Only afterwards did I realise the significant difference between the choice of names for bells and for babies:
Bells arrive fully formed and their purpose in life is clear.
With babies, it’s all still to play for: how the little bundle will turn out in adulthood is anyone’s guess, although their given name will likely reflect parental aspirations.
Thus, when naming bells, there is no need to consult any baby name books or The Times’ most popular names list for that year. Bells’ names are typically those of apostles and saints, indicating their devotion to the church. St Mary’s are thus Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Mary, Arild and Wulfstan.
The Naming of Characters
As a novelist, I’m in a similar position with my characters: I choose names to suit their traits in adult life, rather than to reflect their parents’ ambitions at their birth.
I do however consult official lists of names popular at their date of birth to ensure I don’t end up with anachronisms. Deborah, for example, has not been in the top five since four years before I was born, and I long ago resigned myself to being my generation’s equivalent to a Gladys in my old age.
I’m in awe of masters of the art of naming fictional characters, such as Charles Dickens and P G Wodehouse, even though the cynic might find their choices larger than life.
Would Mr and Mrs Squiers, parents of the future cruel headmaster of Dotheboys Hallin Nicholas Nickleby really have had the foresight to name their son Wackford?
Might Bertie Wooster’s awkward chum Gussie, obsessed with newts, be likely to inherit the surname Fink-Nottle? To my mind, it doesn’t matter – it’s all part of the fun.
Whether or not you believe in nominative determinism – the notion that your name anticipates your status in life (Nomen est omen, as the Ancient Romans neatly put it) – it’s hard not to rejoice when you find a real-life example:
Keith Weed, President of the Royal Horticultural Society, I wish you the best of luck.
To find out how the leading characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries got their names, read these posts from my blog archive:
In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, as new bells arrive at our parish church, I’m reflecting on bell ringing and bell ringers in English churches and explaining why I’m taking up bell ringing.
Ever since I learned that my great-grandfather, born in 1873, was an accomplished bell ringer, I’ve felt an affinity to church bells, but never had the chance to learn to ring them. Now that I’m training to ring the new bells of our parish church, I’ve been finding out some fascinating facts about bell ringing – or rather, sounding the depths of my ignorance.
I’d never realised that each church bell has to be tuned to a precise musical pitch. I hadn’t even classified bells as musical instruments. Now I know they are the loudest musical instrument of all.
Nor had I appreciated that in other countries bells are commonly hung and struck in a different way. I thought “carillon” was the name of a tune played by bells, as in Bruges’ Belfort. Now I’ve discovered it’s the name of the musical instrument used to play tunes on the bells. It’s strung a little like a piano, and each key activates a wire that strikes hammers against the outsides of the bells. A single operator sounds all the bells.
By contrast, in so-called English-style bell ringing, bells are mounted on a headstock allowing them to swing through 360 degrees. Each bell is operated by an individual person, and when the ringer pulls the rope, the clapper strikes the inside of the bell twice during each full rotation.
Not for English-style ringers the dainty tunes of the carillon. We make life more complicated for ourselves by defining complex and varying mathematical sequences. Each variation in the sequence is known as a change, hence the expression “ringing the changes”.
My family still has my great-grandfather’s certificates and press cuttings for completing eight- and twelve-bell peals of over 5,000 changes apiece in churches in Bedford, London, Middlesex and Kent. The peals bear unfathomable names that characterise English-style change-ringing, such as the Treble Bob Maximus, Stedman Cinques, and the New Cambridge Surprise Major. (I’d love to know what the surprise was!) Each complete peal took at least three hours, even if the ringers did it right first time. One certificate wryly notes completion on the fifth attempt.
My great-grandfather died three years before I was born, and he passed on his musical genes to my grandpa, who served for many years as choirmaster in the church where my parents were married and where I was christened. It’ll be a long time before I can tackle a peal of the complexity mastered by my great-grandfather. On the dumb bell in Colin Dixon’s barn, I’m still learning how to control a bell and how to ring it consistently and evenly. But the first time I ring in St Mary’s, I’ll be thinking of my great-grandpa and grandpa, and ringing for them.
Like to know more about St Mary’s and its new bells?
Find out more about the beautiful ancient parish church and idyllic setting of St Mary’s, Hawkesbury via our website: www.friendsofstmaryshawkesbury.com (I’m on the Friends of St Mary’s committee and manage this website.)
I’m planning to write a story featuring bells at some point, but in the meantime, I’d like to recommend one of my favourite novels that centres around church bells, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers – a hugely atmospheric traditional mystery in which a dead body is found in the bell tower of a village in Norfolk, and the iconic amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigates. As you can tell from the battered state of the cover, I’ve read it many times. And yes, I named my heroine Sophie Sayers after my writing hero Dorothy L Sayers – and I have a cat called Dorothy!
In case you missed it…
My column for last month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, entitled “Trust Me, I’m a Bell Ringer“, includes a photo of me practising on the dumb bell with an anecdote of how my new hobby almost got me in trouble with the law.