Nigella’s media marriage, staying out of the Middle East, and a future “Sir” Andy Murray

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Ed Miliband may be right to propose that union members should opt in to paying fees to Labour, rather than be affiliated automatically unless they opt out. If nothing else, it would give Labour access to the names and addresses of those who are nominally its supporters.

Yet what applies to union members surely should also apply to company shareholders and even customers, whose money finds its way indirectly to political parties – usually the Conservatives – without their consent. If state funding of parties goes ahead, perhaps this should apply to taxpayers, too. Ask all taxpayers, on their annual return, if theywish to donate £5 to a political party and, if so, to tick from a list of parties that won at least 5 per cent of votes at the previous election. HMRC would then forward the money. Has anyone thought of this idea before?

Fawlty logic

It’s not just trade unions that sign up Labour members to seize control of candidate selection. Nor is the practice new. When I was a member of the Brighton Kemptown party in the 1960s, two proprietors of boarding houses on opposite sides of a street off the seafront were rivals for the council nomination in our local ward. In those days, Sussex University parked its students in Brighton hotels, which eagerly accepted the off-season custom.

Early in the autumn term, one hotelier signed up several of his resident students and brought them to ward meetings. At the selection meeting, his rival, who owned a slightly larger hotel, appeared with at least twice as many. The first hotelier flew into a Basil Fawlty-style rage and challenged the validity of their membership. Amid what newspapers call “angry scenes”, the meeting was adjourned. After a constituency party inquiry, both hoteliers were expelled. I hope Miliband can bring the troubles in Falkirk to an equally neat conclusion.

Minding our own business

No matter how much westerners dislike Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian former president, he and the Muslim Brotherhood won free and fair democratic elections. Moreover, he commanded overwhelming support from the poor, as Islamists do throughout the Middle East. The liberal, secular, “modernis - ing” politicians preferred by Britain and the US are seen by poor people, many of them scraping a rural subsistence, as a threat. They want governments that will maintain a stable social and economic order on traditional lines.

Our frustration with the Arab masses who back illiberal, reactionary parties echoes the frustration of Lenin and Trotsky with the Russian peasantry, mired in a world of icons and cockroaches. To echo Brecht, we wish to dissolve the Arab people and choose another, designed to please our enlightened, metropolitan sensibilities. Which is why, whether it’s Libya, Syria or Egypt, we should mind our own business and stay out.

Image problems

When spouses disagree, they usually have a row and then forget about it. With celebrities, it’s different. The argument between Charles Saatchi and his wife, Nigella Lawson, at Scott’s restaurant in Mayfair, London – apparently over whether a child should go to Oxford or take up a permanent role at the Economistmagazine (if only we all had such troubles) –occurred on 9 June. It culminated, as photographs show, with Lawson leaving in tears after Saatchi gripped her throat. According to the Mail on Sunday, the couple then carried on as normal, planning summer holidays and returning to Scott’s for another meal. Only when pictures were published on 16 June did their marriage fall apart.

Lawson consulted her PRs. They probably ruled – here I speculate – that images of her as an abused wife would damage the “brand” of a domestic goddess. Saatchi, I imagine they said, must confess publicly his “shame and humiliation” (or so the Mail reported). He refused, perhaps fearful for his own image. Now, he announces he will divorce Lawson.

You could accuse wicked newspapers of wrecking a marriage. However, Saatchi and Lawson live in a media-driven world: they first met at the Ivy, another celebrity restaurant in London, at a dinner organised for Tina Brown, then the editor of the New Yorker. In Jane Austen’s novels, relationships are mediated by property. Today, to borrow from Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, celebrity relationships are mediated by images.

Sports knights

Can David Cameron seriously intend to recommend a knighthood for Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion since 1936? Until recently, sporting heroes were rarely knighted. W G Grace was never honoured, nor was Fred Perry. Harold Larwood got a belated MBE at 88 when the cricket-mad John Major was PM. Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton also received gongs after their careers were over. Ian Botham got his for services to charity, not cricket. Stanley Matthews was the first to be knighted for services to football while still playing but, by then, he was nearly 50 and appearing for Stoke City reserves.

The rot set in under New Labour, with Olympic gold medallists receiving instant knighthoods and the entire England cricket team awarded MBEs (and one OBE) for winning back the Ashes in 2005. Unlike their predecessors, many of whom played for nothing, today’s sportsmen receive handsome financial rewards. At least until they retire, that should be enough.

Arise Sir Andy? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.