BIG BEN or
I’m going to start this story from scratch. I’m not quite sure why they call it starting from scratch, except that this story starts a long time ago, when people didn’t wash very much, so I suppose they got very dirty, and I suppose that made them itch, and I suppose then they started to scratch.
Anyway, in the days before Mummies and Daddies made you wash all the time, and before that soap was invented that always gets in your eyes, the Kings of England lived in London in the Palace of Westminster, and from there they ruled the country. But it’s a complicated business ruling a country, so he appointed a few dukes and barons and earls to form a council to help him out.
But the population of England grew; – I don’t mean they all got taller, I mean there got more and more of them, so he needed more and more advisers in the council. Well, all these adsvisers wouldn’t necessarily agree immediately on what they ought to do, so they talked and talked about it, or had what they called a parley, which was a French word for the same thing. So of course they called that council a Parley-ament.
And as time went by, the ordinary people, who were called commoners by the dukes and earls, because they could use the common, or sort of village green, where they lived, they thought they too should have a say in what the King and his council decided, especially as they had to pay the taxes that the council thought up. So the King had a council made up of two lots of advisors, one lot of Lords, and one lot of Commoners.
All this made living in a palace very expensive, and sometimes, when the Queen ran out of housekeeping money, she would say to the King: “King, I don’t know how we’re going to manage this week, and I doubt if there’ll be anything left in the royal larder by the week-end.”
And the King would say: “That’s all right, Queen. We’ll go on a Royal Progress, and we’ll go and stay with the Duke of Northumberland or the Earl of Oxford, or Lord Somebody-or-other. It’s a great honour, and they can’t refuse.”
So that’s what they did; and often they got a Parliament together while they were there.
You can understand that while the King and Queen found this idea very helpful, it didn’t please either the nobleman who had to feed all the advisers plus the King and Queen and all their courtiers, nor really the Lords and Commoners who had to travel all over the country to hold their Parliament. So the Lords and Commoners of Parliament had a bright idea.
“We’ll have a House of Parliament,” they decided; “Or rather two Houses of Parliament: a House of Lords and a House of Commons. And so that we all know exactly where we are, we’ll have those Houses in London, – say at Westminster, to be handy for the King.”
Then it was the turn of the King to have a bright idea. “Queen,” he said, “I’ve got a bright idea. We’ll move out of the Palace of Westminster, and give it to Parliament. It will save us re-painting all those rooms. And Parliament will be so grateful to us, they’ll build us a new palace nearby. It will be our official palace, so Parliament will have to pay for it.”
It was a good thing that that was what the King wanted to do, because no sooner had he thought of moving than the old Palace caught fire, and he had to move out, whether he wanted to or not. But, just as he had wished, Parliament decided there was enough of the old Palace left for them to use, and so they decided to help him move to a new one.
And that was how things went on for years and years and years, – right up until about a hundred and fifty years ago. That shows how long these Parliaments have been talking.
Then, quite without the King having another bright idea, the Palace of Westminster – for they still called it that – caught fire again. By then, of course, we didn’t have a King, we had a Queen, – Queen Victoria – ,but it still wasn’t her bright idea either.
Well, Parliament couldn’t ask her to move out of her palace again; she now lived in Buckingham Palace, which you can see in London today, and at the time of the fire it wasn’t all that old, and Queen Victoria wasn’t going to budge, whatever their bright ideas might be.
So Parliament didn’t so much have a bright idea as have the only idea going. They decided to build a new Palace of Westminster.<They didn’t feel they could change the name as well as the building, and it still has the same name today.>
They sent for the most famous architect they could think of, who turned out to be a Mr.Charles Barry. They gave him lots and lots of sheets of paper, a whole bundle of pencils and several rubbers, and they said: “Now, Mr.Barry, design us some mew Houses of Parliament. If we like your drawings, we’ll build it, and we’ll make you a ‘Sir’ as well.”
And that’s how it turned out. Mind you, it took him some years, and he had to have some help from his friend Mr.Pugin as well, but in the end there stood a magnificent Parliamentary building, with two towers at one end and a clock tower at the other.
* * * *
Now this is where we get past the scratching, and get to our clock.
Once again, Parliament found thenselves forced to think of the only idea going. It must have taken the cleverest of them to think of it, and I couldn’t possibly say who that was, but he said:”If we have a clock tower, we must have a clock to put in it.”
So this time they sent for the most famous clock-maker they could think of, and this turned out to be Sir Edmund Beckett. They didn’t have to make any promises to him, because he was a ‘Sir’ already. But they still gave him lots of sheets of paper, a stack of pencils and a packet of rubbers, and said: “There you are, Sir Edmund, let’s have a clock for our clock tower.”
Well, this clock tower was over three hundred feet high; – so high that if fifty men stood one on top of the other, they still wouldn’t reach the top, but forty-nine of them would have a rather nasty headache. But Sir Edmund didn’t think of them. He thought of a very important clock, standing high above the London traffic where everyone could see it and tell the time by it, and it would need to be just about the most accurate clock he had ever worked on.
Well, you can see what he produced if you look up at that clock-tower today, and you can still see people putting their watches right by it.
And you can hear it. That massive bell that Sir Edmund gave it weighs about thirteen tons, and if about two hundred men all stood together they would probably weigh that much, and they wouldn’t get any headaches either.
Now, like Mr.Barry, Sir Edmund had just done the drawings for this magnificent clock, and like Mr.Barry he needed some help. His main helper was the engineer who looked after installing the clock, and his name was Sir Benjamin Hall, and he really ought to be better known, because that great clock was named after him.
That great clock was Big Ben.
Well, Parliament was delighted. Queen Victoria was delighted. And all the people who lived within sight and sound of Big Ben were delighted. What’s more, of course, Big Ben was delighted. It’s quite something to be the most famous clock in the land, to look down on the streets below and see people checking their clocks and watches against what you tell them the time is. And one of the things that tickled him most was that he was provided with his own special carer.
Old Tom was one of the great staff of cleaners, caretakers and other workers who were kept busy in the Palace of Westminster, and he had worked there many years, and was very much liked and respected. So they gave him the job of keeping Big Ben in the best working order. He did the job to the best of his ability, polishing and oiling and looking after Big Ben so thoroughly that they grew to know each other very well, and Big Ben felt he had a really good friend in old Tom.
However, one of the things that Parliaments seem to have a good supply of is people who think they know best, who like to run things and who like to interfere.
One day, Tom was told that the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him. Well, Tom had no idea who the Lord Privy Seal was.As far as he knew, he had once read somewhere that Privy was an old-fashioned word for a lavatory, and he couldn’t think why you’d need a Lord to look after them, even in the Palace of Westminster. Still less could he see any connection with them and a job with Big Ben.
Still less could he see any connection when he went into the Lord Privy Seal’s office, which was rather larger than all the rooms put together in the little house that Tom lived in. At the far end was a desk about the size of Tom’s kitchen, and seated behind it was the Lord Privy Seal, a very important personage, and almost as important as he thought he was.
“Ah, – er – Tom,” began the Lord Privy Seal, glancing down at the papers on his desk to remind himself whom he was talking to.
“Sir,” answered Tom. He wasn’t quite sure how you addressed a Lord Privy Seal. He was sure it wasn’t “Lord Privy”, and he didn’t think “Lord Seal” would do, though he was reminded of a seal when he looked at him. So he thought “Sir” was a good compromise.
“I believe you are the person who looks after that clock,” went on the Lord Privy Seal.
“That clock,” thought Tom; “it’s a good job Big Ben can’t hear you!” But he kept the thought to himself, and decided the best thing to do was just say “Yes,sir.”
“A very fine clock, I believe; – very accurate.”
This was a bit better, and Tom felt fully able to agree.
“Oh, yes indeed, sir,” he replied. “He’s a pleasure to work on.”
The Lord Privy Seal wasn’t aware of the friendship that had grown up between Tom and Big Ben, and for a moment he couldn’t think who “he” was. As far as he was concerned, of course, “that clock” was an “it.”
“And no trouble at all?” went on the Lord Privy Seal. “Quite an easy job for you, in fact?”
“Why that clock is so well built and so accurate,” said Tom, rather falling into a trap in his enthusiasm, “that he almost runs himself.”
“Yes, Tom, that’s rather what we thought.” The Lord Privy Seal was one of those important people who always use “we” if they have something unpleasant to do, and only use “I“ if it’s a nice thing. “And to put it bluntly, Tom, we don’t feel we can justify the expense of having one man just to look after a clock – well, that runs itself, as you yourself say.”
Tom couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“You mean – ” he stammered.
“We mean we feel a job like that could be done by one of the cleaners or porters or someone. So we’re sorry, but we don’t think we can employ you any more. Good morning.”
And the Lord Privy Seal, who at least was a little bit embarrassed at what he had decided, picked up some papers on his desk, and a rather dazed Tom left the room.
He went back up the clock tower, of course, and told Big Ben what he’d been told, though he didn’t tell Ben he’d been called “that clock.” Big Ben was just as horrified as Tom was, and that evening, when Tom went off for the last time, the great clock had to work very hard to keep his usual accurate time.
Tom didn’t know what to do, and in fact there wasn’t a lot he could do. He’d not only lost his job, he felt he’d lost a good friend. He had meant what he had said to the Lord Privy Seal, Big Ben was a pleasure to work on.
Big Ben, once the news sank in, was not only sad; he was furious.
“I’ll show them,” he muttered to himself, “I’ll show them.”
This seems to be a story for bright ideas. Now Big Ben had one.
The clock tower was, of course, a very tall, square building, with four sides. So that everyone, from whatever direction they approached the clock, could always see the time, Sir Edmund had provided Big Ben with a face on each side. Big Ben had four faces.
When he said to himself :”I’ll show them!” Big Ben suddenly realised that was exactly what he could do.
“I don’t only strike the hours so they can hear what the time is,” he said to himself, “I have four faces so that they can see what the time is. With four different faces to show them the time, I can show them four different times!”
He thought of this bright idea in the middle of the night, and had to stop himself rubbing his hands with glee.
“That really would confuse them,” he thought. “Perhaps I’ll save that one up.” And he waited impatiently for the morning.
The next morning, when people started hurrying to work, strange things began to happen. All the people hurrying down Whitehall, a lot of them people who worked in the Government, who had started off from their homes at the usual time, looked up as usual at Big Ben to check that they weren’t going to be late for work. To their surprise they found that this morning they were actually early. They were ten minutes early. There was no point in being that much too early for work, so they all slowed down a little.
A lot of other people were approaching Westminster from the City, some of them, thinking they had left rather too much time this morning, were enjoying strolling along the embankment by the river. It was a bit of a shock to them to see, as they came within sight of their old friend Big Ben, that they were a quarter of an hour late already, and they jolly well had to get a move on.
Which they tried to do.
But they found as they got near to the Houses of Parliament that the roads were jammed solid. People who had been crossing Westminster Bridge from the other side of the river were running along the pavement, and the drivers of the horses and carriages in the road were whipping up the horses, because, according to that old familiar and always accurate face of Big Ben, it was five to nine already.
Meanwhile the new man who had been appointed to look after Big Ben was walking to work from his little house near Chelsea, on the west side of Parliament. It was a lovely morning made especially lovely when he looked up at his clock and saw that it was only half past eight.
“Must have walked a bit faster than usual,” he said to himself, and he sat down by the river to admire the view.
He wasn’t alone. Several people thought their clocks at home must have been fast this morning, and either slowed down to a dawdle, or sat on a bench by the river.
Nobody could understand the shemozzle. Each group, of course, could only see the clock that faced them; they couldn’t look round the corner to see what the time was on the other side, and certainly didn’t expect to see a different time there. It was only as they all eventually arrived at their places of work and started to compare notes that they began to understand.
“Well, that’s the first step.” chuckled Big Ben to himself; “they’ve been warned. We’ll see what happens now.”
But not a lot did happen immediately, except that the new man who was supposed to look after Big Ben got into trouble, first for being very late for work, and secondly for not doing his job very well. And as Big Ben very quietly set things back to normal in the course of the morning, things went on much as before.
“Something more is required,” thought Big Ben.
He went on telling the time just as correctly as before, because really it made him very uncomfortable playing about with time. He could have been the inventor of that chorus all the clocks shouted for Clerkenwell in the Clockspital: “What does a clock do? IT TELLS THE TIME!”
But he didn’t care for the new man, and he still thought it possible to get old Tom back.
So every day he ticked away, and chimed the hours, and people, reassured by now, checked their clocks and watches by him.
Including the Prime Minister in his office in Downing Street. Every day at twelve o’clock he listened as Big Ben struck the hour; and every day, when he heard it, he took his pocket watch out of his pocket, flipped open its little lid, and made sure his watch was right.
Except one day; – I believe it was a Thursday, but I’m not sure. All days are much the same for Big Ben, stuck up in a clock tower ringing out the hours, except that at week-ends the streets below him were quieter.
Twelve o’clock began to strike. The Prime Minister in his office in 10,Downing Street took out his watch, flipped it open, and began to count with Big Ben. Ten – eleven – twelve -and he was just flipping the watch closed again when – thirteen! He couldn’t believe it. He must have mis-counted, he thought, and he rang for his Secretary.
“Mr.Secretary,” he said when the Secretary poked his nose round the door. “Did you hear that clock strike?”
“Yes, Prime Minister,” answered the Secretary, sidling further into the room.
“What?” asked the Prime Minister irritably. “What did you hear it strike?”
“It seems to have been th – thirteen, Prime Minister.”
“Thirteen?” shouted the Prime Minister. “It’s twelve o’clock! What’s it doing striking thirteen?”
“Well, Prime Minister,” stammered the Secretary, ” I do believe in Europe they often use a twenty-four hour clock; – thirteen at one o’clock, eighteen at six o’clock – ”
“I don’t care what they do in Europe!” stormed the Prime Minister. “We don’t do it here! Find out what’s going on.”
“Yes, Prime Minister.”
“And bring me a report on it. – Tomorrow. – In triplicate. Three copies,” shouted the Prime Minister, holding up three fingers to emphasise the point.
Prime Ministers often believe they can solve a problem by having a report on it, in at least three copies.
“Yes, Prime Minister,” said the Secretary, and left the room as quickly as he could, partly to make it appear he was getting on with it at once, and partly because he didn’t like being shouted at.
If he had really wanted to get on with it at once, he would have gone straight up to Big Ben, who could have told him what it was all about. Instead of that he went to look for the new man to tell him off for not looking after Big Ben properly.
Unfortunately the new man was off sick for a few days, so the Secretary couldn’t get much farther. However, he was able to write a report, explaining that the man in charge of Big Ben was off sick at present, which doubtless explained why the clock had developed a fault <A fault! Big Ben would have fallen out of his tower if he had seen that!>, and the matter was in hand, and would be dealt with as soon as possible.
It didn’t look very much as a report, but there wasn’t much else he could think of to say, and by the time it had been copied three times and stamped “Official – Secret”, it looked reasonably satisfactory.
The Prime Minister just said “Humph!” and gave it back to him for filing.
A few days later the new man came back to work, only to be greeted by a severe ticking off for not doing a good job of looking after Big Ben. He wasn’t in the best of moods to start with, coming back to work, and he didn’t get on with Big Ben nearly as well as old Tom.
He climbed up the stairs of the clock tower grumbling to himself. He hadn’t made Big Ben show four different times on his faces, he thought; he hadn’t done anything to make Big Ben strike thirteen; in fact, he hadn’t done anything very much to the clock since he’d been in charge. If the clock wanted to do these things, why should he be blamed?
By the time he got to the top of the stairs he was out of breath and twice as cross as when he started at the bottom. So cross that he just had breath enough left to walk across to Big Ben and give him a kick!
“It’s all your fault, you old clock!” he grumbled.
It was the last straw for Big Ben. He wasn’t an old clock for a start, he was comparatively new then; and nobody kicks the most important and accurate clock in the country and gets away with it.
This was really serious. The Prime Minister and his Secretary, several Palace officials and even the Lord Privy Seal put their heads together; – not in a pile on the table, because their bodies were all together as well, so it was quite comfortable, but they thought that together they might come up with another of those bright ideas.
They couldn’t think that calling for another report would help much, even in ten copies. But if Big Ben went on strike by not striking, it made it a very complicated problem.
It was the Secretary who thought of it first.
“I suppose,” he ventured timidly, for he was only there as a Secretary, “I suppose we could call on old Tom.”
“Of course!” said the Lord Privy Seal, who was very anxious to make it seem that none of this was his fault. “Send for old Tom,” he went on in the sort of voice that showed he’d really been thinking of that all the time.
So they sent a messenger to old Tom’s house, and told him the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him.
“Again?” said old Tom. After his last experience, however much the Lord Privy Seal wanted to see him, Tom didn’t want to see the Lord Privy Seal.
“It’s about Big Ben,” said the messenger. “He’s stopped.”
Then Tom knew it was serious, for he knew Big Ben would never dream of stopping unless the world was falling about his ears or something.
So Tom found himself walking across the Lord Privy Seal’s office, and standing in front of that desk as big as his kitchen, and saying: “Sir?”
“Ah, Tom!” beamed the Lord Privy Seal, and this time he didn’t need to glance down at his desk to see whom he was talking to; he knew how important Tom was to Big Ben. “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought,” he went on, and now he called himself “I”, for he had some good news for Tom. “I think we need somebody permanent to take care of Big Ben. And I’ve decided to appoint you to the post.”
“Oh, that will please us both, Sir,” exclaimed Tom happily.
The Lord Privy Seal still didn’t quite twig how well Tom and Big Ben got on, and he thought when Tom said “us both” he meant the Lord Privy Seal and Tom. On the other hand, he would, of course, be quite pleased if Tom got Big Ben working satisfactorily, and he went on; “It’s a proper post, Tom. You will be known as the Keeper of the Clock.” Tom looked so pleased that he thought he’d better add: “That doesn’t mean that you can actually keep Big Ben, you know,” as though Tom was going to wrap up the clock and take it home with him, “but you will be in charge of the clock all the time.”
“Thank you, Sir,” said Tom, and without more ado he rushed up the stairs of the clock tower to tell Big Ben all about it.
You can guess how delighted Big Ben was when he heard how all his little ruses had worked, and how he’d got Tom back with him. And you can probably guess what all the little grinding and whirring noises were that suddenly started. Big Ben was going again.
And apart from some sort of nasty accident that no one could avoid, Big Ben has never put a tick wrong since.
Now, this story about Parliament, and the making of Big Ben, and all the men who are not as tall as the tower and not as heavy as the bell, those are all things you’ll find in the history books. What you won’t find is how the Lord Privy Seal took Tom away, and how Big Ben got so cross he upset89 everybody by showing them what he could get up to. The fact is, the Lord Privy Seal wasn’t very proud of all that, and he made sure it was kept very secret.
So nobody ever knew about it. But now you and I know about it, and lots of other people will, too.
And about time, too!
And there’s no other story for another time.
This marks the end of the Clockerish Allsorts book in it’s published form. Ron did make a start on some additional stories- he had expressed an intention to either put the additional material into a second volume of clock stories or to combine these into a 2nd edition of the original book.
The synopsis contains condensed versions of the main 7 stories