of our nation.”
It perhaps says a lot about how confident Brexit supporters are in their mission that they need the symbolic seal of a bell to make them feel more secure.
The British Prime Minister Theresa May even got involved, saying last week: “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. 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.”
But it’s no shakes for the Bongers. Silence will reign, and a certain amount of derision has been placed on those who wept mightily about the end of the bongs.
Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth, said on Twitter: “The Big Ben dongs will return. Wish those MPs who are causing such a fuss were equally vocal about food banks, the GP crisis and harsh cuts.”
Jess Phillips, Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, wrote on Twitter: “Hope in our hearts that when the sodding bell returns we might of realised how ridiculous we look for giving a toss.”
Come the moment of the final bongs at noon GMT on Monday there was a demonstration, much-mocked online, of a few parliamentary representatives mourning the temporary end of the bongs, led by Stephen Pound MP.
The Daily Mirror reported he was seen possibly weeping, and there are pictures with him posed with a handkerchief ready to dab at a misty eye.
Other MPs, said the Mirror, wouldn’t own up to attending the demonstration. But they were there too, along with many others, to hear the final bongs.
Much cheering and whooping followed the last bong.
As the last few days have shown, the bongs mean different things to different people. Brexiteers see them as the necessary underscore on their project, and an expression of patriotism for when they fulfill their mission of pulling the U.K. out of the European Union.
Brexit opponents may see the bongs’ silence as the symbolic confirmation of an impending cultural deathliness. Or like others, and many MPs today, wonder what all the tears and fuss is about—and that this is just a repair job, so get on with it, and MPs please get back to work.
Steve Jaggs, keeper of the Great Clock (which has to be one of the best job titles of all time), told the Mirror that the work to be done on the Elizabeth Tower was vital to protect Big Ben for future generations.
It should be noted that the people watching the final bongs did not seem bereft, and were simply attending a buzzy cultural moment. Photographs showed people wielding their phones in the air to get the best shots and audio.
Life, bongless, went on.