There was a time, in the early 1900s, when fog horns bellowed out from all along Britain’s coastlines. Today, they’ve largely been silenced, but they still linger on in collective memories, informing notions of lonely seascapes and, at times, Britishness itself.
Jennifer Lucy Allan, an academic and self-confessed strange-sound hunter, charts the rise and fall of this powerful industrial horn. ‘A horn made to compete with the seas and the weather, that could parp, moan, holler and wail louder than anything else on the coast, that was big enough to shout down death.’
Other warning systems had been tried – explosives, gun shots, even underwater bells – but after a series of horror-filled shipwreckings, it was the men in charge of the new diaphones who warded sailors off rocks. They did so for around a century before modern navigation systems left them largely redundant.
Allan quests around coastlines to experience the exhilarating high of standing in the full force of a fog horn’s blast, a moment when conversation becomes impossible and all one can do is let the ‘vibrational bliss and rush of physical sound’ surge through one’s body.
Along the way, myths of madness, murder and drownings swirl around the foghorns and their compatriot lighthouses, in much the same way as the weather they were designed to protect against.
These sea-soaked yarns are utterly compelling and Allan’s own writing is quietly evocative. Yearning for the fog to roll into San Francisco Bay, she observes: ‘A white band on the horizon between the sky and the sea, as if a zip has opened to reveal creamy flesh. A paleness is spreading out without edges. It sits behind the line of buoys, a band where the bright golden light of the late afternoon sun is swallowed. The bells ring in a session… The fog is coming.’
It all coalesces to form a wonderfully original maritime journey that’s both a contemplation on Britain’s wildest coastal reaches and a reminder of how deeply sound and imagination shape our sense of place.
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