General articles

Room at the Top? – Part 3

In the first of these articles, I posed the following questions:

“1. Are those near the foot of ringing’s learning curve really not interested in reading about those breaking new ground at the top?

2. In most other activities, people of all abilities are interested in the extremes or their activity, in people who break records, in national competitions, and in the activity’s ‘celebrities and stars’. But in ringing there is disinterest, and even sometimes resentment and antagonism. What makes ringing different? 3. Is it the style of reporting that puts people off?

4. Does The Ringing World actually accentuate the problem by implying that certain ringers are celebrities when in fact they are just good ringers?”

A short way of writing this article would be to say that I think the answers to these four questions are: 1. No, 2. A few things, 3. Partly, 4. Probably. But I am getting paid by the word and there are column inches to fill. (Half true!)

I used to think the answer to the first question was “yes”, i.e. that in general those at the foot of the learning curve, or in the ‘Blue zone’ I defined last week, aren’t interested in those towards the top, i.e. in the ‘Black zone’, or in their activities. This was an impression accumulated over my years of ringing and backed up by various pieces of correspondence and discussion supporting the view.

It didn’t really make sense to me though and certainly wasn’t my experience when I was learning to ring. At that time I was fascinated by good and famous ringers. I remember a Kensington band rang a peal at my home tower of Cannock when I was still in short trousers, and I waited to catch a glimpse of Jim Belshaw and Stephanie Pattenden, who I knew were very famous. The band even came into the parish hall afterwards and I watched in awe as they drank tea just like normal people! Surely everyone shared this fascination with the achievements of better ringers?

There is one complete group of ringers who quite understandably will not be interested in the upper reaches of the learning curves or in its coverage in The Ringing World. This group, which I will call the ‘Service group’, mostly practises in the Blue zone, and the reason for its disinterest is that its members view ringing in a different way.

For many of us ringing is a hobby in which we combine the pursuit of excellence with technical challenge. Every Sunday we also ring church bells for their main purpose – calling people to Christian worship. For the Service group, service ringing is the be-all and end-all. Use of the words ‘sport’ and ‘hobby’ are alien. Talk of coloured zones are an irrelevance. Peal ringing sits somewhere between self-indulgence and utter madness. The Service group sees ringing as just that – a service to the church, where turning up on Sundays is the only requirement. Bridging the viewpoints of the Service group and the rest of the Exercise is probably not possible – promotion of mutual understanding is a more achievable goal.

Putting the Service group to one side, I think other ringers are generally interested in what is happening in ‘higher’ zones and in the people who practise in those zones, but there are a number of factors that put a stop to this interest, or at least hinder it.

First of all a very small number of people are actually jealous of ringers who are better than them. They might be jealous because they have been denied the same opportunity, or they have some other chip on their shoulder. There is nothing that can be done about this.

Secondly there are people who are put off by the aloofness and arrogance that afflicts a good number of ‘better’ ringers. There is a perception that the ‘celebrity ringer’ looks down on your average Sunday service ringer and puts little back. In return the discussion of their achievements will be met with disinterest. Again there is not a lot that can be done about this – it is just human nature.

So there is a whole body not interested at all, there are a few ringers jealous of those ‘above’, and probably a big group put off by the attitudes of those ‘above’. Is there any hope? Time to introduce two factors hindering interest that can be addressed.

It is difficult to be interested in something one doesn’t understand. One of the problems with ringing is that when it comes to explaining more technical concepts it is really difficult to do it in language that is accessible to all abilities, because the concepts and terminology change. Contrast this for instance with a church chorister reading the RSCM magazine. He will understand a review of the latest CD recording from the St Paul’s Cathedral choir even though he will never achieve such a level of performance. The article is likely to be couched in language every reader can grasp with none finding it beyond their reach or irrelevant.

Steve Coleman’s books are a great example of the art of explanation but they do not set out to explain anything particularly difficult or technically complex. Likewise the excellent ‘Learning Curve’ articles in The Ringing World succeed at explaining concepts relevant to the Blue zone and the Blue zone / Red zone border. The Ringing World aims to cater for the broad spectrum and so has to deal with both the simple and the complex. Our inability to describe the complex in accessible language makes the activity exclusive, and hence almost resented. My articles that attempted to de-mystify, inter alia, link methods used in cyclic spliced Maximus and the complex method definition rules could not be written in language that all would understand, because they contained concepts that do not translate. However there is room for material in The Ringing World that does broaden the interest in more complex ringing, if we can find the people who can write it, or the subjects that would be of interest.

Which neatly leads onto my last point – subjects that would be of interest. The activities of the Black zone and the people practising therein may be of wider interest if the information presented was different. Part of the problem is that The Ringing World is a journal of record as well as being a magazine, and the recording element is not very interesting to those who are not involved. Peal reports are of no interest to non peal ringers and quarter peal reports are of little interest to peal ringers. But behind every peal lies a story, and behind many of the great peals lie very interesting stories. A case in point is the recent record handbell peal of London Royal – the email chat lists were deluged with discussion about the band’s problems with bladder control (and worse) with only the odd reference to the excellence of this stupendous performance.

Much of what the Black zone takes for granted – for instance the human elements of performance – are the things that would be of interest to the general reader of The Ringing World. It might not be what the participants think is particularly clever or to be proud of, but it will break down the barriers.

Finally, what of ringing’s so-called ‘celebrities’? One Ringing World item that fuelled the ‘celebrity’ debate was a photograph of some ringers (who are relatively well known amongst certain peal ringing fraternities) with a footnote that said “too famous to mention”. The problem was that a large part of the readership didn’t know who they were and hence felt excluded.

In reality there are no celebrity ringers, there are just the ringers we happen to know and respect. All over the country there are members of Branches and Districts who admire their own officers, peal ringers, outing organizers or whoever, but have never heard of their equivalents from elsewhere. If they have heard of them, they cannot put a face to a name, and know little about them. A problem people have with Ringing World reporting is that writers (and sometimes Editors as well I’m afraid) act as though the ringers they personally know are celebrities even though in real terms they simply aren’t.

I for one always look at photographs in The Ringing World and then look for names I recognise so I can see what the people look like. I would love to read about well-known ringers before they appear in the obituaries column. Who could not have been interested for instance in the recent interview with George Pipe. Names, faces and backgrounds help us to relate to the activities and achievements of others.

The Exercise needs all ringers, from the Service group to the Black zone, from the learner to the teacher, from the rounds ringer to the Maximus ringer. None are any more worthy than another. All have their place and all make a contribution of some kind. Knowledge and appreciation of the activities of other groups of ringers is very beneficial because they share some common goals and do interact.

SIMON LINFORD

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Central Council of Church Bell Ringers