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Caprices of the Atmosphere

My June 2021 review for The Wire of Jennifer Lucy Allan's book on foghorns

The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast
Jennifer Lucy Allan
White Rabbit 304pp

It seems appropriate that the daughter of the man who is said to have invented the foghorn was christened Euphemia, and that her mother died shortly after giving birth. The name means “well-spoken” (or “well-spoken of”) in a dead language, and the story is tinged with grief right from the start.

That combination pretty much sums up the foghorn: a device both famed for its emotionally resonant seaside dirges and synonymous with a certain breed of foreboding moodiness. Jennifer Lucy Allan shines light into the mist, and the mist of history alike, in a new book that traces the roughly 170 year arc of the foghorn’s existence: from innovative safety measure to ambivalently received coastal sentinel to what it is today, a fading cultural heirloom.

We learn about the tragic and frequent shipwrecks that led to the device’s invention, about the modern conservationists battling in recent years to save the foghorns themselves from destruction, and about the numerous inventors who contributed to its varied forms. Singular as the foghorn’s sound may appear to be, there is no single foghorn. There are sirens, and reed horns, and diaphones, the latter distinguished by, as Allan puts it (her always fine descriptions benefiting from years of experience writing about popular and esoteric music), the “meaty grunt” with which it “ends its honk.” We learn, as well, of the guns, bells, and explosions that played similar roles as coastal alarms — rivals that, quite obviously, never plucked at the same film noir heartstrings as the deep, bellowing moan of a voluminous, unseen horn.

As for those inventors, there is Michael Faraday, who in his seventies participated in a solution following a sea disaster near Newfoundland (he is better remembered for enclosed spaces: the cage that bears his name), and his more determined protégé, John Tyndall, who brought precision and a poetic ear to the effort. Allan writes admiringly of the latter’s descriptive prose, phrases like “acoustic clouds,” “undulating sea,” and “caprices of the atmosphere.” And, among others, there is Euphemia’s father, Robert Foulis, who may or may not in the mid-1800s have been inspired by hearing the lower notes of his daughter’s piano pierce the Nova Scotia fog.

The book draws from work Allan did toward her recent PhD on the foghorn at CRiSAP, University of the Arts London. One main difference, no doubt, is that in this book we also learn a lot about Allan herself. This is very much a first-person story. The title is The Foghorn’s Lament, but it is demonstratively Jennifer Lucy Allan’s The Foghorn’s Lament. Barely a page goes by without her own participation present. We travel the British coast with her, and fly to San Francisco, which she singles out for its association with her subject. We spend nights with her in hostels, and share her disappointment when a lengthy quest ends at a generic computer on a table in a windowless room.

This first-person material might seem a distraction. Do we need to know that Allan travels with bread and Marmite, or spent her 30th birthday in Tokyo doing karaoke, or fell for the Delta blues as a teenager? The answer is yes. Because the point of this book is that sound, even a sound as otherworldly as the foghorn’s — beloved by such fantasists as Bram Stoker, Nigel Kneale, and John Carpenter, and transformed by such composers as Bill Fontana, Ingram Marshall, and Hildegard Westerkamp — is best understood in real-world context, real-life context. Its sound means more when it maps the location in which it occurs, when it has “picked up those contours of the landscape that soften and shape its resonances.” Research into its fragile and, yes, cloudy history becomes tangible when we recognize the remnant documents exist “only because someone in a previous century also had an interest, or maybe an obsession, with ephemera like this.” The foghorn has been Allan’s obsession for nearly a decade, and the mist from which it truly emerges in this book is that of her own powerful curiosity.

This article I wrote originally appeared in the June 2021 issue (number 448) of The Wire. It had the following header: “A historical exploration of foghorns sounding warnings to ships approaching the shore in a storm reflects on their sonic and cultural legacy.”

By Marc Weidenbaum

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