Transcript for ‘A Life Well Rung: An Interview with the Brilliant Phil Gay’

Transcribed by Emily Watts

[00:00:00] PHIL: Favorite rings of bells, can be for various reasons. It can be because you have some sort of emotional attachment to a ring of bells and could be because they’re historically significant or it could just be because you like ringing on them. And I’ve got favorites in all those categories.

And interestingly, sometimes bells you most enjoy ringing are not the bells, which on paper one would think would be in that category. [Bells ringing]

[00:00:32] CATHY: Phil Gay describes himself as both a typical and atypical ringer. Now an elderly tower captain at a village six bell tower, he has in the past been heavily involved in the management of ringing both locally and nationally. His bell ringing accomplishments have been groundbreaking and some of his proposals were ahead of their time.

A favorite quote of Phil’s, and now mine from a council meeting. “I’m all in favor of innovation, but we’ve never done this before.” we’ll come onto which council and what they might have been referring to later in this conversation. But first, let’s find out about Phil. Phil, when did you learn to ring and why did you start?

[00:01:10] PHIL: I learned to ring in 1956 as an almost teenager. In a five bell tower in Somerset, which was the village church where I went to church with my parents. And at that time the ringing room was on the ground floor, separated from the church by a heavy curtain, but with a big space in the arch up above. So one was really quite aware of what was going on in the ringing chamber and I was fascinated by it and I asked if I could learn to ring.

[00:01:34] CATHY: What is it that you like about ringing?

[00:01:37] PHIL: Well, it’s several things really. Firstly, it’s the combination of physical skill and mental skill to produce the outcome which we want. Secondly, it’s doing something as part of a team to produce a good outcome. And thirdly, what I like is the sense of history, both in terms of the fact that a lot of the bells we ring on are pretty old.

And also certainly in the case of my tower, most of the things we ring have been in the repertoire for a very long time.

[00:02:04] CATHY: You were a university lecturer and teaching has come naturally to you. You set up the Keele ringing summer school, but why did you spend so much time teaching others rather than advancing your own ringing?

[00:02:17] PHIL: I enjoy teaching, as I told you, and I think there’s a great need for it. I think, dare I say it in the past particularly ringing hasn’t always been very well taught, and in fact, when I set up our own summer school, it was as a result of being involved in the then Central Council ringing course, which I thought was not actually doing what it should be doing.

And, so several of the things which I didn’t like about that, I made sure we avoided in the, new course we set up, for example nearly all the ringing was done in two towers to avoid having to get familiarity with new bells and to avoid lots of traveling and when I was on the Central Council court, I often noticed that people had to declare which method group they wanted to be in, and sometimes they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough and got it wrong.

And if they were in that position quite often it wasn’t possible to do anything about it because the right helpers weren’t in place and often the helpers weren’t very good. So all those things I tried to avoid when I set up our own course.

[00:03:20] CATHY: And what sort of things did you introduce at the Keele Summer School that weren’t in place at the time?

[00:03:26] PHIL: As I’ve said, we confined the ringing except when we had fun ringing in the evenings to two local towers, both of which were equipped with simulators, which meant we could use them all day for several days consecutively. In addition, we used the simulators in individual practice mode, so every day all the students had a 30 minute session doing individual practice supervised on the simulator.

 Another thing we had was that all the tutors were invited. So I had complete quality control over the tutors, which as I’ve said before, wasn’t always the case on other courses. And also, we paid expenses to our tutors so I could ask them without having to feel I was asking for a very big favour.

[00:04:12] CATHY: Some of these things don’t happen today, even.

[00:04:14] PHIL: That’s right.

[00:04:15] CATHY: You have a lifelong passion for collecting bells and assembling them into, amongst other things, a ring in your garage and a mobile bellfry, which you designed.

What is your favorite thing that you’ve done with the Litchfield diocese and mobile belfry?

[00:04:30] PHIL: I don’t like the word designed, that’s slightly disputed, because I say I invented it. I did outline drawings, a working model. A professional engineer produced detailed working drawings. So he was the draftsman. I claim to be the inventor. And the parallel I give for that is when the mini was designed, everybody gives Alex Issigonis credit for doing that, but it’s fairly well known that most of his contribution was done on the back of a couple of envelopes, which he then handed over to the drawing office for detailed implementation. So I think, my view is a fairly correct one. But that mobile belfry was the first one of its kind, and there still aren’t very many. And it was a prototype and it works quite well, and we haven’t done very many modifications and improvements on it. But over the years we’ve realized that there are various features of it, which would be better avoided if another one were to be built, which is now the case.

One of them is that it’s fairly heavy, it’s on a trailer, and the total weight of the trailer is almost two tons. So it requires a specialist towing vehicle to do that. And secondly, it takes nearly three hours to put up, which is fine for a two or three day event. But if you are going to a small afternoon event in the village, you don’t really want to spend longer putting it up than you spend using it.

So I have had in my mind for some time, a mark two version, which I call Phil’s quick erection model. And, that basically exploits the fact that on the one we built already, All the bells swing in the same direction. And if you’ve got a tower with all the bells swinging the same direction, it’s perfectly safe to lie it down without the bells coming to any harm.

And so I thought of two possible ways of making this work. One which I rejected because you don’t really want a dedicated vehicle for, a relatively small number of days use in a year was to use a skip truck to pick it up and lay it down, and then pick it up and stand it on its end when you were ready to use it.

But the second one I thought of, which is being implemented in the Central Council one currently being built, was to make the tower the body of a tipper trailer so that it lies horizontally on the trailer for transport, and you push it up hydraulically into the vertical position and move the chassis away when you’re ready to use it.

And that can be done very quickly.

[00:06:57] CATHY: What sort of things have you used the mobile belfry that you have for?

[00:07:02] PHIL: We go to any event we’re asked to go to, and that ranges, as I’ve mentioned before, from small village events. But more importantly in terms of promotion of ringing quite big events. We’ve been for the last 20 years to the Stafford County Show, which is a two day show every year, and we go to the Cheshire Show as well. And we’ve been to Week Long Scout Jamborees, which are very good for introducing youngsters to ringing. And you get a huge amount of exposure bells to the public in those sorts of event. And the other thing with our mobile bellfry is that it’s not just a bellfry, it’s an exhibition centre.

We have a large area of display boards inside, protected under a canopy so that we can actually give people material telling them what ringing is all about.

[00:07:52] CATHY: Moving on to another topic. You taught amongst a lot of other people, your family to ring. What are the benefits of having ringing as a family tradition?

[00:08:01] PHIL: I think it means that when you want to go ringing people understand and support what you want to do. And I’ve been very fortunate and had a huge amount of support from Rowena my wife in all my ringing activities in many of which she has taken part, although she does a bit less now, because we’re both getting older.

But also, I don’t come from a ringing family, let it be said. I’m the first generation of my family to learn to ring. My brother learned to ring at the same time as me. I think I was the, one who took the initiative and he came along as well, partly cause he could drive and I couldn’t. So he took me. My sister was the first person I taught to ring.

She’s two years younger than me and she still rings regularly at Knowle in Warwickshire. And later on I taught Rowena. When she was in her thirties and she found it hard to start with, but persevered and became a very good ringer and rung a lot of peals, and I taught my son Simon and daughter Sally at about the same time in the late 1970s.

Not all of my family are still active ringers. When we have a family party every year, I usually do a count of the ringers who are there and divide them into those who are active and those who are what I call lapsed. And it’s usually about 50 50. So theres six or seven of us now still active ringers.

And as my son Simon and his wife Tina Stoecklin are very active in Glasgow, do a lot of bell ringing and a lot of hand bell ringing. And Simon is a very good example of a well-known phenomenon that the next generation is quite often a better ringer than the parent.

[00:09:40] CATHY: You were describing before that when you have these parties, sometimes the lapsed ringers join in with some hand bell ringing with you.

[00:09:48] PHIL: Yes. this is one of the things about lapsed ringers, a lot of them, when they come back, when they can be persuaded to come back, they’re infuriatingly good as if they’ve never been away. And my daughter is quite a competent handbell ringer and she can turn up and ring a pair to Bob Major at the drop of a hat without having done it for over a year.

And my two nephews, Adam Shepard and Mark Shepherd are both very good ringers indeed, including on Handbells. They’ve rung very smart handbell peals, but for various reasons, neither of them is now an active ringer. Now and again, they just turn up and do it.

[00:10:19] CATHY: That leads on to, I understand that you think we should focus more on retention rather than recruitment of new ringers?

[00:10:27] PHIL: I’ve never actually had to do very much active recruiting. I’m perhaps should be more proactive, but basically I wait for people to turn up and then I teach them and that seems to work. So we’ve always got about the right number of ringers at Keele.

We did actually recruit one couple who’ve been in our band for three or four years now. Yes, they’re a couple we met at church and they’d newly, moved into the area, a couple in their fifties. We thought they might be looking for something to do together and we invited them to learn to ring and they’ve been members of the band ever since.

Very valued members of the band. You asked about retention, I think retention is very much linked to how well people are taught. They’ve got to be well taught, know they’re being well taught, given plenty of time when they’re being taught, not just in the initial stages, but immediately afterwards. I think that’s a great problem that when you are teaching people, you teach them one to one for half an hour or longer at a time.

And they get lots of time. And then you say to them, you are ready to ring with the band now come to practice night and they get two five minute rings. And quite often because of that, their bell handling actually deteriorates through lack of use. So one of the things I’ve done in the past, although not currently, is run a separate learner’s practice on a different night using the simulator for sound control so it doesn’t annoy the neighbors, for the people who are just moving on to being able to ring with a band and they can then do a bit of individual bell handling to correct any ongoing faults and just get used to ringing with a band. And I think that’s a very useful stepping stone because practice nights are difficult to organize, to give enough time to everybody.

And you don’t want to overload a practice night with too many inexperienced people. Cause it’s difficult to accommodate everybody. So I think a stepping stone is a useful way of, managing all that.

[00:12:25] CATHY: And one of the things that, you gave me to read was an article that you’d written where you said to analyze the stages at which people might drop out of ringing.

And think about, what you could do to accommodate them so that they might not do that. Could you talk us through that a little bit?

[00:12:41] PHIL: Yes, one of the, one of the primary stages of people d ropping out a ringing is when they go away to university because there’s so many other interesting things they can do at university and also they make friends who probably don’t understand what ringing’s about and might feel a little bit odd saying, “I’m going off to go ringing.”

One of the things we always used to do when we had a lot of teenagers in our band was make sure they would be useful when they went to join a university band. So we tried to make sure that by the time they left us, they had all called a quarter peal and all organized an outing, because those are useful things you can do as a member of a university society.

We haven’t had many teenagers in that position since, but certainly for a while that’s what we did. And another reason people give up ringing obviously, is they get married and have families and they just have too many other calls on their time. But one of the things I mentioned in that piece I sent you was that I think sometimes we should be more accommodating to people who want to come back to ringing on an as much as they can do basis, rather than expect them to do more than they’re able to. So in my view, if someone says, I can only ring with you two or three times a month, can’t guarantee to come every week. I would welcome them with open arms because if you’ve got two people like that, that’s a ringer, isn’t it?

And I suspect, although this is not an evidence-based statement, that sometimes somebody moving into a village where there was a struggling band, instead of saying, I will go and help them, will say to themselves, if I go and help them, they’ll ask me to do too much. And I don’t want to do that, so I’ll stay away. Which is really sad.

[00:14:24] CATHY: What would you do in that case?

[00:14:26] PHIL: If they came to me and said, I’m new in the village and I would like to do a bit of ringing, I would say, yes, please, and don’t worry if you can’t come all the time. Because when they did come, they would make a contribution, they would make a difference. If an experienced ringer could come once a month, that would enable us to have perhaps a more exciting practice, for example. And that’s obviously something to be encouraged.

[00:14:48] CATHY: You held most offices in the North Staff’s Association and had a 21 year stint as a central council representative for that association. For those that don’t know, can you briefly describe what the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers and the local Guilds and Associations do? How they’re set up?

[00:15:05] PHIL: Ringing in a sort of tiered activity, just like many others. So the grassroots, you have local bands, villages and towns ringing in their local churches. And then there are what are often referred to as territorial associations because they cover particular areas of the country, sometimes based on geographical areas like counties, sometimes based on ecclesiastical areas like a diocese or archdeconary.

My tower, Keele, belongs to the North Staffordshire Association, which has a geographical name, but actually an ecclesiastical territory because it is the territory of the Archdeconry of Stoke Trent. But interestingly, the name was changed from the archdeconry of the Stoke society in the 1930s when a band from a Catholic church wanted to join and it was felt that it might be off putting to a group of Catholics to join an organization which was specifically Anglican in its title.

So the name was changed to a more neutral one. So most of country is covered by associations like that in some cases with overlapping area. And then as with many activities, we have a national body, which is called the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, to which nearly all of the territorial associations and some non-territorial ones are affiliated.

And the way it works is that they all elect a small number of their members to go and be members of the Central Council. And the Central Council looks after things of general interest to ringers and makes representations and negotiations with other national bodies as appropriate. For example, with child protection, there’s been a lot of negotiation and when there’s ringing for a national occasion, the central council tries to encourage and, and coordinate that.

And they also have advis… They also have advisory bodies, which will give people advice on teaching and on maintenance of bells and bell restoration, that sort of thing.

[00:17:11] CATHY: I mentioned a quote at the beginning, from, I think it was a central council meeting where you said, “I’m all in favor of innovation, but we’ve never done this before.”

[00:17:20] PHIL: That wasn’t something I actually heard in person. It was passed on to me by someone else, but I believe it to be a genuine quote.

[00:17:27] CATHY: I think you’ve made many innovative suggestions to the Central Council. Can you tell me a bit about those?

[00:17:34] PHIL: Yes. I’ve tried to, for example, not long after I became a member, the Central Council was looking for a centenary project that I proposed what was then described as a mobile exhibition center, including a ring of bells.

So this was my first attempt to get a mobile bellfry built and it was turned down by a very small margin. and that’s when we went away and did it ourselves. And I think that’s an example of several things which have been turned down by the council and then done by other means. For example, I think, ART is a bit like that because at a council meeting about 20 years ago, Michael Henshaw, who was chair of the education committee at the time, proposed what he called the Instructors Guild, which met with a very good reception, but was actually turned down because a prominent member of the council said, if we allow this to happen anyone who has not get a teaching certificate will not be allowed to have insurance when they’re teaching their learners.

And people thought that was a bit risky, so it was turned down. But basically what we’ve got now is ART, which began as a private initiative and is still actually not a part of the council. And another thing which I think have been done better outside the council, but could have been done by the council is the Keltek Trust because the council had a committee to look after redundant bells and a redundant bells rescue fund, but neither of them did very much. But the Keltek Trust, which was initiated and still run by David Kelly, has done a huge amount to promote and achieve the relocation of bells which are no longer needed in their original homes.

So, there’s that. Another thing I tried to do was rationalise the voting system, which was partly successful. So although it’s not been used because they don’t very often have contested elections, but next time there is an election for a president, it will actually use the alternative vote system, which means that you have to wait till someone gets an overall majority before they’re declared elected. So if you’ve got three candidates, the worst candidate then has second choice votes transferred to the others, and that goes on until you’ve got someone with an overall majority. That has been approved but never actually initiated.

And another thing which I proposed, which has now come to pass, was the funding of the council by a levy on societies. And, technically it was only a levy to cover the costs of running the annual meetings, and that had traditionally been done by charging a fixed amount per representative from each association, but the number of association representatives on the council was not proportional to their grassroots membership.

So it meant in fact that small societies were paying a disproportionate share of this overall contribution. So I proposed at the Cheltenham meeting, again about 20 years ago that the levy should actually be so much for a grassroots member, which seemed to me an entirely reasonable suggestion, and I think a lot of other people agreed.

But in the end, it was turned down because one who’d better remain nameless association representative said that paying 30p per member of her association would bankrupt it and make it non-viable, which I think was actually a totally absurd thing to say cause it can’t possibly be true. But anyway, that has now been introduced.

So I’m very pleased, although it’s been introduced on a very modest scale, simply to generate the same amount of income as before. So it’s about 20, 30, 40p a member, I can’t exactly remember, but other organizations I belong to have a much bigger top slice of their membership subsubscription going to the national body, for example, I belong to my local U3A, University of the third age, and we pay a subscription of 17 pounds, a year per member, three pounds of which goes to the national body.

And if the Central Council did something like that, even one pound per member going to the national body, they would have a useful income to be able to do all sorts of things. But I think, again, we’re in the miracles take a little longer category there.

[00:21:49] CATHY: What sort of things could you see the Central Council doing if they had more money?

[00:21:54] PHIL: They could fund ringing courses. They could give grants to people to go on ringing courses or they could subsidise fees to ringing courses that sort of thing. And they could pay reasonable expenses to people who were doing useful things. Possibly, they already have a Bell Restoration Fund, but that’s mostly funded by Legacies.

It’s not really funded by Central Council money. And interestingly, I think the council actually has quite large reserves, but it’s not really willing to spend them. And for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, they had a fairly big chunk of money, which was in, interest earning investments. And of course, when interest rates were high, they actually had a relatively high income for not very long.

But of course that’s all changed now. But I think, a national body deserves to have a reasonable income service it can do things.

[00:22:48] CATHY: Yes. Yes, indeed. Okay. We’ve now, we’ve galloped through a lot of the topics that I wanted to discuss. Was there anything that you’d want to go back to and talk about more?

[00:22:59] PHIL: Well, I’ve done a bit of bell hanging in my time, which we haven’t really mentioned apart from the Mobile Bellfry. I’ve hung my own small ring of bells as you also know, and I did all the bell hanging for that with a bit of help from friends who were engineers, which I’m not. So I’ve been very fortunate in my friends.

I’ve had friends who could weld and friends with lathes and things like that, so that was a great help. But I did a lot of it myself. And I made the wheels for that. I made the wheels for a set of bells, which were being assembled. New Bells, new casting in Holland by Bob Smith of Aaron Smith, and he wanted to have them as a demonstration ring with a view to sending them on and others like it.

I made six wheels for him and that ring was, I don’t think ever actually set up in his workshop because, Peter Shipton from Aberdeen installed them in a farm building he had at his home. And I made the wheels for that six wheels and then two more when they were augmented to eight. And these were all half size wheels.

And then I wondered whether my wheel making technique, which was a bit of a cheat because I’m not a very good woodworker and as you know, bell wheels have quite a lot of mortis and tenon joints, which are mostly not at 90 degrees, so particularly difficult to make. So in the end, I decided that a cheating way to do that would be to laminate the spokes from three thicknesses of timber, so that when you want a mortis, you just leave a gap in the middle one.

When you want a tenon, you just make the middle one a bit longer. So as long as you can cut angles, no chisel work is involved, and that makes it very easy, and that worked very well. And subsequently a local tower was being augmented from a five to a six, and it was a parish without much money. So I asked various wood woodworking, competent friends if they thought my laminated spoke technique would realistically scale up to full size.

And they said they thought it would. So I volunteered to make the wheel for the new treble when that five went up to six and it’s still in use and doing well. And then not long after that, I organized the augmentation of a local three bell tower to a six, which required six new wheels, and I made those as my contribution to the project and they’re still in use and working all right.

And later on when the ring of eight at Stone was being remodeled into a ring of 10. So the back four retained and, six new trebles were cast. I volunteered to make the wheels for the front. Which I did with help from one of the Stone ringers who’s become a good friend. And more recently we did a complete set of six wheels ring of six at a tower in Staffordshire. And I’ve made wheels for three sets of small bells, the two I’ve mentioned, plus the mobile bellfry, and also two or three wheels for other people who were hanging small bells.

So in total, I’ve made almost 50 wheels over the last 35 year period, and all of them are still in use and none have fallen apart, which is quite pleasing.

[00:26:04] CATHY: The other thing I was going to ask you about is your peals. Because you’ve rung him a lot of peals and you’ve rung in the peals of 78 new ringers, but you’ve done more peal ringing recently than in your early career isn’t that right?

[00:26:18] PHIL: Yes. I rang my first when I was a teenager and then rang a relatively small number peals, partly cause I was not very active when I had a small family. So it took me over 20 years to ring my first 50 peals, and then I started ringing with a regular peal band and more recently with more than one regular peal band.

I’ve now run over a thousand peals. And of course, having ones own ring of bells helped with that, but only about a third of them have been on our own bells. And some of them have been quite smart peals. I’ve rung 23 splice 10 times. I’d like ringing spliced. About a hundred of my peals have been Spliced Surprise Major, and about the same number, Spliced Surprise Minor, including 40 or 41 splice, which is one of the sort of things that Surprise Minor ringers like to ring.

[00:27:07] CATHY: Apart from the towers that you regularly ring at, what’s your favorite ring of bells and why?

[00:27:14] PHIL: Well, of course the ones I regularly ring at are up there, but for example, I mentioned earlier. I learned to ring at a five bell tower in Somerset called Hinton Blewett. And so I much enjoy ringing there occasionally. And they do have historic significance as well because they’re a complete five cast in 1708 by Edward Billby, who was a very local bell, very good one from about two villages away.

And there were several generations of Billby’s cast a lot of bells for the West of England, so I like ringing there. And what pleases me about that ring is that there isn’t room for any more bells in the tower, so they will always remain as a five cause a lot of fives get turned into sixes. So there, there are fewer good fives around, but there’re certainly one of them.

And obviously I spend a lot of time ringing at Keele. I spend a lot of time ringing in the garage and I don’t spend as much time ringing on the mobile bellfry. But they’re very nice bells when we do ring them, they were specially cast. Unlike the bells in the garage, which were assembled from a variety of sources, mostly secondhand, the bells in the mobile bell were specially cast for us by Whitechapel, and not just specially cast, but Alan Hughes actually modified the bells he was going use in order to get a better weight distribution across the ring. So he did a very good job for us and they were originally offered to us on long-term loan. And when we heard that Whitechapel were gonna close, we got a bit nervous, but in fact, he was very generous.

He sold them to us for the cost of the value of the metal, which was much less than the value of the bells. And we did actually at the time, have enough money in the kitty to be able to, to pay for them. So that was really generous on his part, and he was also generous in other ways, on a couple of occasions.

Because the Central Council wouldn’t pay for us to go to a road show, he paid because he wanted the bells to be there. So we owe a great debt to him. He’s been a good friend of the mobile bellfry from the very beginning. But also, as I say, bells, I have contributed something to like Whitmore where I organize the augmentation from three to six.

They’re not an especially distinguished six, but I ring there a bit. I teach learners for them. And interestingly, sometimes bells you most enjoy ringing are not the bells, which on paper one would think would be in that category. So a ring of bells locally where I’ve very much enjoyed ringing, particularly peals, are the 10 at Leek in North Staffordshire, which are on paper and not particularly distinguished ring of bells and old 18th century six augmented in stages up to 10 by different founders. But actually they are a very peal-friendly ring of bells and I’ve rung a number of very enjoyable peals there. So they’re probably one of my favorite rings of 10. Although locally there are peels of 10, which you think were more distinguished.

[00:30:11] CATHY: The last question is, has anything remarkable happened to you that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t taken up bell ringing? A difficult one when you’ve taken it up so early in your life I think!

[00:30:22] PHIL: Yes. I think I’ve met a lot of people who’ve become very good friends. And one of the things that particularly pleases me at the moment is that, I’ve lived in area since 1961. I came here as a student at Keele in 1961 and I’ve been here ever since with a very short break and quite a lot of people I still ring with, have been ringing together since we were all teenagers, and I think that’s really nice.

I didn’t meet my wife through ringing. I met her first and taught her to ring. A lot of couples meet through ringing, which they would obviously consider to be a very significant thing, which wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been ringing. But that doesn’t apply to me. But, as I say, the fact that a lot of my good friends are people who’ve been ringing together since we were teenagers. I think he’s very pleasing.

 Thank you to my guest, Phil Gay, for giving us some insights into his very full life as a bell ringer.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share it. This podcast was put together by a team. Special thanks go to Ann Tansley-Thomas, Emily Roderick. John Gwynne, Emily Watts and the society of the Cambridge Youths for the recording of their ringing.

[Bells ringing rounds]