Against Using Bells to Tell the Time

William Brown expresses his frustration at Oxford's need to constantly remind you of the time

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Every fifteen minutes during my waking hours (and sometimes when I would rather be asleep) I am forcibly reminded of the time. I have no choice in this. It is the curse of the Oxford student to be inescapably surrounded on all sides by heritage clock towers and their perennial bells.

The clock in closest proximity to me, at about a couple of hundred feet, is that of Queen’s College. In fact, my bed and window are so aligned that I have a direct view of Queen’s clock tower – thus adding to my sonorous grievance the sight of its perpetual perpetrator.

It is in the nature of using bells to tell the time that the actual length of the period of the disturbance increases with each passing hour; first as midday approaches, and then again towards midnight. It is midday that marks not only the zenith of the sun’s path across the sky, but also the apotheosis of the day-long interruptions to whatever it is I might be concentrating on, and the climactic fulmination of my brewing indignation. At that time I must endure no less than four ‘ding-dings’ (indicating quarter-hours) followed by twelve complacent ‘dongs’ – about forty seconds of accumulative ringing altogether – forty seconds each day that I would much rather not have to spend leaning out my window, gesticulating and shouting profanities at the clock in a blind rage.

Of course, we all need to be constantly aware of the time in order to continue to abide by our long-standing national obsession with punctuality. However, the last time I checked, western civilisation had managed to come up with something called a ‘watch’ for precisely this purpose.

Why, then, do we persist in the indulgence of such an antiquated and unnecessary mode of time-telling? Perhaps it is out of some nostalgic sentimentalism? Such inclinations are all well and good, but only insofar as they don’t involve the forcible participation of everyone around you. I am reminded of a quip I heard about religion: ‘Religion is like a penis; it’s fine to have one, and it’s fine to be proud of it, but please don’t whip it out in public and start waving it around’...

Indeed, to follow this line of thought, the disquieting truth of the matter quickly begins to unravel when we consider who it is that owns and operates the bells and clock towers. That’s right – the Church. In every village, town, and city, the Church wields a monopoly on bells, and has therein surreptitiously garnered itself an unwitting captive audience – that is, anyone with ears. It hardly seems a coincidence that we find such an instrument in the hands of people whose livelihood entails in large part reminding us of our fallen state.

Using bells to tell the time, then, is little more than a horological ruse for the subliminal delivery of ecclesiastical didacticism. Certainly, the more discerning (or agitated) ears will hear in the ringing of the hours their true, ominous purpose: an over-eager, anticipatory knell to perpetually herald our impending demise.

In light of this revelation, the quip that ‘religion is like a penis’ takes on an even greater congruity. I’m sure you don’t need me to explain the pertinence of clock towers to a comparison between religion and penises… But just as clock towers sound off unnecessarily, so will I deign to indulge: if the church is the ‘body’ of Christ, then the church clock tower is, without a doubt, his raging, ringing erection in anticipation of judgement day. And then will all the bell-ignoring heathens find their just punishment in the fire and brimstone.

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