Books: The Nine Tailors

Having enjoyed Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise, I eagerly read some of her other mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Since I like to read books in order, I started with Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. About all I can say about them is that I’m glad I started with one of the later books, after she had developed more as a writer. If I had started with one of those first two, I would have wondered why she was considered such a great writer and looked around for another author to enjoy.

Next I read Gaudy Night, which I enjoyed very much, but I found it odd that the story was told from the point of view of someone else rather than Peter Wimsey. Indeed, he comes into the story very little until late in the book. But of course now I want to know more about what happens to both characters.

First, however, I wanted to check out The Nine Tailors, which came between Murder Must Advertise and Gaudy Night. Unlike several books I have read recently that were more or less enjoyable but about which I could find little to say (hence the dearth of my blog posts recently), The Nine Tailors got me interested in learning about something I had never heard of before: change ringing.

I always enjoy a book more if I learn about some aspect of life (be it history, science, politics, religion, whatever) along with seeing the characters develop and the plot unfold. That was part of the appeal of Murder Must Advertise, which went into great detail about the people and work in an advertising agency. (It also described a cricket game in some detail, which I enjoyed but would have preferred more explanation of what in the world it all meant.)

The Nine Tailors opens with Wimsey having a car accident on New Year’s Eve and taking refuge from the cold and snow in the nearby village of Fenchurch St. Paul. Here he is welcomed by the rector and his wife, and when he learns that one of the village bell-ringers is sick with influenza, he volunteers to take his place as he is well experienced with change ringing himself.

Considering Wimsey’s many other talents, I suppose it’s no surprise that he has this one also, but it wasn’t until I started reading about change ringing that I realized 1) how much time and effort he must have put into developing this ability to the point that he could so easily step in on short notice; and 2) how popular change ringing is in Britain and thus perhaps not as much of a surprise that he could do it.

The book is a good mystery (though unlike with the other novels of Sayers I have read, I found the description of how the mystery man died unpleasant to read right before going to sleep), but there’s not a lot to say about the mystery itself (other than this: Read and enjoy). But the subject of change ringing, which plays a central role in the novel, has me quite interested.

When Sayers described the music of change ringing as sounding to the ordinary man as “a monotonous jangle and a nuisance,” I wondered whether I would find it that way. After all, Sayers also describes change ringing as peculiarly English, and while my ancestry includes a fair amount of English blood on my father’s side, my knowledge of English customs and interests is quite limited.

But when I listened to the video that accompanies this explanation of change ringing, I found it quite appealing. To me it sound quite musical, though of course not in the same way as music with a distinct melody. I can’t say for sure if I have heard music like this before.

Something about it reminds me of the weekly carillon recitals we attended during the summer at my father’s alma mater, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Carillons generally play traditional music, but I found (seems you can find answers to just about anything online) a query by one carillonneur for carillon music that would sound like change ringing, and the reply that yes, there are many pieces like that written for the carillon. So maybe I heard some as a child.

I did a lookup for the closest change ringing tower, but as the closest is over three hours away, near Chicago, I won’t be going for a visit to hear what it sounds like. It’s not that I would be planning to join a change ringing group, even if there were one nearby. (I admit the idea is somewhat appealing, but my life is rather busy enough already.) But I wouldn’t mind getting to know the people who do it.

I enjoy performing music, but the marathon quality of “a full peal” is rather daunting. This requires at least 5000 changes, or ringing sequences, and takes around three hours. In Sayers’ novel, they do fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty, which takes nine hours. It’s no wonder change ringing is considered a sport as well as an art, and that a plaque is put up to commemorate the successful completion of such a feat (successful meaning not only that it was finished but without any mistakes).

I enjoy playing handbells when I have the opportunity, but there you play from a musical score just as with most musical performances. The timing must be precise, and you learn just how soon to start the stroke before the clapper must actually strike the bell to produce its sound. It’s a very short time, though, and unless you have repeated notes you hold the bell still until your next note (unless you’re busy changing bells to play a different note, as often happens).

With change ringing, though, I can see from the videos that the motion is fairly continuous. The ringer pulls down on the rope, lets it back up, then down again, on and on. The timing is varied slightly to make the bell play at a different point in the next sequence, but watching the videos I can’t spot this being done. I suppose, as with every kind of music, this has its own unique set of skills that are learned through long practice and come to feel natural over time.

Changes are also rung from memory, so each player must remember the patterns. Since there is a mathematical aspect to it, I suppose I would probably do well enough at that aspect of it, but I can’t say I find that part of it appealing. I did well in math, but I never found it very interesting. Then again, I never thought I would find computers interesting since I associated them with math, growing up, and was pleasantly surprised to discover I enjoyed computer programming since it was more about patterns than computation.

As there is no tower or group nearby, however, my potential interest will have to remain a matter of poking around on the internet. And perhaps check out a couple of other novels that feature change ringing, both science fiction, which is another interest of mine.

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