Why do we mourn the high street? It was never a nice place to be

Let's be honest - online or out-of-town shopping is just less hassle, isn't it?

Let’s not mourn the death of the high street. Unpleasant, overpriced and unfriendly, it’s been ripping us off for years. The only surprise is that it’s lasted this long.

HMV’s decline is a tragedy for all the good people who work there, as is the slow descent into doom of the retail sector. But this is just the latest in a long line of high street collapses that tell us one thing: we’re not prepared to shop there any longer. You can wheel out your Mary Portas retail gurus to spruce up the Hindenburg’s buffet car all you like, but we’re not coming back.

The most obvious reason why the high street is awful is the presence of other human beings. They smoke, they smell, they fart and they get in your way. They carry germs and wheel pushchairs into your ankles. They talk on phones and barge into you. They exist. They live and breathe. The rascals. Why bother fighting your way through a rolling maul of angry nine-to-fivers every weekend when you can sit at home and do your shopping there instead?

It’s not just that, though. The world of stuff, as opposed to the world of pictures on screens, is an expensive place. It tries to pretend that it isn’t expensive, by wafting the weaselly musk of a half-price offer here, a buy-one-get-one-free there, but we know the truth: you’ve been clobbered for the thick end of three quid before you’ve even got out of your car or stepped off a bus. You’re out of pocket before you’ve even begun to put things in plastic bags. Why bother?

Yes, I know I should bother. I know I shouldn’t line the pockets of tax-avoiding rotters by doing my shopping online, and that I should support my local greengrocer instead, but it’s the hassle. I know there was a time when it might have been a pleasurable experience to flit from shop to shop with a basket under one’s arm, popping into the tobacconist for an ounce of sherbet and heading to the butcher for a pound of tripe, but those days are gone. The shops are gone. We killed them because supermarkets are more efficient and we like them more.

Maybe not "like" so much as "use". I’m probably not alone in appreciating the horrors of supermarket chains but still shopping there. I’ve tut-tutted at the splatter of their nasty little logos over our countryside and their carpet-bombing approach to our towns and cities... and then popped in for a pint of milk. Yes, my conscience tells me I should be ordering organic carbon-neutral local quince from the fair-trade yoghurt-weaving cooperative, but I’ve only got so many hours in the day, and so many pounds in my pocket (when I’ve got pounds at all). Give me cheapness, give me generic tat, give it to me all in one place, and I’ll bite the bullet. It’s wrong, and I know it’s wrong, but I still do it.

There’s something else, too: when we were a captive market, unable to take our custom elsewhere, the high street shops raked it in. Those of us with longer memories will be able to remember when you had to fork out £14-15 if you wanted a chart CD. Now, you don’t need the CD, and you certainly don’t owe anything to the shop who cheerily made a massive mark-up at the punters’ expense.

The only sadness, then, is for the people who made a living out of selling us stuff, and who cheerily put up with miserable shoppers like me for all those years while earning only a slim fraction of the vast sums their employers were making – they didn’t see any of those fortunes during the good old days, of course.

The only shops who will survive as places where you sell things are the ones who manage to offer something that’s a cut above the online experience, some kind of knowledge, some kind of reason to go in there and queue up and pay more. There aren’t many of those left, and they won’t be around forever. We can mourn the death of the high street that milked us for money all those years, or we can be happy we never have to go back there.

 

Other people were always what made high street shopping so unbearable. 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.