Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ask Not for Why the Bell Tolls

On Sunday mornings, before the clock has struck nine, the Anglican church a block and a half away from my flat begins its bellringing session. For up to an hour, intricate glissandos toll out in complex, repeated combinations, which I understand demonstrate the bellringers' ancient arts. If you're strolling along the street at that time, it probably gives the neighborhood a quaint, olde English flavour. For someone trying to sleep off a hangover, it's an absolute nightmare.

Listening to the morning pealing in one such state recently set me to thinking. Actually, at the time they were ringing, I wished fervently for a rocket-propelled grenade to fire at the church. It was later on, when my head was in a somewhat less painful state, that my mood turned to somewhat more structured indignation.

While noise is increasingly a political issue in our hypersensitive society, as people extend their fragile personal bubbles out further and further, a double standard persists. As I wrote way back in December 2003, light jazz music played outdoors at 9:00 pm in an inner-city suburb can bring a visit from noise control, even when all the neighbours have been politely informed of your plans. But the same neighbours starting a howling buzzsaw outside your bedroom window at 8:00 am on a Saturday is considered perfectly acceptable.

We've seen plenty of polemic being exchanged regarding noise in residential areas, the issue of Auckland's Western Springs speedway being just one notable example. But all the debate is about how much noise is made after a certain time. I have never yet heard of a successful complaint made about noise in the morning.

This is of course a conspiracy against late-to-bed, late risers. There are just no defensible grounds for applying different standards to noise at 9:00 pm versus 9:00 am.

It might be said that bellringing is not just noise; it's a skilled craft. But so is jazz music; in fact, though my knowledge of bellringing is limited, I suspect that trumpet and bass guitar may be instruments requiring subtler skills. And while people feel justified in calling the enforcers when bothered by the distant thud of a bass drum or the murmuring hubbub of a neighbourhood party, I can assure you that this is on a different level: these bells sound like there's somone ringing them right outside my room.

Sunday morning bellringing is a long community tradition, you might argue. Sure, but you want to know how old the custom is of staying up all night, drinking too much and being raucous? Org was staggering around outside his cave, trashed on berry wine, and loudly singing off key when we hadn't even discovered how to smelt metals.

Utilitarian considerations of enjoyment for a greater number of people won't fly either. These aren't even guaranteed to win anyway, as seen by the struggles of the Auckland speedway and the increasing restrictions placed on bars as middle-aged people move into inner-city apartments (they have to be fresh for their morning drive over to Martinborough, you see).

But in any case, this is not a question of the greater good. The bellringing has nothing to do with the morning church service. I wouldn't be bothered by one, two, ten rings of the bells to welcome the congregation. But this goes on for over an hour. It's just a few guys pulling on ropes for their own enjoyment -- and there's no reason why they couldn't do it at 2 in the afternoon.

And you can't claim that the neighbourhood is a welcoming and attentive audience. I'm pretty sure no one has ever been asked, but the opening hours of the corner coffee bar -- from 11am on weekends -- tells us what we need to know about the preferences of the local market. If people aren't even dragging themselves out for their caffeine fix until 11, you can be sure they're not strolling around the neighbourhood at 8:30 watching the sparrows flit and listening to the charming olde bells.

No, the only reason you can no longer have a party in an inhabited area, but still have to suffer your sleep being torn asunder shortly after sunrise, is a deeply ingrained, lingering puritanism. The unspoken assumption is that people ought to be up early in the morning; if they're not, they must be malingerers. Crashing hammers and bells at the crack of dawn are our culture's equivalent of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

I just thank the lord that, surrounded by apartments and townhouses, I no longer live in DIY-ville.

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Anonymous said...

Hilarious post Simon, which I heartily agree with.

A colleague just informed me that he once mowed his _neighbours_ lawn at 2am to express your very sentiments. The police implied that this may have been a DIC-style offence...

Simon Bidwell said...

Ha ha, that is just brilliant...after reading this comment, I kept picturing the lawnmowing incident, and couldn't stop laughing.