In praise of … leaning towers

12 Oct

Big Ben, or to be more precise the clock tower housing it, has joined St Walfriduskerk in the Netherlands, the medieval steeple in Suurhusen in north-western Germany, the temple of Huma in Orissa, India, and the campanile in Pisa. It is leaning. Being British, and being built of such hardy materials as cast iron girders, stone from Yorkshire and Normandy, and Cornish granite, it is only leaning slightly. A tilt of 0.25 degrees is a bagatelle compared to the extravagant four degrees at which the tower of Pisa is tilting, and it would take 4,000 years to equal that. Leaning towers often go wrong from the start. The three-metre foundation of the white marble campanile began to sink into the soil after it had risen only to its second floor. Big Ben has been variously undermined by a sewer built in the 1860s to the District line, an underground car park for MPs and the Jubilee line extension. However, the seismic event which caused it to lurch an eighth of an inch sometime between November 2002 and August 2003 remains a mystery. The Iraq debate? Various things could be done to compensate for the 1ft 5in rightward lean. One could lessen the weight by removing the bells and the clock mechanism, and go digital, or install a counterweight. Optical illusions are cheaper still. MPs could stand in front of Big Ben and lean leftwards. Or a leaning full-size cardboard replica could be built next to it. This, too, would straighten the tower, at least in the mind’s eye where Big Ben truly belongs.

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