There are some far flung corners of mind which can only be summoned by sound (just as with smell, texture, even colours) – some corners more distant than others. There is one vague, definitely greyed-out location, where I’m on some kind of quayside location. My grandad used to drive HGV lorries for a stint when I was a child in the 70s, and I’ve got memories of him dropping off something like a cargo of breezeblocks within a whiff of the dock – and the distinctive, overbearing call of a foghorn being all that I’ve got to summon back the memory.
Those coastline foghorns have long since been decommissioned. The sound I can summon up is not only nostalgic for the time it takes me back to, it is for a place uniquely associated with that noise. Jennifer Lucy Allan’s book, “The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast” knows exactly what I’m talking about. She’s a presenter on one of my favourite shows, BBC Radio 3’s experimental late night Friday music show, “Late Junction”.
Allan has done a PhD on the subject, and referred to the prospect of her book in a documentary she produced for BBC Radio 4 in 2020, “Life, Death and the Foghorn”, and as soon as I heard it, I knew I was going to love the book.
It’s a beautiful book, and I can never quite decide whether it is predominantly historical mission; a socio-cultural or psycho-geographic project; or simply an analytical journey taking twists and turns guided by an overriding love of sound, noise, music – and the blurred edge-lands in-between.
Allan has set off to discover why these sound machines have been deemed surplus to requirements, despite so many people still finding a use for them, and so many communities being defined by them.
Try this section for size (pg. 198/200 of the 2021 hardback edition) to try to get to the heart it:
“Is it any surprise big horns come with heavy baggage? Trumpets and horns are a summoning, a harbinger. In Judaism, there is the shofar, a large ram’s horn trumpet. In the Bible, the apocalypse is signalled by seven angels playing seven trumpets. The Tibetan dungchen – the Buddhist horn – is said to sound like the singing of elephants. Played with a rising tone like a diaphone foghorn, their purpose is to suppress demons. The foghorn is in one sense just a navigational aid, but in another, it is in a family of huge horns with social and cultural connotations.
“As a member of this family of sounds, the foghorn becomes a trope, a sort of shorthand for a mood and a feeling: it denotes confusion, disorientation; it signals something is coming, or something has changed. It also calls people home, and its fixed sound can come to represent a place. With all its associations – not just of trumpets and menace, but coastal folklore, bulls and beasts, I wanted to what happened when foghorns were switched off – did anyone object? In the UK, the coasts used to be mapped in sound, but now few of these markers were left. What does it mean to lose a sound that had come to identify a place so distinctly?
“The foghorn was never just about aiding navigation. It might only have existed to guide those at sea, but just like the unbounded spread of sound itself, the foghorn reached beyond its function and came to define the soundscape of a place. In the time between their installation in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and through to the 1980s at least, foghorns on coastlines had become, for those who lived there, a sound that represented an entire place.
“Turning off a sound that is obsolete is one thing, but for those that lived within earshot, their foghorn had become part of the place they lived, whether in San Francisco or Jersey. They were not just a link to the past, but a part of the present, a reminder of the industries that had formed these places, of the people that had come before. This meant that when automation of the lighthouse service silenced many foghorns, it stirred up feelings lots of people didn’t expect. People who had not thought an awful lot about their foghorn would suddenly realise their attachment to it. Lots of people didn’t want to say goodbye to the sounds they had grown up with.”
The book could very easily disappear down a rabbit hole of engineering, or strictly history, but what Allan brings to the pages too is her insatiable passion for new sounds and new music with which I am already so familiar from BBC Radio 3. Try this for starters, where she tries to get to get to grips with the idea of fog itself, from the perspective of a dance floor. (this, pg. 25/26 of the hardback 2021 edition):
“Have you ever been to a concert or club where so much dry ice has been used it separates you from friends? How did it feel? Did it make you feel disorientated, lost? Now imagine that feeling, of not being able to see what is right next to you, but you’re in a ship, at sea, and you have no idea in which direction you’re facing. It becomes very dangerous. The effect is of marooning, a removing of orienting features that you might use to navigate – whether it’s to the bar or back to the harbour – but the implications are very different.
“Musicians who pump their concerts full of dry ice know that fog is setting and scenery for the music the audience are about to hear. In the case of the cloaked and hooded doom metal act Sunn O))), whose heavy guitar drones obliterate from monolithic amp stacks, it is a way to elevate the intensity of the sound – they use it so prodigiously it has been known to set off smoke alarms in neighbouring buildings. In one context these instant special effects that a fog machine can produce are a thrill, because they change everything about the world in an instant. In another, being at sea with no solid ground, when nothing can be seen there is terror.
“Fog, once it comes down on sea and coast, is a mortal danger, because in fog death can crawl silently out of the sea and swallow ships whole. All mariners know how fast a thick fog can roll in, and what it means for your sense of direction.”
What really hit home was that Allan was also able to pinpoint her own relationship with sound so well, in a way that explained why in my middle age, I have become so reliant on listening to a nightly serving of deliberately provocative and experimental sounds on BBC Radio 3 (such as ‘Night Tracks‘ and ‘Unclassified‘ as well as ‘Late Junction‘), and other online radio stations. (this – pg. 100/101 of the hardback 2021 edition):
“Revelations in listening worm their way into our biographies and memories. I have had a long affair with ‘weird’ sounds and music, and have built my career and these revelations, searching out music, sound, noise, recordings – whatever. I want to hear something I haven’t heard before, and I want experiences that change me. In this, I am always chasing a feeling: one where the world around me drops away and I find myself momentarily, euphorically, in a new and wondrous place. It happens less now than it did ten years ago, as my ears and mind become increasingly calcified, but it still comes many times a year, still makes me feel briefly, and literally, high.
“It happened when I heard the foghorn, and it happened before. It had been happening since I was a teenager since hearing Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust aged sixteen, when something clicked into place (or maybe out of place)….
“… These revelations continued through everything from New York minimalism to Chilean psych rock; early electronic music to NASA’s recordings of the stars; Japanese punk to Ethiopian pianists; field recordings of icebergs melting to amateur choirs singing. In these hungry searches I devoured magazines, mixes, books and radio shows, and the golden threads by which one can chase music around the internet, from PsP networks, to forums, YouTube playlists and dead blogspots still haunted by MediaFire links. Somewhere along these paths, I ended up with my biggest revelation: the foghorn.”
I can thoroughly recommend this “Foghorn’s Lament” – a book whose like I have yet to stumble upon anywhere else. Not only do the memories of foghorns ‘ring a bell’ (sorry) personally for me, there are plenty of other similar sounds which have come to define places I have lived in, but which have abruptly been ‘removed’ by those in authority without any notice, let alone consultation.
There were the huge sirens for when someone ‘escaped’ from Broadmoor Hospital, replaced instead with an apparently ‘more efficient’ notification via social media! The last regular Monday morning tests at 10am which were such a feature of the local area where I grew up, and now reside again, were decommissioned around 2018.
Less of an impact on such a regular basis, but arguably more crucial were the flood sirens when I once briefly lived on the dunes, in the low lying North Norfolk coastal village of Winterton-on-Sea. They were to be set off in the event of the need of villagers to evacuate, but were decommissioned after 2008 after decades of service. More details here.
There are plenty of other collectors and makers who Jennifer Lucy Allan meets along the way, who demonstrate that she is not alone in her obsession, and she touches on some of their personalities, and the etiquettes and conventions of their ‘collections’, just as you would expect in any other world characterised by niche passion.
A central theme of the book is about automation, and about the loss of a direct link to working lives and the biographies of a place. These sounds are not just about navigation in the case of foghorns (or warnings in the case of flood or escape sirens), they are very much part of the soundscape of a place; part of its essence, its soul, its particular. Like many other features of our communities, we fail to appreciate them at its peril. I am glad that I heard the ‘call’ to read this book.
>> If you are going to buy the book (and I reckon you should), and can’t get to a local bookshop, order yours, like me via https://uk.bookshop.org/