The word obsession is overused. People say they are obsessed with something when what they mean is they have a passing interest. But Jennifer Lucy Allan is truly obsessed with foghorns, those obsolete warning honks around our coasts – not to be confused with ships’ horns. This esoteric obsession has taken her from Shetland to San Francisco, to a PhD on foghorns, a radio programme and now this original and absorbing book, which is much more interesting than a study of foghorns has any right to be.
Particularly entertaining are investigations into modern coastal folklore. Allan explores rumours that a decommissioned foghorn was used by a rave sound system, that lighthouse keepers developed speech patterns to fit around the horns’ blasts, that “sounds of second world war battles are still bouncing around in deep-sea trenches”, and that “fog money” was paid out to keepers who endured their din.
Her interest began in 2013 when she witnessed Foghorn Requiem, an open-air performance by brass bands, ships and foghorns around the cliffs at Souter Point lighthouse in South Shields. The “aural obliteration” of the foghorn and its emotional effect on the audience triggered a quest to understand its power. As well as visiting many archives, Allan spends time in Lizard, Cornwall, and a month staying at Sumburgh Head lighthouse in Shetland, described evocatively: “During the day, Sumburgh Head had been a place made of things I could see, but at night, it is made of things I can hear.”
The foghorn first appeared in the 1850s, although Allan discovers that its history is more complicated than it at first seems. She links the story with maritime history, industrialisation and post-industry, colonialism, cartography, acoustics, engineering, folklore and psychogeography.
Allan’s background is as a music journalist specialising in the experimental and avant garde. She is less interested in the machinery or the engineering, or indeed the horns themselves, than the “monstrous and melancholy” sound they create. She has had a long affair with “weird” sounds and lists some favourites: “Buddhist monks chanting for exorcisms”, “field recording of icebergs melting” and “brass stretched out into hour-long multiphonic drones”. But foghorns have been the biggest revelation to her – each has as different sonority, with individual patterns of blasts created by diaphones or other mechanisms. “There is no other sound tied so deeply to a type of weather, and no machine sounds quite that massive,” she notes with awe.
Allan is particularly concerned with how these sounds are connected to identity and emotion. Listening to the horn at Sumburgh, she realises: “I had thought of the foghorn as a lonely sound, a big melancholic beast echoing into the vastness of the open sea, often to nobody at all. But it isn’t. This heaving machine is the sound of somebody else, the sound of civilisation and safety …” She is a writer willing to challenge her own preconceptions and change her mind. Her more romantic ideas about the sound of the horns are tempered by testimonies of those who lived nearby.
We are led through the development of foghorns, including alternative alert systems such as underwater bells. The book takes detours, exploring the organisation responsible for lighthouses, Trinity House, and how it made its wealth from a monopoly on dredging for ballast in the Thames. Allan admits “the mud raked from the riverbed might sound like a particularly tedious topic”, before proving this presumption wrong – describing how ballast transported stowaway seeds and creatures, causing unwitting species transplantation along trade routes around the world. This is typical of how the book makes connections.
Occasionally the leaps between these connections are too big, or stray into the nebulous, as anything using the word “liminal” tends to. A chapter on comparisons between bulls and foghorns claims “language describing machines as animals represents part of a bigger tension between the sacred and secular”, which is dubious. Maybe the horns simply sound like bulls. In exploring what she finds profound about foghorns, she has reached too far, but I admire her for reaching.
This kind of obsession is transporting, there is escape to be found in getting lost in a subject. The deeper we delve into foghorns, the better, with full enjoyment to be had by reading the informative, humorous endnotes.
Along the way, there are lots of interesting and often beautiful ideas about sound. When writing about sonar, Allan observes: “The topography of the sea comes to us in sound waves and the topography of the land comes through light and sight.” And we learn that, in San Francisco, where the sound of foghorns are so familiar, “the fogs themselves are said to be singing”.
The Foghorn’s Lament is a book to file between memoirs of lighthouse keepers (“foghorn bagging” being a more niche strand of “lighthouse bagging”, where enthusiasts attempt to visit as many as possible) and books about music, expanding the definition by exploring the territory between music and noise.
Foghorns are now almost obsolete, superseded by GPS onboard vessels, and a backup system of beeping electronic fog sirens further out to sea. The death of the foghorn is linked to the demise of industry, thus the honks evoke nostalgia. The book is a lament for a disappearing way of life – numbers of former lighthouse keepers diminish each year – but also an appeal to listen deeply. It shows how there can be “a whole world to discover in just one sound”.