Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bats and Bobs in My Belfry

I'm not exactly sure why, but in Winter, the reading I do that's not connected with my professorial work tends to include either Russian novels or classic detective fiction or both. With regard to Russian novels, I guess one reason may be obvious: who "does" Winter better in fiction that the Russians? With regard to detective fiction, well, I can remember having read the collected Sherlock Holmes tales for the first time in the winter, and I even remember reading them by candle-light when the power went out for a few days. So maybe that experience welded Winter to the reading of detective fiction, in my case.

So I've dipped into War and Peace for the umpteenth time, and I've decided to read Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels again; in fact, I'm reading a couple of them for the first time. I'd read Strong Poison and Whose Body? before, for example, but I'm reading The Nine Tailors for the first time. (The photo is of Sayers.)

It has nothing to do with tailors, at least as referring to people who put clothes together. It has everything to do with bells. Church bells. Ringing church bells--the tradition and practice of which are bewilderingly complex--and fascinating. In the beginning of the novel (I'm not spoiling the plot), Lord Peter is pressed into service as a parish church literally rings in the New Year--with 8 bell-ringers ringing a bell each for nine hours, from midnight to 9:00 a.m. That's some serious bell-ringing. The narrator also lets us know that one of the bells was forged in the ground; that is, a hollowed out piece of pasture was used to mold the bell, back in the day.

There are probably cultures that immerse themselves in arcane, eccentric practices more fully (one wants to say more madly) that the Brits, but I can't think of any at the moment. (And for every arcane pursuit, there seems to be a BBC radio show.) Apparently, serious bell-ringing began in the 17th century, and soon ringers were performing elaborate, mathematically complex tunes, although I thing I'm supposed to use "change" in place of "tune." Soon thereafter, an elaborate and seemingly impenetrable vocabulary emerged. For instance, "tailors" is, according to the OED online, a corruption of "tellers," which probably is related to "tolling." According to a bell-ringing glossary online, "bob" refers to "a type of plain method" of ringing in which a "lead or a half-lead" is deployed. All righteee, then.

I know I'm over my head with a subject when the definitions of terms seem as confusing as the terms they allegedly define. It was that way with trigonometry.

In bell-ringing circles (that word seems apt, given how sound radiates), "wrong" doesn't mean incorrect. It is "a device that causes an odd number of bells (often 3) to vary their work"--usually related to the "Treble's full lead." There, now; we've cleared that up!

Sayers was not just a Brit, but also a Dante scholar, a devout Christian, and a feminist. This combination helps to make her a most readable detective novelist, full of surprises, knowledge, wisdom, and wit. I wouldn't say her villains are especially interesting, but her detective, Wimsey, is distinctive enough to rival Holmes, and his side-kick (and wife), Harriet Vane, a liberated woman of the 1920s, more than rivals Watson, except for the fact that Watson is our narrator in the tales, and for the fact that Harriet is not in all the novels.

The devout-Christian part induces Sayers to defend ferociously the practice of bell-ringing--in an author's note before the novel begins. She asks, rhetorically, why anyone would complain about bell-ringing in an age of the automobile and the "wails" of jazz--especially when bell-ringing is a tribute to God. The novel itself makes bell-ringing--like book-collecting, fly-fishing, and all manner of pursuits--and end in itself. Highly proscribed subcultures like this no doubt provide great comfort to people in a bewildering, chaotic world. Meanwhile, ordinary folks who aren't maniacally devoted to such a pursuit think the bell-ringers, et al., have "bats in their belfry." I always thought that was a charming term for insanity. I heard it quite a bit when I was growing up (not always directed at me, I hasten to add), but I don't hear or read it anymore.

In any event, here I am in Winter's darkness, immersed in a Sayers book and immersed in her immersion in bell-ringing. And this pleases me? Yes, I'm afraid it does. I'm 40 pages in, and there's yet to be a murder, so I must be pleased. I usually like at least one murder--or some other serious crime--to occur within the first 25 pages of detective novels.

So when you ring in the New Year, think of . . . Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey, bats in the belfry, and bob, who is not only your uncle but also "a type of plain method . . .".

If there's a bat or two in your belfry and you'd like to know more about this obscure art of bell-ringing, well, here's a link:

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