So the famous, iconic chimes of Big Ben are to fall silent until 2021 to allow for essential repair work. It's hard to imagine London without the famous chimes as part of its soundscape- fortunately the chimes will still operate on occasions such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year's Eve, whether as solemnity or celebration. The famous clock will continue to tell the time from at least one of its four faces while the repair work is carried out; BBC Radio 4, which traditionally uses Big Ben's chimes live to signal key news times in the course of each day, will use a recording during the clock's four-year silence.
But what connection does this have with the northernmost reaches of Northern Ireland?
For a start, it feels significant that the chimes will stop on Monday 21st August at midday: just as the final week of the school holidays (for teachers at least) begins, and thoughts turn to all the anxieties of the year ahead. I can't possibly be alone in this: the school nightmares last a restless two or three weeks into the summer break, pausing briefly before the new year and exam result dreams begin in early August.
Late August is just like Sunday night: there's the anticipation of the new, with that tiny component of excitement for all that's fresh, mingled with the dread of all you'll have to do in not enough time and for insufficient reward. There's both subtle and brutal teacher-bashing in the press and at large: the certainty that if the results are good, it'll be entirely to the students' credit, while if they're bad it'll be all the teachers' fault. There's the prospect of inspector scrutiny, school gate carping, media assault and essential funding freefall. You know that when you ask for textbooks for yet another new syllabus next year, you'll be asked if you can possibly do without them; you know, too, that your workload will make even the prospect of paid overtime almost laughable, no matter what unkind comments people with unreasoned grudges from their own schooldays make about your working day finishing at 3:30pm, never mind those lengthy holidays. Maybe it'll be that kind of resentment which will lead some parents to email you in the middle of the night, the middle of the weekend or the middle of the holidays, starting with that chilling phrase 'I just thought...' I'm not quite sure what kind of empathy bypass sparks the spring tide of colleague emails, messages, what's apps, texts: the person who emails to ask you something out of hours, and when you don't respond, bombards you by every other means at their disposal.
But what has this got to do with Big Ben's silence?
I'm not often lost for words- teaching English is my real job, with writing as a very amateurish sideline and reading as a lifelong passion. This summer, though, I've been short of things to say. Reading so much about disgruntled current and recently retired or resigned teachers on Twitter, I've found it impossible to respond to their eloquence with discussions of my own experience. I've read what they have to say about pay-rise failure in a climate of impossible workloads; whereas my own teaching life is comparable, somehow I find myself with nothing to say about it all. I have used social media quite frequently, but it's mostly been to share photographs of beautiful skies or seascapes where I live, hashtagged with #nofilter or #summer or the like. Somehow I've found it impossible to sum up the relief of being released from worries and bombardments of what other people want to make you do, with anything other than a photo of something beautiful. In terms of actual words, I've never texted, tweeted or blogged so little.
Big Ben's chimes have sounded on the hour across London for 157 years. I have worked as a teacher for exactly half my own lifetime, and somehow I am lost for words to talk about it: the good, the terrible, the unfair, the wonderful, the routine. Perhaps as the new year looms I need to keep focused on my own repairs as many years' work take a toll on my energy and enthusiasm; perhaps I need to keep my counsel and rely on how I've marked time in the past to make sense of what's to come. The mechanism of Big Ben will be changed to allow it still to tell the time while it's being repaired. As summer fades, the evenings shorten and Back to School displays loom large in shop windows everywhere, I'm finding new ways to sound the hours of the new year while still recovering from the rigours of the last one.
John Donne, one of my favourite poets, termed 'hours, days, weeks' as 'the rags of time'. As the time of the new year approaches at the relentless pace of a ticking metronome, I hope the repair work of the summer will allow me to find how these rags can be stitched together into something that makes sense.
In the meantime, there are always those late summer seascapes and evening skies.
Photo credit: Caragh Little