Bells and Other Things

by Jacqueline Dowling

This week has seen several anniversaries and memorial services: 100 Years since the start of WW1, 25 since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that of Dylan Thomas who died too young, 50 years ago. I have a collection of his work, dog-eared, thumbed and read over and over and over. Perhaps my early childhood in Wales had something to do with it, learning Welsh along with English, then forgetting it as I grew older. But his words and music and magic stay with me – Dylan, why oh why did you self destruct at such a young age? You had so much more to say.

          ‘…Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood

                   And the mussel pooled and the heron

                             Priested ashore

                   The morning beckon

          With water praying and call of seagull and rook

          And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall…’

                                                (Poem in October – Dylan Thomas)

This morning I rose early to avoid the after-church shopping rush. The town was deserted. Gulls wheeled, the sea a deep cobalt blue with white-caps dancing in a frenzy before the south east wind. The bells of St Peter’s church rang out through the wind, happy bells, frisky and different. The wind whisking their message far and wide from its squat stone tower. The air smelled of sea and kelp. Whales, in their late season, leaped and thrashed between the swells, fountains of white water shooting into the early light. High above an aircraft, heading like the whales to Antarctica, left contrails in the sky. And the bells rang out across the sea. Dylan Thomas heard bells too. He wove them into his poems and essays; they rang across a different landscape: a more gentle one of estuary and river. Quiet places and quirky people.

Bells – they have so many different voices. The muffled tolling for the death of a monarch. Joyful pealing out on state and royal occasions, all the bells of London singing with one voice. And the mournful solitary tolling of a bell in times of war.

          ‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?

          Only the monstrous anger of the guns,

          Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

          Can patter out their hasty orisons.

          No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,

          Nor any voice save the choirs,-

          The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;

          And bugles calling for them from sad shires.’

                             (Anthem for Doomed Youth – Wilfred Owen 1918)

bells

No bells toll for the tragedies of the 21st century.   If they did, they would go on and on …and on.

A later part of my growing up took place in Stratford-upon-Avon, where bell ringers practise every Tuesday evening, a traditional pealing of the bells in Holy Trinity church, by the river, near the theatre.   My grandmother’s house was across the fields opposite the church, and a short ferry ride took us across the Avon, on a chain wound flatbed to the actors’ pub The Dirty Duck and round the corner to the church, in that order. The bells were always happy, and on a quiet Sunday evening we’d sit on the river bank, listen. When they ceased, there was frequently the hiss of a hot-air balloon filling the silence, floating in the late evening light.

bells1

Bells – drifting through a summer’s night dense with moonlight.   Wheatfields amber beneath a harvest moon which hovered bronze and glowing, just above the earth, cradled by stars in the vastness of the night sky.   Bells. . . pealing in the New Year across those same fields, now covered in soft pillowy snow.   Stealing under the thatched eaves of our cottage, as they’d done so many times before.

In Cirencester we heard a beautiful carillon from the cathedral, as we did in Amsterdam, Venice and Cape Town.   The bells speaking – as they have spoken down the centuries.   Each with a different voice.

          ‘Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly

          Come in the morning where I wandered and listened…’

                                                          (Poem In October-Dylan Thomas)

And I bought bells.   Christmas bells. Children’s bells. Happy bells. . .

bells2

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5 thoughts on “Bells and Other Things

  1. Sue says:

    Beautiful piece! I also love Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Bells, though maybe just the fun of saying tintinnabulation has something to do with that. But I do love the sound of church bells, and Christmas bells and let us not forget the ice cream truck bell either.

    • jacky says:

      Ah, yes indeed, ice cream and the happy tinny jungles. Thank you Sue – I’ll look up Poe’s poem. The subject opens a whole chest of sounds and images – troika bells in Russia (Dr Zhivago), sleighbells (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and . . . well, there we go, just so many. The Towncrier’s bell and our own Whale Crier with his kelp horn instead of a bell.

  2. Susan says:

    Great blog-post, Jacky. It’s a poignant time of year, particularly with this year being the anniversary of the start of the war which was supposed to end all wars and instead it opened the door to more wars than ever. Bells have a timeless quality, don’t they? They manage to touch the soul and enhance whatever the hearer feels.

    • jacky says:

      They do indeed Susan. Thank you so much for your encouragement – I did, however, miscalculate the anniversary of Dylan Thomas!

  3. Dylan Thomas and Wilfred Owen in one blog post…wonderful. I went to see the fantastic memorial to Wilfred Owen in France – a very moving experience.

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