I'm proud to be a member of the "Humourless Left"

Is the Jubilee fawning really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

As we prepare to take down our soggy union jack bunting ahead of the ceremonial handover to St George flags on car roofs, I’m left with questions. Is this really what we do better than anyone else? If so, is that something to be proud of?

Yes, I’m glad of a day off (though it’s unpaid in my case). But I’m also allowed to have a look at what’s happened over the past few days and marvel at the sheer madness of it. Aren’t I? Or must we be shackled to the warble of jubilation, the hearty cheer and the wave of a plastic flag, above every sliver of criticism? Is no mockery allowed?

I fully accept the moniker ‘the humourless left’. Yes, we are the buzzkill, killing your buzz, your fading glow of empire and ‘wasn’t it fun when we were starving people to death and putting people in concentration camps, and now all we do is run call centres’. That’s fine. I am the Humourless Left, left without humour or fun at a time when no-one has any jobs or money while we watch giant golden things belonging to one family. 

But I have just seen, on television, Huw Edwards looking out of a window at the Queen passing by in a coach. He did it, and I saw it. It was as if the BBC were justifying the enormous expense of this four-day royal love-in by that moment. “See, I can see it through the window!” Huw was trying to say. And all I could think of back was “Oh, well good for you, mate.”

There have been similar moments of bafflement right across the weekend. I’ve seen Emma Bunton talking about bunting. I’ve seen Ronnie Corbett provide narration of a room full of people eating their lunch. I’ve seen Stevie Wonder and Will.I.Am wish her majesty a happy birthday, and suffer the tsunami of criticism from the Twitter pedants as a result – like we even know when either of the Queen’s birthdays is meant to be. I’ve seen people talking about boats for what seemed like a lifetime, but which was only really six hours of live TV. Boats! People on boats for six hours.

As ever, the BBC’s rivals have used this occasion as a stick with which to beat Auntie – sometimes fairly, sometimes not. It’ll be interesting to see when the accusations of ‘leftist bias’ return to the corporation after these days in which everything’s been wonderful, and everyone loves the Queen, and everyone everywhere has been just like the perma-grinning mobs on the Mall.

We’ve even seen the biased anti-Tory BBCCCP bring in David Cameron for a couple of hassle-free cosy chats about how much he loves the Queen as much as we plebs do at home, at a time when his ministers are raising fresh questions about their conduct. Give it a week, though, and the usual suspects will be railing about how the Beeb is a hive of pinko nastiness.

Truth is, in the cold light of day and with the right royal hangover receding, you can only broadcast what's there. The Big Society flotilla was a soggy shambles – bring along the little ships from Dunkirk and have done with it. The Queen’s concert was enjoyable enough, though not always for reasons of quality – poor Cheryl Cole (sorry, Cheryl) wailing away into the evening air will live long in the memory, but not for the right reasons.

And of course, there are questions now being raised about the free labour used to steward the billionaires’ fun – obviously by the Humourless Left, who can’t just sit back and anaesthetise their critical faculties for four days, mewling idiots that we are. I dare say there were lovely scenes in communities up and down the country getting together, but that was hardly touched by what we saw on TV – it was the usual Londoncentric celeb-heavy drivel.

It’s just that I feel almost apologetic about pointing this out, like I shouldn’t be doing it. I’m not ruining anyone’s fun, but come off it – if you think we sold ourselves as a nation of anything other than willing subjects prepared to bow and scrape to our betters, I think you’re mistaken.

Jubilee: A royal supporter holds Queen Elizabeth and Union flags as people wait on the Mall for the carriage procession of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.