Pretending to be rich to get closer to the Beatles

If this is the price I have to pay to see rooms once frequented by Ringo Starr, then I'll pay it.

Over the years I have been living in the Hovel, I have taken a mild interest in the changing use of what was once the Beatles’ Apple Boutique, nearby on the corner of Baker Street and Paddington Street. (I love the band with a fierce love and have discovered that every possible stage and nuance of a relationship is covered by at least one of their songs.) For eight months, this was where they sold smelly Afghan coats, velvet loons and Mary Quant knock-offs. When they realised that because of their trusting, open-door policy everyone was nicking the stuff left, right and centre, they gave up and officially let the grubby hippies pick up everything they wanted for free.

I have always been grimly amused by the subsequent history of what used to be the epicentre of the doomed counterculture. When I moved into the Hovel, almost six years ago to the day, the ground floor of the building was an employment agency. Then, for about a year or so, when everyone got jobs and no one needed employment agencies any more, it was a void, its windows splashed with whitewash. Now, it has become an estate agent’s.

This is cheering news. Everyone needs estate agents’; the people who work in them are the unsung heroes and heroines of the neoliberal project. Many is the time I have, on a whim, feigned an interest in a property in one of the swankier parts of town, simply so I could stroll around some A-list gaff whilelistening to a git in a shiny suit exhaust his stock of superlatives.

Actually, never is the time I have done this and indeed the last time I did anything remotely like it was in 1994, when my wife announced that we were buying the weirdly planned and pleasingly shabby old house off the “wrong” side of the Uxbridge Road, where she and our cat and our children still reside. On that occasion, the estate agent was charming and honest and was also a huge fan of mine because I had been quoted on the back of Fever Pitch, a book that is popular among estate agents, for some reason.

Back to Baker Street. “A unique opportunity to own the ultimate piece of Beatles memorabilia”, announces the sign in an estate agent’s but curiously not the one on the ground floor of the building. The sign shows a charming street scene: the Apple Boutique being mobbed by a crowd of monochrome young people. (Just look at the people in that picture, or in the last minutes of the Let It Be film, as a bemused public looks up at the Savile Row roof on which the Beatles are playing their last gig – there’s not a merry prankster to be seen among them, just dark suits and slim ties.)

This, it would appear, is a picture of the end-of-the-show free-for-all sale, hence the crowd; the building in the picture has been painted white, in deference to the outraged complaints of local shopkeepers when it was first decorated with psychedelic rainbows. The design company, as I recall, wascalled the Fool. Oh, heady, innocent days when you could call your design company the Fool!

“A boutique development of five stunning apartments in the former headquarters of Apple, the Beatles’ record company”, continues the sign. “To preregister your interest, please contact . . . ” It goes on, incidentally, to boast that the company was formed a year or two after John Lennon was shot, although it doesn’t put it quite like that.

The snag is, I don’t think I’ve got enough money to put a financial stake into a property on the corner of Baker and Paddington Streets. A quick, nauseating look at my bank balance at the cashpoint of the Barclays directly opposite reveals that I have about £0.00 to last me until the end of the month, once I have taken certain essential expenses into account. (Michael Gove: it is not about the “poor decisions” I have made. I suppose I could stop drinking, if I listened to certain counsels. But I can’t, for reasons I will explain in terms that even an imbecile can understand – I have to drink this much in order to deaden the pain of having to drink this much in order to deaden the pain of having to live like this. Got that?)

However, I don’t want to miss this opportunity to walk through this heritage, to look out of windows that Ringo Starr once looked from. And if I am asked whether I have the funds, I could reply that I do, for I have love; and, if four of the building’s previous owners were correct, that is all I need.

'Tired of being shopkeepers', the Beatles give away thousands of pounds worth of stock at the Apple Boutique. Image: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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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.