Yes, Giles Coren is absurdly thin-skinned, but aren't most writers?

The restaurant critic's Twitter "flounce" is typical - writers are just terribly insecure people.

We’ve all been there. You’re merrily pottering away on Twitter, minding your own business, laughing at hilarious Essex lion parodies, when all of a sudden something rather smelly turns up in the @-mentions column.

What happens next? Depending on your mood, you can simply ignore it, write something polite in response, write something angry in response that you’ll regret, or "do a flounce". The web flounce is a time-honoured tradition of pretending you’re so upset you’re going to leave, getting lots of people to tell you you’re lovely and you shouldn’t leave, then leaving... and sheepishly popping your head back around the door a while later, like someone who’s stormed out of a pub but forgotten their coat.

Poor old Giles Coren. The “what I had for dinner” correspondent says he didn’t flounce, and accidentally deleted his account – but he did get a wee bit angry when someone called him (and steel yourselves for a truly abominable insult that will have you reaching for the smelling salts) a “numpty”.

Despite not really liking anything he’s ever written, presented or done, I do have a lot of sympathy for him. Who can say they haven’t misread the tone of what someone else said, overreacted or written something they shouldn’t have done? I know I have; you probably have too.

Then again, Giles hasn’t exactly trodden a delicate path through the lawn without squashing any daisies along the way. He once looked back on his early career, saying: “I wasn’t happy unless jobs were lost, reputations were ruined and ‘closed’ notices were up in the window by the end of the week. I remember reading an interview in the Financial Times with the owner of a restaurant I’d just panned, in which he declared that ‘Giles Coren’s review cost me £150,000,’ and thinking, ‘Is that all?’”

Sounds like some of us can dish out out but can’t take it, then. Giles was so devastated when a sub-editor weakened a feeble joke some years back he sent a stinging missive of petulant complaint which has since passed into legend. One of the first things you learn as a journalist is not to upset the subs – they might wreck one of your weaker jokes, but 19 times out of 20 they’ll save you from looking like a tool. Giles, however, decided to ignore that rule and go nuclear – and guess what? He ended up looking like a tool.

What is it, then, about writers that makes us mimophants – slightly bizarre beings who go trampling into an argument like a rampaging elephant, but curl up like a shy, sensitive little mimosa when we’re subjected to the slightest bit of criticism?

I don’t think it’s just writers, by the way, but creative people in general. Some of them even search for their own name on Twitter, and end up fizzing off expletive-laden tweetbombs at hapless proles – cuddly Simon Pegg, of "used to be funny" fame, couldn’t resist a peek the other night, with disastrous results. When has searching for your own name ever had a happy ending? So you have to wonder, why do they do it, these fragile types?

I think writers (including columnists, and especially bloggers) are the caricature of stand-up comedians: representing a strong persona when they’re up there holding court (on stage or in print), but terribly needy at other times. Most writers have the thinnest of rice-paper-thin skins when it comes to writing a headline, or changing a single word of text; from scribblers at the crappiest little parish pump newsletter to the biggest publications in the world, we are deeply sad individuals who desire constant praise, and magnify even the mildest criticism to a gigantic scale of enormity.

Take comments, for example: most writers don’t read them, unless there’s a gun pointed at their head. Why not? We just can’t take it. The right thing to do is to engage with your readers and try to keep a lively debate going, while encouraging the right kind of commenters who really add something to the discussion... but the easy option is to publish, then run away and hide in a dark corner, waiting for it all to go away. It probably goes to the heart of why we became writers in the first place: the need to communicate to others in a mediated way, because we were too shy, or too awkward, or too introverted, to be able to manage it effectively face to face.

So, I think we should cut Giles a bit of slack. He was a bit rude, I’m sure he’s said sorry (he has said sorry, hasn’t he?) and now he’s back, after having accidentally deleted his Twitter account. It’s not his fault; it’s just that writers are terribly insecure folk, on the whole. RT IF YOU AGREE!

 

Giles Coren's Twitter page.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.