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Lutine Bell, Lloyd’s of London: recovered in 1858 from the shipwreck of HMS Lutine (1799), the bell was traditionally rung to alert underwriters to shipping losses, but these days is only rung in the event of major worldwide disasters, such as 9/11.

. . . is a piece of onomatopoeia if ever there was one, a word imitating the sound it represents. It’s actually a relatively recent, deliberately-coined word, dating back only to 1831, by Edgar Allan Poe (The Bells), even if the root word goes back to Latin. Yes, it’s the sound of little bells tinkling – think Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way – but not really appropriate for the rounded complexity of hand bells or the majestic peal of great church bells. After all, when we say a bell is tolling for the dead, we are imagining a different sound from the joyful pealing sound appropriate for weddings and times of national celebration. The vowels of toll and peal evoke different sensations. We can’t escape onomatopoeia when talking about musical sounds.

Poe uses tintinnabulation for just such tinkling bells. At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve there was much tintinnabulation – little bells rung as part of the ritual, charged with a more festive meaning for Christmas. We don’t usually go down the “smells and bells” route, but on festive occasions you can’t beat pulling all the stops out. Christmas isn’t really Christmas until you have seen a hefty censer rotated 360 degrees on its chains en passant down the aisle (the “smells” part). That slight frisson of worrying whether the censer is going to fly off and conk some poor unsuspecting member of the congregation on the head – certainly adds to our admiration of the spectacle when it all passes off safely.

As a colleague reminded me on our annual Christmas trip out to the village of Avebury, whose ancient church with significant Saxon remains are dwarfed in age by the Neolithic ring of stones surrounding the settlement, bells are the sound of Christmas. I’m in agreement, and bells mark my progress in the cochlear implant world, 20 months on. At first I could barely make out the sound of bells from the surrounding traffic, then I could just hear a mighty dongggg-dongggg above the noise of the city as I approached, then I began to pick out the bells from further away. Now I can recognise and compare the sounds of different sets of Cathedral bells. In the run-up to Christmas we went to Durham Cathedral whose clear bells rang out in the still air above the cold city; the medieval cobblestoned peninsula on which it stands isolates the Cathedral from the roar of modern traffic. The massed singing of thousands of ordinary people, led by the choir, was something to listen to – and join in with – inside this glorious Romanesque building with the earliest vaulted Gothic ceiling in Europe, which gives it excellent acoustics. Now on earth, below, below, are bells in steeple swungen/and i-o, i-o, i-o by priest and people sungen.

The sheer variety of sound that bells make is fascinating. The nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons teaches us this: as it is traditionally sung, each couplet represents a different set of bells and differs in intonation and rhythm, said to imitate the sound of each church’s bells: from the rapid light sparkle of Oranges and Lemons/Say the bells of St. Clement’s and ending with the sonorous I – DOOOO – NOOOT – KNOOOOW/ SAYS THE GREAAT BELL OF BOOOW.

I love the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem As kingfishers catch fire. It’s meant to be read aloud: it replicates the rapid tinny echo of stone against brick brought up sharp before the stone disappears forever, and the deep measured cadence of the words chosen to represent the bell:

. . . as tumbled over rim in roundy wells/Stones ring; as each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s bow swung flings out broad its name . . . 

One little programme I like very much is the weekly three-minute slot Bells on Sunday on BBC Radio 4, which is a very good listening workout in mixing speech comprehension with music. You have a handle on the subject – the introduction briefly discusses the history of the church and its bells with lots of nice numbers as they tell you the year it was built, etc. – followed by the sound of the bells themselves. Though this was a ‘starter’ programme I discovered when I was first activated, it’s something I still like listening to, just because I like bells. And that is part of the joy of being able to hear – to find out more about the world. Lots left to discover!

And one of my New Year’s resolutions is to get up for 8am on 27 July 2012 to hear all the bells ring (or as many of them as possible) to open the London Olympics. Bit of a controversial project this one, and bell-ringers themselves haven’t necessarily taken kindly to it, but it will be, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime experience – I might even sign up myself. That’s the thing – bells are for the community and symbolise my inclusion in a wider community, now that I can hear.

On that note, Happy New Year, to the bongs of Big Ben.

*For viewers in the UK, if you haven’t yet done so, you can still catch up with a couple of programmes about the art and history of bellringing on BBC4 in the next few days, as they should be available on iPlayer afterwards for a week. Fascinating stuff, and warmly recommended.

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