Appropriately, “Foghorn’s Lament” opens with a Requiem. His Foghorn Requiem, performed on the cliffs of North East England in 2013, was created by multimedia his pair of artists and composers (and a cast of thousands). Across Britain, the fog horns were closing down in disrepair, and the coast was losing its characteristic tune. Requiem was conceived as a celebration of Foghorn’s history. It included her Dunkirk-class fleet of over fifty ships of all kinds, armed with three brass bands and fog horns of various tunings.
The piece of resistance was the “omnipotent” Suterpoint Foghorn: “two oversized trumpets” sat in a crouching whitewashed building, its mouth “gaping like a black doorway.” I wrote. underground and experimental music. (She is now a presenter for her BBC and also writes for The Guardian.)
To say that Alan’s musical tastes are eclectic would be an understatement. She seems happiest when her ears are “sandblasted” with a large amount of sound. Since participating in her Requiem, her “medicine” of choice has been fog horns of all kinds and types. Just being in the engine compartment of these behemoths, the smell of ‘diesel, grease and brasso’ is ‘heavenly’.
Newly obsessed with Foghorn, she is determined to discover all about the culture that accompanies Foghorn. Its sound, shape and history. The people who operated them, the scientists who improved them through research, the towns and villages that had to put up with the noise. She examines obscure records about fog horns in a Glasgow library. Literally, she is currently completing her PhD at Foghorn.
As she explores, Alan finds more and more things that pique her interest. At the iconic lighthouse, she rejoices at their voices. She dives into dusty archives to investigate the terrifying shipwrecks that have driven her search for effective ways to warn foggy sailors from dangerous shores. She is a fan of the picturesque language used in Victorian reports. John Tyndale (for the effect of the same name that makes the sky appear blue) attributes the unpredictability of how Foghorn blasts sound from afar to “atmospheric whimsy” and “as charming as a mischievous child”. It sounds like,” she says.
The authors take these often esoteric wells of knowledge as the basis for an argument that is far from dry academic inquiry. From world history to the meaning of music. She is particularly fascinated by differences and boundaries where one form transforms into another. From the layers of hot and cold swirling around her body in the midnight dips of the winter solstice, to fog horns, the twins’ most common association with hope and fear. It’s a motif that runs through the book. “Fog is the threshold, fog is the mood.”
As it spreads over land and sea, Foghorn’s blast changes, absorbing and reabsorbing any echoes it picks up. The sound, for the most part, initially confused the ears of coastal inhabitants, and since then has mellowed over time. Their descendants now mourn their loss. Foghorn lived a relatively short lifespan, but brought their own tales to the mythical springs that the coast has always inspired. Alan’s tenacity in pursuing her leads and methodically building connections to others turns several chapters of her book into a metaphysical feast.
“Foghorn’s Wail” is a book full of wonder. How many of you have heard of the Trinity House founded by Henry VIII? Not in Scotland, but curiously in Gibraltar, in England and Wales. It is by far the oldest and “more dignified and more independent” than similar organizations around the world.
As well as her bottomless curiosity, Alan writes wonderfully about her discoveries and where she got to. At the Lizard, the southernmost tip of the British Isles, “wild seas churn around tooth-sharp black rocks in a ferocious mouth.” Five hundred miles to the north, on the banks of the River Clyde, Foghorn’s voice “hits the streets and rattles people’s windows like a poltergeist.”
Alan’s first book, Foghorn’s Lament, is more than a history of Foghorn. In the course of her narrative, Jennifer Lucy Allan leads readers into meditative reflections on how humans approach change.
Thomas Urquhart is the author of For the Beauty of the Earth: Birding, Opera and Other Journeys. he lives in portland
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