LONDON — Britain was alive with the sound of bells at 8:12 this morning to signify the first day of the 2012 Olympic Games. Church bells, cow bells, hand bells, Big Ben, bicycle bells, doorbells; bells on Morris Dancers, Bangladeshi girls and ships -- all rang as quickly and loudly as possible for three minutes as part of Martin Creed's artwork for the Olympics: "Work No 1197, All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes."
The idea was for all the bells in the country to be rung. In a promotional video, Creed said he found it "both exciting and impossible to see how it could work. If it did work, I think it would be brilliant."
Less than 100% participation did nothing to dampen the excitement for those who did take part. Politicians seized the photo-op moment, schoolchildren delighted in the chance make piles of unshushable noise and newsreaders set their dignity aside and rang with glee on the breakfast television couch.
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In the capital city, the sound was a brilliant mix of ringing in belfries and from bicycle bells and handbells. At the steps of St. Mary-le-Bow church on Cheapside, Gerry Matthews, a freelance paralegal, spent the three minutes ensuring no one could say that "All the Bells" needed more cowbell. Afterward, she said, "I claim generational Cockney ancestry [people born within the sound of Bow's bells are true blue Cockney], and even though I think the Olympics are a total and appalling waste of money, I thought this would be fun."
Charlotte Bradford, who lives few streets over, chimed the bell on a Bromley fold-up bike. "I'm here because I think the Olympics are utterly super and I wanted to come and participate."
The friends' polar differences of opinion are representative of the love/hate relationship London has with the Games, and the fact that they both showed up to participate anyway is one of the more endearing aspects of British culture.
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The sound of the bells themselves is also an important cultural touchstone in Britain. For hundreds of years, they have rung out in great cathedrals and village churches for weddings, jubilees and other times of celebration, including the end of war. It is natural then, that Danny Boyle's "Isle of Wonder" Opening Ceremonies extravaganza will start with the unveiling of the biggest ringing bell in Europe.
At 6 feet, 6 inches high, 10 feet wide and weighing in at 25 tons, the Olympic bell will be around long after the athletes go home. This, of course, is the point. "It will outlive us all, really." Boyle told the BBC. "We hope to leave it in the park as part of the tangible legacy of the Games and for future generations to look back and know that in the summer of 2012, we were here."
The bell was commissioned from the 700-year-old Whitechaple Bell Foundry (they also cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell) and has been inscribed with part of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." A section of the speech, "Be not afraid; the isle is full of noises," will be read out by an as-yet mystery performer as the bell tolls.
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The next 17 days will be full of noises new and familiar, but perhaps the biggest one (aside from snarled traffic) will be all the world's best, going for gold.