Caught by the River

The Caught by the River Book of the Month: May

Andy Childs | 4th May 2021

Book of the Month is Jennifer Lucy Allan’s ‘The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast’; an odyssey told through the people who battled the sea and the sound, who lived with it and loathed it, and one woman’s intrepid voyage through the howling loneliness of nature. Andy Childs reviews.

Back in the day when all the best record shops had ‘listening booths’ and a rack of ‘American imports’, I used to haunt one such oasis in my home town where the staff graciously allowed me to listen to the latest U.S. releases knowing full well that I almost certainly didn’t have enough money to buy anything. That’s where, in 1968, I heard, mesmerised, the 6 minute opening cut, ‘Song For Our Ancestors’ from The Steve Miller Band’s second album Sailor. The track itself develops into a shimmering, atmospheric reverie but it’s the opening sound that gives the piece its arresting sense of space and tension and still holds me spellbound to this day. It’s the sound of multiple foghorns, with the ‘heaviness and space of Melville’ as one reviewer remarked. Engineer/producer Glyn Johns recorded the foghorns in San Francisco Bay — night and fog, a lonely sailor returns to the city of his dreams. We hear the foghorns of the ferry boats, the bay’s blackness brimming with hopes and inky peril. It’s the warning sound of the unknown; the insistent reminder that we are in opaque territory difficult to chart and predict.

‘Song For Our Ancestors’ doesn’t get a mention in Jennifer Lucy Allan’s outstanding and wonderfully eccentric book The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music Of The Coast, but she does reference a lot of other music and spends time in San Francisco discussing the foghorns there, as she does in many other locations, investigating every possible aspect of this monstrous sound machine and the industrial music it makes. For this is a book about a brilliantly unapologetic and self-confessed obsession — ‘not an obsession with a machine, but with a sound and its contexts’. It’s a book about foghorns — no escaping that — but it’s also about how we perceive sound, how it affects our lives and emotions, how we react to it, how we use it, and how and why we make it, how we live with it. On one level it’s a very personal book about the nature and history of a specific sound, but it’s also one that explores our relationship with our aural environment and how it can shape our emotional and intellectual responses to the world we live in. I’ve read it twice now; the first time with a growing sense of curiosity and fascination, and the second time with huge respect for the lengths to which Allan went to investigate every possible aspect of her obsession, and delight at the degree of passion and enthusiasm that she brings to the subject. It could all have been an exercise in nerdy tedium in the hands of a less talented and engaging writer than Allan, but her lively, questing prose propels the narrative into arcane territory that consistently intrigues.   

The book begins with a powerful description of a spectacular event called the Foghorn Requiem in June 2013 (you can watch several extracts on youtube; here’s one of them) — ‘a vast open-air performance that assembled three brass bands with a total of sixty-five players on the cliffs at Souter Point lighthouse in South Shields. They were joined by a motley flotilla of over fifty ships out in the North Sea’. If one is slightly sceptical when Allan writes ‘When silence settled, I stood frozen to the spot. A lump rose in my throat and my eyes watered. I looked around, and saw tears and glazed looks in the faces of the crowd’, by the end of the book you get it. Completely. Well, I did. 

Fittingly, the origins of the foghorn are rather murky and vague. Some say painter/engineer Robert Foulis invented the foghorn in Canada in the 1850s after realising that the low notes on the piano were heard more clearly than high notes in the fog. But that’s a theory that’s been hard to verify. What we do know though is that it was a much-needed aid to navigation at sea in conditions where lighthouses were ineffectual and where previous methods of warning, like ringing bells and cannon fire, were similarly inadequate. Allan’s dogged research into often chaotic archives provides very good historical background, particularly the pioneering large-scale foghorn tests conducted by Trinity House, the authority responsible for lighthouses in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar, at the South Foreland lighthouse on the Kent coast. The tests, conducted by eminent physicist John Tyndall, were deemed a success, producing ‘a useful warning sound, usually, even though it was not a gauge of location or distance in the same way as a lighthouse’. The first foghorn in the UK was installed in 1864 at Dungeness lighthouse, which Allan visits along with several other locations — the lighthouse on the southern tip of Shetland at Sumburgh Head, the Lizard, the Cloch foghorn on the Clyde, Nash point in South Wales, and of course San Francisco — foghorn city, where one newspaper article in the 1970s reported ‘ninety-one different sound signals’.

Allan not only describes the foghorns and the lighthouses they are associated with, she also immerses herself in the nature of fog, the coastal communities that have lived with fog and foghorns, and maritime history. Without getting bogged down in the technicalities she also talks about how foghorns actually work, and discovers a network of engineers who source old disused foghorn parts to re-contruct them. As someone who is essentially a music journalist and broadcaster though, Allan’s overriding pre-occupation is with the sound of foghorns — ‘the most perfect coastal music ever made’ — and she is consistently engaging and convincing in her impassioned involvement in the quest to find out what makes the sound of the foghorn so desolate, and so suggestive, and how sound has the power to create order out of chaos. It’s difficult to think of another sound that connects history, music, literature, science, and a sense of place and time with such an emotional impact.

As the title of the book implies, this is also a story of loss. Foghorns are generally a thing of the past now, replaced by GPS and an array of onboard electronic surveillance equipment that provides greater safety, even as it cocoons those at sea from the visceral experience of the elements. Two phrases of Allan’s stuck with me — ‘the foghorn remains a sound connected to the past, and it evokes the times it came from’ and ‘it’s a sound from beyond the grave but one that kept you out of it’. An inescapable air of melancholy pervades the closing chapters but in no way dampens Allan’s, or our, sense of delight in immersing ourselves in the world of these extraordinary instruments. This is a fabulous book about a unique sound, and a valuable addition to the literature that seeks to explain the function and meaning of sound in all our lives.

For those whose interest may have been aroused, I would also thoroughly recommend Jennifer Lucy Allan’s ‘The Foghorn Files’ postings on The Social Gathering website.


‘The Foghorn’s Lament’ is published by White Rabbit Books on 13 May. Buy a copy here (£16.99).