Bells to Brexit
In 2021, the pageantry, the symbolism and the upbeat enthusiasm for life on display in London’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony looks like footage beamed to England from NASA’s Mars rover.
Just four years after Danny Boyle’s celebration of Dr Who, the NHS and multiculturalism, England and Wales (though not Scotland, Northern Ireland and most of London) voted for Brexit. This set in motion an exodus of thousands of jobs and more than a trillion dollars in trade from the City, the economic engine of East London’s slow but steady regeneration a decade ago.
The Olympic Bell, the largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world, is so loud it put Sir Paul McCartney off during the ceremony as he sang the opening line of ‘Hey Jude’. Two metres high and weighing 22.91 tonnes, it has verse from Caliban’s speech in ‘The Tempest’ inscribed inside it: ‘Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises’, which featured in Boyle’s spectacular opening show. The verse was read by Kenneth Branagh, who replaced celebrated actor of stage and screen Mark Rylance three weeks before the event due to a family bereavement. Rylance’s Caliban would have channeled an altogether different kind of indigenous wildman in the ceremony, given the actor’s friendship and patronage of Brexiter, author and self-publishing technophobe Paul Kingsnorth. More recently, Oscar-winner Mark Rylance, worth an estimated $10 million, told The Times that, “If cinemas all close up I won’t be that upset.”
The commission for the Olympic Bell was given to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. 16 miles from the Olympic site, on Whitechapel Road, the unobtrusive brick building with a wooden frontage and Eighteenth Century shutters faces a Superdrug. It’s near to the well-liked but unspectacular Altab Ali Park. Also nearby is Brick Lane’s thriving Bengali community, which co-exists happily with what remains of Whitechapel’s hipsters.
A Grade 2-listed historic building, the factory was in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, in continuous production for 450 years, 250 of those years at the East End site. It made the Liberty bell in Boston and the bell in Big Ben. The Olympic Bell was too large for the Whitechapel foundry to make it so it was outsourced and cast in bell bronze in the Netherlands, by Dutch Royal Eijsbouts. Prior to this, another English bell foundry, Taylor’s of Loughborough, had been approached for a quote for the commission. Taylor’s could have done with the work in 2012, having recently been bailed out by bell enthusiasts including the company’s former employees.
There can be few more evocative metaphors for England in the first decades of the Twenty First Century than the Olympic Bell which rang out across the world as Paul McCartney sang “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad” over a fake version of himself. The clip makes it look as though he’s singing to the chorus in his head while ignoring the entire population of Earth, who are watching a beloved entertainer and ambassador for British culture screwing something up. In fact, he had no idea what was going on. As he told NME later:
“Well, there’s this bloody great bell that we didn’t know about. A bloody 50-tonne bell. It was deafening. We were trying to figure out what key it was in, but it was in no key known to mankind.
I’m supposed to start on the chord of F, so I’ve gotta go ‘Ding, ding, ding, F, F, F’. We were live, everyone was there, the world was ready and this bloody great bell goes off.
And I forgot I’ve gotta wait for it, so I go ‘Hey Jude…’ and someone presses the playback. So there’s me on the backing track and actual me, two of us singing.
[…] The drummer couldn’t look at me because he was in hysterics and I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’ There was no stopping, it was the Olympics.”
Resounding with the optimism of London in 2012, the open international city which had survived the bank crash and recession – Danny Boyle said the bell symbolised East London’s rebirth – the only parts of it that were ‘made’ in the city were the branding and the deal. The physical object was made by craftspeople in continental Europe, the Europe that England (though not the multicultural East End) voted to leave four years later, causing the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The full impact of this is unknown for the time being, masked by a pandemic.
Four years after the Olympics, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was closed and the business was sold off to US-based Raycliff Whitechapel LLP. In 2021, plans for a boutique hotel less than half an hour from London City Airport on the site are on hold as former employees try to acquire the factory and return it to its intended use, which is making bells. The new owner, Raycliff’s Bippy Siegal, is a New York venture capitalist who also has an investment in property development company and creators of bespoke private members “art” clubs, Soho House.
The new glass and steel 103-room hotel, which would sit behind the existing brick structure, is designed by 31/44 Architects based nearby in Brick Lane. The plan, which is supported by Historic England, includes a bell-themed cafe and a space for the manufacturing of small hand bells. This is a less than giddy future for the oldest factory in the country, which didn’t actually make the 22.91 tonne Olympic Bell, but did make the bell in Big Ben which is so dear to supporters of Brexit. The reduced bell factory would be “‘industrial window dressing’ to justify the hotel,” Matthew Dale-Harris told a planning inquiry in October 2020, representing a vocal opposition to the development from Whitechapel residents which includes the voice of TV historian Dan Cruikshank.
Foundry worker Nigel Taylor, who advises a rival scheme by Re-Form Heritage (formerly the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust) & Factum Arte to reopen the Whitechapel site as a manufacturer of church bells, recalled of the former owner, Alan Hughes, whose family had owned the factory since 1904:
‘He once said to me, after he had announced that the foundry was going to close and we were all going to lose our jobs, he said “It’ll be quite interesting to dismantle it.” It suggested he had formed a barrier to the emotions that must be inherent in anyone who’s going to close a business that has been in existence for over four hundred years.’
Barring a miracle, it’s unlikely that the oldest factory in the UK will return to production on its previous scale. Taylor’s recollection speaks volumes about the wanton industrial vandalism, the denigration of skill, craft, and the inter-generational transfer of knowledge, which is implicit in the attitude to working people of the leading promoters of Brexit, intrigued to see what happens when things fall apart while being insulated from its worst effects themselves. Perhaps we should all take a 10 year view. Or how about a 250 year one? (Speaking of footage that seems to be beamed to Brexitland from Mars, there’s this…)
The conspicuous remaining legacy of the 2012 Olympics is the ArcelorMittal ‘Orbit’ Tower at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Designed by artist Sir Anish Kapoor and deputy chair of Arup engineering Cecil Balmond, Orbit is a 178 meter-tall red metal Helter Skelter, with two observation platforms on top which provided exclusive views of the Olympics venue in 2012 . Today – since the site’s mostly demolished – the platforms give uninterrupted views of the West Ham football stadium, Homerton Hospital, and on a clear day you can see most of Bromley.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Hubble Bubble’ (because it looks like a shisha pipe) or ‘Boris’s Johnson’ – the Prime Minister commissioned the artwork when he was mayor – it resembles a giant, priapic red robot penis which has somehow come to life on the outskirts of London, aroused by who knows what? It can’t be by the surrounding architecture of Hackney’s marshes. Made up of neglected and rundown warehouse and factory spaces ear-marked for redevelopment or demolition, like so many of East London’s landmark buildings the area is slowly atrophying and dying.
It was scheduled to cost £19.1 million, with £16 million coming from the richest man in the UK, steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, and £3 million from the public purse via the London Development Agency. Orbit was “the perfect answer to the question of how sport and art come together” according to the project’s Advisory panel member and – at the time – director of the Tate gallery, Nicholas Serota, speaking in 2012. Now Arts Council England’s Chair, more recently Serota was also one of the Board members of the Culture Recovery Fund which approved the Covid-19 relief grant to Secret Cinema of almost £1 million.
Boris Johnson predicted that the public would make back the £3 million in no time through a dining area at the top of the tower, and deemed his wheeze a “corporate money-making venture”. In October 2015, the London Assembly was told that Orbit was losing £520 000 a year. The previous year, it was announced that in order to rakeback some of this cash the tower would become the world’s longest and tallest slide. Before the Coronavirus lockdown there was, if you wanted, an additional option to abseil off Boris’s folly for £85 (£100 if you want to film it with a GoPro camera strapped to your head as you fall). As metaphors for Brexitland go it’s not even subtext, it’s text.
Another good view of West Ham can be seen in Derek Jarman’s film ‘The Last of England’ in which Tilda Swinton dances on the roof of the Millenium Mills at Royal Victoria Docks, adjoining Silvertown. Made in 1987 – the declining days of Margaret Thatcher’s government after her third election victory – since Jarman filmed Swinton’s reverie there, nothing’s been done to redevelop what was once a vital part of London’s economic infrastructure, milling most of England’s flour. Instead, the slow decay of the building provides a distinctive location for films and TV, most recently featuring in ‘Paddington 2’. Not much has been done to rebuild Silvertown after the explosion of a TNT factory, built – shockingly – in a residential part of London’s working class docklands, killing 73 people and flattening surrounding streets, but to be fair that was in 1917.
It’s unclear what the value is of abandoned structures like the Millenium Mills or the disassembled Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, besides providing spooky backdrops for films, TV, immersive theatre and rooftop screenings in London’s post-pandemic future. The correlation of the economic distress of white working class East Enders who voted for Brexit and the physical distress of their built environment is inescapable, but for now its political meaning is oblique. (Say what you like about the East End, they’re not all that Europsceptic. Newham – the borough which includes Royal Docklands – voted 52.8% Remain, for what it’s worth, while Waltham Forest voted 59.1% Remain and Hackney a whopping 78.5%. Gertcha.)
Bougie fascination with “abandoned spaces” and voyeurism of architectural and societal collapse are unseemly, possibly even in poor taste. They seem to represent – to paraphrase Nigel Taylor’s remarks – a barrier to the emotions that must be inherent in anyone who’s going to allow a part of England that has been in existence since Tudor times to fade away and fall into the ground. It’s a casual indifference to the loss of artisanal skills, history and cultural capital which follows inevitably from the shuttering of the country’s oldest factory.
They’re also cultural tropes which – like Secret Cinema – are over a decade old, yet which are still not running into profit as going concerns. Fads and fancies of a rapidly vanishing era in London’s cultural life, the time when people went outdoors for fun, a period held in affection by London’s financial and media elite as reminders of their late-night carousing around Liverpool Street, Southwark and Dalston. These were the years immediately after the British public had bailed-out the failed banks, with loans based on the general public’s future income tax payments. The halcyon period of immersive theatre and private “art” clubs. Bright as a button and Facebook-ready, “diverse and vibrant” (a mantra of Arts spaces that became a dirge as monotonous as “exclusive” and “bespoke”). City boys doing ‘shrooms at “pop up” music festivals with made-up pagan rituals. The 2012 of Danny Boyle’s London Olympics.
The need for bail-outs from the public purse during a pandemic of feckless, banker-adjacent arts companies – still loitering around the City more than a decade after the crash – seems to speak more of their benign yet heartless middle class tinkering, amid inexorable decline, than of the blatant corruption of property developers with their links to money laundering, arms trading and foreign oligarchs which you can see on full display around the Emirati-owned ExCel Centre directly opposite the Millenium Mills. In 2015, Brexit Year -1, author and organised crime analyst Roberto Saviano said the City is the money-laundering centre of the world’s drug trade: “The British treat it as not their problem because there aren’t corpses on the street.” In 2020, he told la Repubblica newspaper: “The pandemic is the ideal place for mafias, and the reason is simple — if you are hungry, you are looking for bread; it does not matter which oven it is baked from and who it is distributing it.”
The London of Secret Cinema’s Fabien Riggall and Bippy Siegal’s bobo Bell Foundry hotel isn’t Guy Ritchie’s East End of coke-importing estate agents and crooked accountants, a version of the city borne of a combination of desperation and aspiration. It’s not even the dumbfoundingly clueless corruption and illegality of Minister of the Crown Matt Hancock, organised crime in High Office so habitual and pinguidly bumptious as to defy cinematic adaptation, probably, even with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role as Hancock.
It’s the East End equivalent of Harry Enfield’s Notting Hill-set ‘I Saw You Coming‘ sketches. Nice but dim poshos in the arts and Whitehall, chucking vast amounts of taxpayer’s cash at the wall, partly to help their friends but mainly just because it seems cool. It reminds them of the good times. It’s not part of a vast plan by the great and good to loot the Treasury in a plague year. That’s the problem. There is no fucking plan.
Yet, in a way which has resonances of the anti-masking movement on social media and conspiracy theory culture threatening the lives of vulnerable people in a pandemic, this well-meaning but tone-deaf brandishing of grants and public procurement contracts to less-than-stellar vendors isn’t the cause of the spread of the Hackney strain of hypercorruption. Blunders like the CRF Board giving Secret Cinema almost a million pounds – when it appears very clear that this breaks their own rules for awarding grants – does, however, help the increasingly aggressive form of malfeasance to spread at a remarkable, exponential rate. Stupidity is a superspreader but not a spawning point of the malady. Those are in the City, in the glass and steel bars round Liverpool Street that all look like Marks & Spencer supermarkets, in the PR firms dotted along Tufton Street, in the law and accountancy firms in Clerkenwell and near the Bank of England, and – ultimately – in Downing Street and Whitehall.
It’s hard to foresee what the long-term impacts will be of this lazy enablement of tragically misdirected government interventions to “save” English culture. The UK fisheries industry, though a psychological hot button for Brexiters, is worth about £784 million annually or approximately 0.12% of GDP. Though the figures often cited are contentious, Serota’s English Arts Council put the pre-Covid contribution of the Arts to UK GDP at £8.5 billion, so more than ten times the value of fish. While still not a huge chunk of the economy you would think that there should be ten times as much fuss about bodged Covid-19 relief packages for live performance venues and cultural industries in England as there is about Brexit’s devastation of Peterhead’s fishing fleet.
Of this pretty pass, The Bard, William Shakespeare – who knocked around the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich and Old Street on the cusp of the East End (the first ‘Theatre’ was in Hoxton, a site which is – fittingly – a Foxton’s estate agents now) – may well have bemoaned in all of it:
‘Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame.’
His sonnet, among his raunchiest, was probably written during the closure of London’s theatres in the plague outbreak of 1606, prior to which trade had been booming. It ends with the lines which are appropriate to 2021, much as Caliban’s dialogue from ‘The Tempest’ about an isle full of noises epitomised the wild and free London of 2012. It would be more apt for it be read aloud at the 2022 Festival of Brexit not by Kenneth Brananagh but by Danny Dyer:
‘All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.’
The sweaty dream of leaving behind a “legacy” in Waltham Forest by projecting ‘Dirty Dancing’ in a park over the summer and charging people £53 to see it is risible, futile. Some may say onanistic, even. It’s not – in itself – all that pernicious, at least not compared with the naked greed on display in Boris Johnson and his Cabinet colleagues handing Brexit contracts gleefully to their chums with palms both wet and greasy, at least figuratively speaking.
Yet it also distracts people from the lamentable lack of vision, the conspicuous absence of a plan – any plan – on the part of custodians of the nation’s cultural heritage and productive capacity for what England will be like once it’s safe to go outdoors again.
What future is there for yet another boutique hotel in a shabby but rather charming part of East London after Covid-19, which has effectively shut down London’s tourism industry? Would a factory making bells, which creates skilled jobs and also produces a splendid theatrical display of techniques which are both ancient and modern, not be of more general benefit? 103 hotel rooms in Whitechapel opposite a Superdrug may be economically viable in a few years from now. Does London, does England, really need them, though? As much as it needs the idea of making something beautiful and unique, using modern acumen combined with traditional skills that are vested in the bricks and mortar of the Foundry? Boyle picked the factory to brand the Olympic Bell because, to him, it symbolised an invisible thread connecting East London’s past to its future. It’s a vision. It may need recalibrating a decade later but it was something like a plan.
Bippy Siegal’s scheme to turn the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel is stalled, for now. Historic England, the agency charged with preserving buildings such as the oldest continuously operating factory in the country, and Tower Hamlet’s planning council have both, scandalously, approved the redevelopment plans (the planning committee passed it by the chairman’s one casting vote). Yet Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which made the bell of Big Ben that didn’t chime on Brexit Day, as well as those of St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey – though not the Olympic Bell, which was outsourced – may yet be saved as a working factory.
Taylor’s of Loughborough, which was considered for the Olympic Bell commission, received a £3.45 million national lottery grant in December 2020 towards a £5 million fund to preserve its Grade 2 Victorian factory and to train new bell makers. At least one English bell factory appears to have a future after Brexit.
As of writing, Robert Jenrick, the scandal-beset secretary of state for Planning, Communities and Local Government and anti-woke culture warrior has used his ultimate veto on the redevelopment project to put the Whitechapel foundry’s conversion of use on hold pending yet another public inquiry. It remains to be seen whether this is out of an anarchistic desire on the part of a Conservative government Minister to support indigenous industrial heritage, or is more due to his sensitivity around all things to do with Big Ben’s continued silence.
Boyle’s Olympic programme promised, grandly, that the Olympic Bell would return to the Whitechapel Foundry for tuning 200 years after the opening ceremony. Five years later the factory closed, probably for good.
The bell is now in place just outside the Queen Elizabeth Park. The largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world – branded in East London but made in the Netherlands when England was part of the EU’s free trade area – the bloody great bell which Sir Paul McCartney didn’t know about beforehand and which put him off his game in a TV spectacular watched by 900 million people, one of the greatest advertisements for London in history, never rings. It may disturb the neighbours.