At what point do I tell my child that life just isn't fair?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

Larry and I are feeding the ducks in the park when I spot something out of the corner of my eye. What is that? I squint and peer, and eventually walk over to the plastic bag glistening in the sunlight by the side of the pond. It is full of lamb chops. Raw, sweaty, slightly greenish lamb chops.
 
My stomach heaves and rage rises up in my chest. What kind of beast dumps a bagful of raw lamb chops in a public park? The same kind of beast that rips up the daffodils planted by local schoolchildren. The same kind of beast who lets their horrible slavering Staffie shit all over the children’s playground. The same kind of beast who is still drilling for fossil fuel even though the human race is headed for a slow, hideous extinction. What is wrong with humans? We seem determined to make life unpleasant for ourselves.
 
“What is that?”
 
“It’s nothing, bubs. Somebody has left some meat in the park, that’s all.”
 
“Why?” Larry is going through a “why” phase.
 
“I don’t know. People do strange things. Sometimes they do things that aren’t very nice.”
 
“Why?”
 
I have been wondering when and how to introduce Larry to the idea that people are often complete idiots. Brutal honesty is my new policy. Middle-class mothers spend too much time telling their children to be nice, to share, not to hit anybody, to say please and thank you, not to drop litter in the street, or tease cats, or stomp on worms. I feel we should prepare our offspring a little better for the harsh, selfish, brutal and misguided reality they will inevitably face at some point.
 
Yet, before I can say anything, I feel a tear trickle down my cheek and disappear into the collar of my coat. What is going on? I wipe it away quickly. But then there’s another one, and another, and before I know it I am crying, really proper snotty unstoppable crying.
 
“Mummy, what’s the matter?”
 
“Don’t worry, darling, I’m fine.”
 
But I’m not, that much is obvious because my mouth gapes and I have to cover it with my hand before I start to dribble. The truth is, I haven’t been feeling too good recently. Perhaps it’s because Moe hasn’t been sleeping, or because Curly and I haven’t been getting on, or because I’ve been trying to work too much, or because the house thing fell through and now we’re going to be stuck in our slightly-too-small-flat for evermore. I don’t know. I wish it would all just go away.
 
Larry stares at me, puzzled. He’s lost some of his baby chub and his features are starting to take on the more defined angles of a little boy. The thought that he will one day grow up sends me into another round of ribcageracking sobs.
 
“Hey, you know what?” He scoots over to the buggy where Moe is lying asleep and rummages around until he finds the stained and tattered rag he has been sleeping with since he was a baby. “You need blankie.” 

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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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.