Five Questions… is a new series where we ask five questions about something in the news, come on. I mean: come on. It's not that hard to get your head around, is it? Come on. This is not a nuanced concept.
Big Ben is a 13-ton bell, and I love it, mate; love it. I would lay down my life for that large iron bell. Imagine how heavy it is. Imagine how much a good bong of it would fuck me up. Bong me to death, Big Ben. Bong so loud you deafen me, then muddle my insides with reverb. Bong me so my brain melts and turns to a grey formless mash. Bong us out of Europe. Bong us, brave and united, into the future. Bong, bong, bong. Clang, clang, clang. Big, Big Ben.
Anyway: yesterday at 12PM Big Ben fell mostly silent for the next four years. Sure: they will wheel the old fella out at New Year, and Armistice Day. They might bong him when we finally leave Europe. But until then, while he's being repaired, Big Ben will bong no more. As you will have noticed, this is not fucking important and it isn't fucking news.
However: it is August. Little media in-joke for you here: no news happens in August. Parliament is in recess and everyone is on holiday. Every piece of actual news that happens in August feels somehow deflated, written in pencil instead of pen. It is a time in which local news stories about a man being mad at a pavement can somehow become front page news. Kidnapped models become wide conspiracy theories. Celebrity Big Brother becomes something close to relevant. Silent bells become iron symbols of national importance. And This Morning features a girl emulating the bongs on national television:
Yes, I have some questions:
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
This is barely a brag, but I have been approached about appearing on television before – normally by stretched-to-breaking-point TV researchers who desperately need someone to argue the logical side of a news story against a grassroots Conservative campaigner who thinks, like, oh I don't know, 'poors shouldn't be allowed to drink water' – and I have always said no, and that's for one of three reasons: i. I'm a hugely uncomfortable and awkward presence in this world and that should not be televised, especially not my Jon-Ronson-just-did-a-helium-balloon voice; ii. you don't win, with television, you always lose, because you are not in control of anything; you are sat on a sofa and offered up as a sacrifice to the televisual gods, and they hope that you bleed in such a way that Eamonn Holmes can win a BAFTA; and iii. it's very clear the only reason I have been asked is because someone has googled "news story of the day" and clicked on the third or fifth result, and my expertise is not needed, exactly, only a warm body and a modicum of enthusiasm. So yes: not for me.
How did this happen, though? Like how— how did this happen? Did a TV researcher put feelers out for this very particular thing? "Hello! Odd request: does anyone's child do a good impression of a bell?" or "Is anyone particularly upset and affected by the Big Ben news? Anyone at all? A child, maybe, a small child?" or: or did it go the other way around? Did the dad approach This Morning? Did he go through a series of phone calls, hopping from one desk to another, until he got the booker? "Hi there, John Hanson here. Yah. Yah. Big Johnny H. Yah. Listen: my girl does a terrific impression of a bell. Yes or no?" And then, silence on the other end of the phone, followed by a fragile crackle: and then, a simple, silent, yes. A whispered addendum: Eamonn will love it.
HOW MANY TIMES DID SHE PRACTISE THE BONGS?
How many, though? Because— listen. Listen: no shade on the girl who went on This Morning and impersonated a bell for reasons unknown, but – and with the greatest of respect! – they were not good bongs. They were not "let's go on TV about it" bongs. But then, if you asked me to go on TV and bong like a bell, would I do it? Hell no: I do not have the nerve or the minerals. It is an act of bravery to go on television and pretend to be a bell. It's, also, a radical act of altruism: Phoebe is offering to live in Elizabeth Tower and pretend to bong like a bell 24 times every single day for four fucking years in service to our country. Can you imagine how much work that is? How much your sleep cycle would get messed up? How many times you'd be up in the night, bonging? How loud can you shout, by the way? Can you shout as loud as a fucking bell? Phoebe is offering to learn to bong so loudly the bell is rendered redundant. She wants to lay her life down in service of the bell. If the Queen doesn't get round to her in the New Year's Honours list then this world is truly corrupt.
IT'S A FUCKING BELL, THOUGH?
Was Britain a more sane place before? Am I imagining it? Am I the one, actually, guilty of looking at this country through rose-tinted spectacles? Am I the one who misremembers our recent history as being more glorious and less bad? All this Big Ben hysteria – I mean, an MP pretended to cry at it, yesterday, crying at a bell – like were… were we always like this? Or is this a slow move towards the shape of things to come? I suppose the question is: is this, is going mad about a bell, is this the first sign of the mania of Brexit?
WHOSE IDEA WAS THIS?
The looming figure of The Gently Encouraging Dad in this bongfest really brings some memories back for me. The particular nerve this hits me on is those years when you are between the ages of three and 13 – after you have learned to talk and walk, but before you have learned self-awareness or hard-edged, adult feelings of embarrassment – when you are to your mum and dad essentially a performing circus act to be trotted out in front of their friends whenever they are bored. You know this: how many times did your mum have a dinner party, and she called you down an hour after your bedtime to play recorder to her half-pissed friends? Or: how many times did your dad make you do the golf swing he'd taught you in front of his golf friend, Nick? Or: when you learned poems rote at school and were asked to perform them in front of a room of huge, beaming aunties, and they all applaud you in a way that feels more like pity than congratulation, and your face blushes puce and you know – you know then, even as a child – you know then that this is a permanent dent in the soft wood of your psyche, that this moment of near-crippling cringeworthiness is going to take years to get over, if ever at all? Do you remember those times? Now imagine your dad made you go on TV to impersonate a bell.
IS THIS THE MOST 'THIS MORNING' THING TO EVER HAPPEN ON 'THIS MORNING'?
I believe it is, yes. This Morning is a very strange magazine programme. It's basically just three hours of Holly Willoughby turning away from the camera, giggling with her mouth full, occasionally interspersed with a harrowing interview with some sort of horror survivor – but it often approaches a level of banality that is almost art. A four-minute segment of a girl being upset by a bell is nothing. It is nothing. Can you imagine, being at home, on the sofa, a day off work ill perhaps, or maybe a period of unemployment, and you sit and watch through that: what has become of you? You have a finite number of minutes on this planet. We should try to be living each of them at a thousand miles an hour. But sometimes we collapse and fold and slip into small moments of sedentary nothingness. And then This Morning looms, in the corner, on your big TV. And a girl pretends to be a bell for a bit. How did you get here? How did you come to this? You, watching a girl, being a bell? Is there nothing, at all, better that we could all be doing? These are the big questions that This Morning bong girl asks of us. These are the big existential questions all good art incites. In many ways, that's what this is. In many other, way more sensible ways, it's actually just a girl pretending to be a bell, and it is absolutely not art at all. So hard to know, really. So hard to know. Bim-bong bim-bong. Bim-bong bim-bong.