I have always liked the sound of bells. Peals, or “methods” as they are sometimes known to campanologists, seem to possess something essentially English, though bells are heard all over the world. Meanwhile their tight-held almost-balance of pattern and anarchy reminds me of the jazz music that I love.
Bells are also a resonate symbol of democracy, in both the US and the UK. In London our Houses of Parliament has a 13.5-tonne heavyweight, Big Ben. On the other side of the Atlantic Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell has become one of the best-known emblems of the principles of freedom and equality at the heart of the American political tradition.
These bells also represent the links between the British and American nations and their democracies, not least because both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were made by the nearly 450-year-old east London workshop that is now the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
America also has other less well-known liberty bells in other parts of the nation, however, and of course has not always had harmonious relations with the UK. The Kaskaskia Bell, also known as the “Liberty Bell of the West”, arrived in New Orleans in 1743 as a gift from the French king Louis XV and was then was taken upriver to Kaskaskia, located in what was Upper Louisiana and is now southern Illinois. While the bell began its history as a curio of the colonial age, it started a new life with a new nation when it was rung to celebrate the liberation of Kaskaskia from the British on 4 July 1778.
These days, however, liberty bells everywhere seem fragile and quiet. The Kaskaskia Bell now lives in relative obscurity and is rarely rung. The Liberty Bell and Big Ben are both cracked, and the latter will be silenced for maintenance of its tower’s clock for a few months sometime in the coming years. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s building is to be sold, with the business facing an uncertain future.
The Philadelphia Liberty Bell is inscribed with a powerful Biblical inscription: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”, and it is hard to avoid seeing these falls in fortunes of bells and limitations on their ability to speak to us to us as a symbol of the damaging blows freedom and equality have endured in the UK and the US over the past year.
Big Ben’s crack gives it a “less-than-perfect” but also “distinctive” tone, says the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Writing about the Liberty Bell in her history of Independence National Historical Park, US academic Constance M. Greiff asks if the fact that it is “irreparably damaged” is part of its “almost mystical appeal”. She adds: “Like our democracy it is fragile and imperfect, but it has weathered threats, and it has endured.” It is very tempting at this point to think of those famous words from “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, who died last month: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
At this dark time of year in particular, bells are traditionally rung to symbolise festivities and new beginnings (which I will use as an opportunity to say that my blog will take a vacation for the next couple of weeks). Let’s hope that these things bring refreshed voices and renewed hopes.
Image: Shinya Suzuki