Graeme Thomson

The foghorn’s haunting hoot is a sad loss

It once saved countless sailors’ lives, but Jennifer Lucy Allan now hears in its melancholy note a Last Post for our industrial past

Jennifer Lucy Allan hears in the foghorn’s melancholy hoot a Last Post for our industrial past. Credit: Getty Images

Halfway through what must count as one of the more esoteric quests, Jennifer Lucy Allan finds herself on a hill near Birkenhead, in a cottage which houses the archive of the Association of Lighthouse Keepers. In a small bedroom long since surrendered to the past, she is handed a homemade CD of 90 foghorn recordings of ‘uncertain provenance’. Let’s call them Bootleg Blasts. She sits on the end of the single bed, craning her neck, ‘listening for more than what is there, listening for answers, listening for meaning’.

Allan is a British writer, journalist and broadcaster with a passion for experimental music:

I have had a long affair with ‘weird’ sounds and music. I am always chasing a feeling; one where the world around me drops away and I find myself momentarily, euphorically, in a new and wondrous place.

From Shetland to San Francisco, Dungeness to Jersey, Allan tracks her mooing Moby-Dick

Having spent years chasing this feeling via everything from Chilean psych rock, Japanese punk and ‘field recordings of icebergs melting’, in June 2013 she was radicalised by the ‘Foghorn Requiem’, an al fresco performance on the Tyneside coast devised by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, with a score by the composer Orlando Gough.

The piece mixed the sound of three brass bands, 50 ships honking offshore and one mighty diaphone located at Souter Point. As the final foghorn note ‘sang in broken-throated keening’, Allan heard the apotheosis of the alien, outsider music she had gravitated towards since her teenage years. She has since completed a PhD in foghorns. This book is an attempt to explain her obsession, mostly to herself. ‘I wonder if I am mad,’ she writes at one point. By the end it is fairly clear that she is not, though less obvious quite why this sound exerts such a powerful hold over her.

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