Submerged bells, ghostly bells, rebellious bells, the fake or fading bell. Debussy, Poe, Murdoch, the greenest city in England, Ys, the East end, Istanbul, the lost flooded villages of Europe, Sheffield, Cantre’r Gwaelod. The Fin-de-Siècle, suburban disturbance, the conversations of bells, the Tempest, the Olympics, Whitechapel bell foundry, the night’s bells, deregulated time,  shamanic darts of christendom.

A Monday night in July, I am awake and thinking. I have been transplanted from a hot night-loving climate into the leafy suburban rim of Sheffield, the ‘greenest city in England’. Awake with a chattering mind. Everyone else in this house went to bed hours ago. It’s disorientatingly quiet here, the birds are ‘off doing things’, says my mum, ‘it’s summer, they don’t hang around.’ At some point in my insomnia, late into the hushed dark, a peal of bells start up. A full showering peal which lasts for at least twenty minutes, as it would on a Sunday or on Christmas day.

I am familiar with these bells – they hang in the local parish church in the area I grew up in. A single bell tolled every hour throughout the late childhood I spent in this house. It marked out my time. Most frequently I noticed it in the wee hours, a reminder that I should be asleep and that if I was listening to them I wasn’t. Recently I have been on the listen-out for bells, I have been attuned to them, thinking about the potential of the space between the lip and the clapper, thinking about their messages. I had just finished reading The Bell by Iris Murdoch. It seemed like a very strange time for bell-ringing. Maybe the ringers had been down the pub and fancied a swing from the rafters. But on a Monday? Surely not in this uneventful part of the world. A bell seance. The ting tong rave has begun, stop your normal lives, get up, listen.

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘The Bells’ riffs manically on four kinds of bells – sleigh bells, wedding bells, alarum bells and iron bells and each strike a different emotion. The alarum bells are “Brazen bells! / What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells! / In the startled ear of night / How they scream out their affright!” (The exclamation marks are constant! Like reading an excited email from a friend!) I felt inside the dark ear of night, here in the quiet parish of Ecclesall. Hear ye. Hear ye. Come and pray. In the war all bells were silenced except in emergencies. Was this our own archaic alarum bell? A message from before?

The church bell was the earliest form of mass communication and even, you could say, a form of social control. Stop your work and look to god. Wake up, pray, then go to the fields. Before clocks, watches and mobile phones it was the first shaper of the worker’s day, its first divider. It ignored the natural ancient markers of the sun and moon and set a normative rhythm of work, prayer and sleep.

Lying still and listening, possibly one of the few souls to be awake in this peaceful work-fearing suburb, this peal made me wonder if the order had been reversed. Instead of controlling the parishioners to make them obey a centralised, hierarchical time, these bells had been unleashed in the anti-work hours, they were asking us to rebel, to wake up, listen and think. Tuesday morning’s office and school need not hamper your imagination. But the other side of me knew that to assume some intentional message here was fanciful. I was pretty sure this energetic enigma had much more chaos in it than communication. As it turned out, this part of my brain was right.

But the bell does usually attempt a communication. And rather like its modern descendants – the phone, the email client’s bing or even the chattering mind that has now become so permanently distracted by all sorts of bells that it no longer needs an audio reminder for us to look away – it alerts and interrupts your own autonomous time to tell you something.

This is why bells in the night, unanticipated and unexplained, or bells where you wouldn’t normally hear them, seem somehow uncanny. A message is reaching you without a body to communicate it. In medieval times the engraving on the bell was meant to work as a kind of enchantment or a voice instantly internalised when rung. Sound was harmful or healing, the engraved messages when broadcast would ward off evil spirits, inspire feelings of god and enact whatever the engraved words declared, a speech act in the air. The Christian equivalent of a shamanic dart. The ghostly bell could almost be a message from the ether trying to make contact with you – an ancient form of EVP – Electronic Voice Phenomenon.

To this day the most significant bells all have a carefully chosen engraving. I actually warmed to the 2012 Olympics when I heard that the words etched on the huge Olympic bell were taken from Shakespeare’s Tempest: ‘be not afeared; the isle is full of noises’. It was largely read in the media as a celebration of multiculturalism in Britain and national pride in the old bard, but I also felt it had other more whispering properties, derived from the play’s setting. Britain could be Prospero, Caliban and Miranda’s enchanted isle, it welcomes but unsettles, it is alive with voices that are human and extra-human. This engraving did a mild patriotic job on my usually resistant self and for a brief note, the magic dart stung me and I was charmed.

If the bell is a message, perhaps even some cross between a musical instrument and a word, what does the submerged bell in Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie say in its eerie, beyondish, call? It is one of the most uncomfortably beautiful pieces of music I know and I wonder if my awe is partly caused, together with the gently destabilising dissonance and the unexpected pauses between notes, by the sound of the bell bereft of its religious or social purpose, ghostly, spell-like, sounding out from below the surface of the sea. As a listener I’m charmed by the bells of the cathedral emerging slowly from the water, waves crashing dramatically against the clock tower and the organ, followed by quieter seas that resubmerge the whole structure, the rhythmic pulse of the water troubling the bells which are sunk down again beneath the surface, fading out completely as the cathedral is engulfed again by the tide. Apparently in Chinese lore the fading tone of the bell is especially significant and a bell communicates directly with the spirits. I don’t know if Debussy knew this, despite encountering eastern music at the Paris exposition which would influence all his work and so much ever since. But he must have understood the fading tone’s power, its linger and its trail. A dissipating tail of a bell may leave its traces in you after the final silence.

It is not hard to believe Paul Dukas’s words about his friend the composer: ‘the strongest influences Debussy came across was that of the writers of his day and not of the musicians.’[1]  Baudelaire’s translations of Poe into French in the middle of the nineteenth century were a particular influence on the artists of Fin-de-Siècle Paris. It seems to be well known but I had never come across this fact until researching into the background of La cathédrale engloutie. Before I learnt of it I had already in my notes on La cathédrale engloutie compared the slow recognition, a growing horror of something ghostly emerging from the sea, to the way sound creeps almost unconsciously up on the listener in Poe’s stories. The way a narrator slowly realises that the distant knocking rhythm he has been hearing at the far side of the house is that of the undead Lady Usher, or of the tell-tale heart.

Sound, with its capacity to exist undetected at first on our periphery only to swim up to the surface and undermine our visual sense, can have much uncanny power.  All film directors have long known this,  not just those directing horror films.  David Toop’s most recent book Sinister Resonance is all about how this ‘mediumship’ of listening registers uncanny sound. “Closer to thoughts, emotions, memories and fleeting, peripheral sensations than to tangible object and reassurances of the known world, sound slips into the territory of the mind to settle at unknown depths, to stir up intimations of other futures.” [2] Those futures, pasts and presents are rich matter for artists.

And of course Poe’s poem ‘The Bells’ is relevant too. Toop speaks of Ackroyd’s critique of the poem, that it is too led by sound than sense: ‘Poe’s own account to journalists in Richmond is quoted [by Ackroyd] – his desire “to express in language the exact sound of bells to the ears.” He succeeds in his experiment in sound poetry, says Ackroyd, but at the cost of sense “and perhaps of significance.”’ But I, perhaps as  Toop does, feel that it is this very designification, this irrational element of senseless sound that is so affecting.  The incantation of bells, bells bells / bells, bells, bells, bells certainly pervades the mind on a basic level. In fact, I would question whether ‘pure’ sound is not without significance.

After reading ‘The Bells’ aloud it became part of my walking breath. Bells for each step, bells for each outbreath. Bells bells bells. Toop points to this idea of the bell toll as a link between language and sound which I have been exploring so far: ‘In “The Bells”, Poe plays the sound of words as an instrument, an incantatory spell whose mellifluous repetition works the same magic as the bells themselves. The sense of what he says lies in the cumulative, associative affect of these sounds, penetrating the body with direct, instantaneous force that circumvents rationality, stirring emotions of happiness, panic, terror, grief and pagan ecstasy according to the occasion.’ The bell’s peal enters the body, its engraving works its spell.

Murdoch recognised the destabilising nature of a bell which has been untethered from its controlling purpose. In The Bell, Dora’s leap onto the ancient, reemerged bell, massive and still covered in pond slime, brings to the surface several suppressed human conflicts. Madness and truth flare upon her rebellious tolling. Interestingly, Murdoch makes use of an English folktale which, in several localised forms, tells of a bell being accidentally dropped into a body of water during transportation. But Murdoch is concerned not just in the severed ritual of the bell dropped clumsily into the lake but also in the twinned emergence of the old bell, fished out by two young rebel members of the religious community, one of them, Dora, about to liberate herself from her oppressive marriage.

I say ‘interestingly’ because Debussy (and later singer-songwriter and musician Joanna Newsom) made use of a slightly different bell myth. All over the north-western seaboard of Europe there are tales of the soft sound of  bells pealing from the expanse of a lake or a bay. On quiet days in Aberdyfi, Cornwall, the Isle of Man or the west coast of the Lowland countries, you are told you might hear the faint sound of a submerged bell, clanging beneath water. They were either dropped in, like the English tales, accidentally, or they were engulfed often as the result of some moral trespass.  They are linked to the global deluge myth, the great flood. Ys – the Breton island city of Debussy and Newsom’s epic musical arrangements – was flooded as a retribution for the wicked and sexually scandalous behaviour of the princess Dahut. In some ways I feel that Dora is linked to Dahut, perhaps as her younger becoming-conciously liberated sister. And less murderous, maybe more likeable. When I first read about Ys I recognised the story straight away – it is linked to the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod in Cardigan bay and to all those villages engulfed in the twentieth century’s dark waters, artificial lakes, reservoir projects, the Three Gorges, Capel Celyn, Hassan Keyf. Communities, cultures, lost in the deluge of a vengeful disproportionate power. In a recent twist, divers stole the bell of the Costa Concordia as some kind of trophy. I’d have been content to let it toll under the waves in the way the keys and pedal of the piano interplay in Debussy’s piece.

Bells are said to speak. The language of bells can even form conversations – the Bow bells settle debts across east London in the nursery rhyme whilst the ‘sad bells’ of South Wales say ‘why why why?’ ‘They have fangs, they have teeth, say the loud bells of Neath’ wrote Idris Davies in a poem later set to music by Pete Seeger. The East End is actually home to one of the oldest manufacturing companies in the country – the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Earlier in the year, on my last free day in London after a stay of four years, I tried to visit the foundry which has a shop that is open to the public. I arrived by fluke. I was intending to visit an exhibition but took a tube traveling in the wrong direction and ended up in Whitechapel. Having been preoccupied with bells – I’d just finished Murdoch’s novel – I decided this was obviously (another) charm and that I should take a look at the little shop inside the foundry. But when I opened the door a rather large middle aged woman blocked my entrance. I couldn’t come into the shop today, she said, there were tours visiting the foundry. I wanted to ask her a question – when I could visit? How can I see the foundry? How is a bell made? But before I could a group of people (bell-ringers?) wanted to exit through the same tiny door so I stepped aside to let them pass. She must have thought I was trying to push my way in and stuck out her arm to bar my entrance, practically shoving me out of the door in the process. The bell-ringers passed without even noticing. I’ve actually never been thrown out of a night club or pub. I have now been ejected from the Whitechapel bell foundry.

As I walked away, surprised at my own emotional reaction (anger, upset, I am terrible at being slighted, I never respond to rudeness quick enough because I don’t recognise it in time), I thought there must be some bell charm cast over me marking out my life’s periods like the Ecclesall Bells once did my hours as a child. Some of those darts of Christendom were in me.

Two months later, at 2 o’clock in the morning listening to the bells of Ecclesall Church, I returned to this fanciful idea. Then, just as suddenly as the bells had started, they stopped. They faded out. As if someone had turned the volume down on them. The fade was not that magical fade of the engulfed cathedral bells. They had actually been switched off. In the morning my mother told me – ‘ah yes those bells are a recording, we worked it out ages ago’. And there was even an apologetic note on the church’s website – an electrical fault had caused the bells to peal in the night. We are very sorry for the disturbance. My first thought wasn’t that the spell had been broken and my fancy ruined but of an inbalance. On the British Isles minarets are not permitted to broadcast calls to prayer, but our quaint homely churches can play CDs of bells ringing in full cascading peal, sometimes in the middle of the night if there is work being done on the steeple and something accidentally slips a switch and turns the magic on. The isle is full of voices but only one voice can put their magic darts out there into the startled ears of the night. Not that I’d like the Muezzin’s 5am call each dawn to wake me either, that is just the time I might be getting to sleep.

If in the early years, Islam opted for the human voice and Christianity for the bell they both knew the power of sound broadcasted through the open air to call in spiritual adherence. Obedience, prayer, spiritual listening. As I write what I hope will be my last sentence on this topic* I can hear a midnight bell tolling. I’m staying at my parent’s house again and it’s the Ecclesall Parish Church bell. This time it’s the clock bells, the real bronze thing, not the recording. It tells me it’s time to stop writing and go to bed. You must stick to the time of the parish. You must live the same hours as the general populace. But does it actually say that now, now that I have reestablished and reinterpreted our conversation? It doesn’t call for obedience. Oh please, it’s just a bell. But, I think, a bell toll can be a word, music can be communication, language can be music. Despite my own reassurances, I’m still awake thinking. Bells bells bells bells. Bells bells bells.

*Though of course, it’s not the last I will hear of bells. The very next morning after completing this piece the novel I pick up is Krasznahorkai’s Satantango which opens with unexplained bells: “… it’s as if somebody out there wants to scare me” says Futaki. Pattern recognition is unsettling and of course as I read this passage the Ecclesall bell recording starts up and I realise how easily the unstable mind  (or the stable writer?) could turn coincidence and patterns into uncanny, sinister resonance.


–   The BBC Radio 4 series – Noise a Human History was a great source of information and inspiration for this piece:

– Toop’s books on sound and listening include Ocean of Sound and Sinister Resonance.

–  Nia Davies has written a number of articles about listening, poetry and the uncanny, you can read two of them on the Electronic Voice Phenomenon website:

–  Nia’s website is Her pamphlet of poems Then spree is out from Salt.

[1] Jarocinski, Stefan. Debussy: Impressionism and Symbolism. London: Ernst Eulenberg Ltd, 1976.

[2] Toop, David. Sinister Resonance, London: Continuum, 2010, p.162


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