For whom the bell tolls

It is interesting that the lines "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee" by the seventeenth century Church of England priest John Donne are often quoted as one of the most well-known lines of poetry in the English language. In fact, though, they are from a work of prose, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes, published in 1624. 

In this solemn season preceding Advent and Christmas, there are a number of occasions which mark remembrance, all within a short space of time: All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day and Remembrance Sunday all usually occurring within ten days of each other.  For this reason, some in the church refer to it by the term Remembrancetide, which also encompasses the fifth of November. 

For many, the origins of Bonfire Night might be shrouded in history, but it started as an occasion of thanksgiving for the failure of the plot to blow up the Palace of Westminster in 1605.   

These days, it is marked by fireworks and community bonfires all across southern Oxfordshire and throughout the country.  One of the most long running events locally takes place at South Park in Oxford, to where two people who had randomly turned up at the Abingdon taxi rank asked to be taken, early on Saturday evening, for a night of festivities. 

When we got there, the sound of the fireworks explosions that night once again reminded me of the time two years ago in Jerusalem, when my friend presided at Holy Communion in the open air, to the sound of explosions and gunfire over the Old City. 

So, I went home early, because I no longer tolerate all that well the sound of the random explosions which accompany a night shift, on the Saturday closest to fifth of November. 

Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday once again approach, when communities across Oxfordshire enact familiar civic and military rituals, invariably accompanied by aural symbols, such as the sorrowful but also mellifluent sound of half muffled bells.  

For some years, there has been a large full-size model Spitfire on the top of Lodge Hill, which you pass as you approach the town.  It seems incongruous at motor trade premises, but Abingdon is a place which loves its civic traditions and perhaps, at no time more than at this time of year. 


Display of handmade poppies atAbingdon opticians' shop

Display of handmade poppies atAbingdon opticians' shop

And at an opticians' shop on Stert Street, there is a distinctive artistic use of both red and also this year, white poppies, which mark out the shape of a propeller. It takes up the whole of the shop window and is more than six feet tall. 

But this Remembrancetide, an electronic notification arrived from the county council, that there is to be a repatriation of fallen service personnel in Oxfordshire this week - a poignant reminder that people are still dying whilst in the service of the United Kingdom. 

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls – or for whom the phone beeps. 

As published in the Herald Series on Wednesday, 08 November 2017

  1. The University of Adelaide, eBooks web edition, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions and seuerall steps in my Sicknes, By Iohn Donne, Deane of S. Pauls, London. Printed by A. M. for Thomas Iones. 1624, 17 December 2014, as retrieved 06 November 2017
  2. Oxfordshire County Council, Repatriation of fallen service personnel, retrieved 06 November 2017