17 October 2007
In the village where I stayed, the church bells struck every hour. You get so used to them that you only register their sound near the end, so they strike again so you can count the chimes and know what the hour is. They also, anachronistically, struck in the morning to tell the peasants to go to the fields, at noon to tell them to eat lunch, and in the evening to tell them to come home.
I thought the sound of the church bells was beautiful. You could hear them everywhere in the village and the surrounding fields. They sounded quite merry.
Then one day they began striking at an odd time. And the sound was different - and very, very slow. Bong.............bing............bong...........bing...........
Someone in the village had died.
It was the eeriest sound I've ever heard. There were two bells, because it was a woman. They kept going for a long time, because she was old, striking twice for every year she had lived. And for the first time in my life I really understood the poem by John Donne.
There are so many things that, as an Australian, are part of our cultural heritage from elsewhere. I knew the poem. But it was never quite real to me. I had never lived anywhere where time and lives were marked by church bells.
And after that day, the church bells never sounded quite so merry.
"Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."