It’s The Bells, Your Honour

This week I rang a touch of Grandsire Triples, and plain courses of Plain Bob Minor and of Stedman Doubles. Most readers of this blog will not have the first idea what that means. It means I did some clever stuff with church bells, and I was quite pleased with myself when I got home, even if it did mean that I ended up with a late night because I’d gone ringing when I should’ve been prepping for a hearing.

If you’ve ever done a pub quiz you probably know that “Campanology” is a non-bellringer’s name for bellringing. But you probably don’t know a lot else about it. I’ve been a “campanologist” for 20+ years, but have been lapsed for much of the last decade (studenthood and parenthood pushed the bells down the priority ranking). Now that the babbies are scarcely babbies I’ve begun to venture back up to the tower and this time I’m determined to become the accomplished ringer I always thought I could be. To be honest it’s not going 100% smoothly to date: trials and advices and chicken pox have all stood in the way of regular attendance at practice night, but I suppose such things are not going to change any time soon, so I’d best persevere.

It occurred to me some time ago that there are a number of parallels between the legal and ringing worlds. It’s been tickling me ever since, so I thought I ought to get it out of my system. Here goes…

  • Surprising mix of god botherers and heathens (I’m always surprised a the number of religious lawyers, most people are surprised that most ringers are emphatically not churchgoers, although few are surprised that I am not a churchgoer). I suppose in an odd way it is a parallel to the role I play in law – the classic eight bells are said to advocate “oh-come-to-church-and-wor-ship god”, not something I subscribe to but which I am prepared to assist with because I think it’s important that somebody does it (not for the sake of religion, but for the sake of culture and tradition). A lawyer puts the client’s case, whether or not she agrees with it personally. Here the “client” is the culture, the “sport” whatever you want to call it, rather than the religion. The sound of church bells is a part of our heritage, in reality quite detached from the church, which these days does its PR through more modern technologies.
  • Ringing is about method. Ringing is an odd combination of mathematics, logic and music. It’s score is a sequence of numerical strings, impenetrable and meaningless to those not trained to read it, but containing all necessary information and instruction to the skilled. Much like laws, rules and caselaw. Another language to the uninitiated.
  • Generally non ringers find it difficult to distinguish between good ringing and terrible ringing. Many has been the time when I have crept around the side of the church, having rung disastrously for a wedding, past the bride, groom and all the other attendees happily oblivious to our campanological clangers. The same is true of advocacy: “Whoosh” say clients in the post-hearing debrief, as they demonstrate information sailing over their head. And then I translate what the lawyers have said (if I’ve done my job I only need translate what the other lawyers have said).
  • Like law, ringing is not just about the method itself (knowledge of the law), but about the technique. In ringing this is about the physical skill involved in making a bell weighing perhaps a ton to strike just when you want it to: handling and catching the rope, applying just the correct amount of pull in order to swing the bell at the right pace and to the right height in order to maintain control, so as to be responsive to calls made (which change the sequence of the bells at short notice). A ringer needs to change the pace and direction of her bell at a moment’s notice, and to do this she needs to be able to hold her bell upended on the balance until the moment comes to pull the rope and strike. A ringer needs to listen to directions given by the caller, to be alert to the position of all the other bells, and to respond accordingly. A ringer must dance up and down the sequence of bells, dodging with other bells by watching the movement of the other ropes, the subtle signals of the other ringers, and by coordinating with them. Each bell is affected by the other bells, and an error has a knock on effect. In ringing we call these skills bell control and rope sight. Lawyers call it thinking on your feet.
  • There is a compulsive attraction to learning more, getting better – like the never reached pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
  • Ringers are ultimately geeks, and a bit odd. Lawyers may be besuited, but ultimately they are simply a species of geek, who operate in a world and who speak a language that most of the rest of us don’t understand. There is an odd kind of collegiality in ringing, much like the bar, an ethos of teaching and of support. But like many branches of the legal profession it is increasingly hard to see how the skill within the ringing community can be sustained and passed down to future generations. It is nigh on impossible to find teenagers to take up ringing – like the law it requires a real time commitment in order to even master the basics – and many towers struggle to get a full band or to ring all their complement of bells on a Sunday.

For me, in spite of all the odd parallels, thinking about numbers is a welcome change to thinking about words. It’s rather refreshing to drown out all the stories of heartache and abuse with a melody, a rhythm, one that is essentially cyclical, predictable, familiar, and that will (if done right) ultimately “come round”. You can’t be thinking about work whilst you are trying to remember whether your next piece of work is a double dodge in 5 6 or a snap lead, whether you should take the treble off the lead or make the bob. Even for the unreligious amongst us a church, a graveyard on a warm summer’s night can be a wonderfully calm and solitary place. I have many fond memories of practice nights as a teenager watching bats flitting around the gargoyles in search of mosquitoes, counting in time to the reverberating bells whilst I waited for my turn to come up. At the moment bellringing is my antidote.


2 thoughts on “It’s The Bells, Your Honour

  1. Should be working

    Funny … substitute “organist” for “campanologist” and I would recognise myself in this. Lovely to read 🙂

  2. I had no idea you were a fellow ringer. (Although I confess that Stedman has always existed in blind spot for me!)

    No comparison of the relationships ringers and lawyers have to beer & pubs…?

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