Industrial lullabies: Jennifer Lucy Allan on Foghorns

Jennifer Lucy Allan is the author of new book, ‘The Foghorn’s Lament’. We spoke to Jennifer about the pleasures of listening to the overwhelming voices of foghorns across Britain.

The Demented Goddess [DG]: In an early chapter of your book, you cite the history of fog through songs, books and cities. From Ella Fitzgerald’s A Foggy Day in London Town to Dracula’s arrival in Whitby in fog and San Francisco’s fog, which has given its name to beers like Lost In The Fog, you trace fog’s relationship with longing, fear and appetites.

The San Francisco fog requires the horn to sound for an average of two and a half hours every day. It even has its own Twitter account, @karlthefog, (which, we note, has fallen mysteriously silent through the pandemic). On an instinctual level, do you find the sound of foghorns alarming or comforting?

 It depends whether I’m stood right underneath it or hearing it from a distance. A foghorn from a distance has been softened by the landscape it has travelled across to reach your ears, and lets you know someone else is out there, even if far away. It is definitely a comfort on a lonely night, can act upon us like an industrial lullaby. Underneath, it is loud enough to rattle your bones and send you into an animal panic – I crave this sort of sonic experience, and find overwhelming sounds to be soothing. Sensory overload can induce a meditative state. If a sound is loud enough to block everything else out, I can allow my mind to sink into it; to go towards it. It remains compelling to me, and a reminder not to be proscriptive about experience, that a foghorn is both alarming and comforting, depending on the individual.


“I crave this sort of sonic experience, and find overwhelming sounds to be soothing” – Jennifer Lucy Allan

DG: In a fog, we rely on sounds to steer. The suppression of certain noises during the pandemic allowed some of us to hear our everyday surroundings in anew. “It is hard,” you write, comparing your landlocked habits to lighthouse workers and port communities,  “to find magic in something you know well, in something you hear day in, day out.” What sounds in your regular environment absorbed your attention during the quieter periods of the pandemic?

We tune out many of the constant or regular sounds in our environment. Some we notice because they are irregular, stand out, or are a nuisance. During lockdown, I became irate at my upstairs neighbour’s failure to improve at the saxophone, and his insistence on playing Baker Street over and over again. I have since moved house and now I enjoy hearing the call to prayer from the mosque at the top of the road, whoever sings it has a beautiful timbre to their voice and I have to be in the garden at the right time of day to hear it. I noticed the calls of birds in the garden much more, as did so many others, but in lockdown I learned for the first time to recognise certain calls. We had a jay that came by occasionally and its grating squawk brought everyone out of their houses. Now I have a rowdy bunch of sparrows, mostly male, who sing so loud I imagine them shouting at each other: ‘lads, lads, lads – oi oi oi’

DG: In your book, you visit lighthouses across the UK. You note the “soothing moo” of the Sumbergh siren in the Shetlands and the overpowering, “distracting timbre” at Nash Point in Wales. Which was the single most memorable lighthouse horn you encountered on your travels, and why?

I was able to hear Sumburgh Head, Souter Point, and Nash Point on my travels, and there are lots more I wasn’t able to reach. I love them all for different reasons – they have such distinct characters, and listening to each contributed to different aspects of my thinking. The Nash Pont horn was the first one I heard and it was roaring rocket fuel for my research and writing. Souter Point horn was the moment I recognised the potential weight and meaning in the foghorn’s sound – when I realised it was more than just a novelty. Sumburgh is a very beautiful horn in an incredible part of the world, which showed me how this sound operates in an environment as part of a landscape.

DG: In The Foghorn’s Lament,  you write about how you find within the foghorn, “knots of power, safety, music and nostalgia”. Which musical instrument, composer or rock star makes you feel this combination of power, safety and nostalgia?

 That’s a good question! I genuinely don’t think there’s anything else which contains the same knots of meanings for me. However, I hope that through the book, other people find their own ‘big’ sounds­ – the ones they find compelling, which have multiple meanings and to which they feel connected to. Our listening is tangled by our biographies, our social and cultural backgrounds, by the physiological state of our ears, and the places we dwell in or pass through, and there is much pleasure to be found in the sounds around us.

DG: If you could choose any other sound to hear in the middle of night, what would it be?

I have always loved catching bedfellows talking in their sleep – direct communications from the dream world, one of the few encounters with language and visions that have the potential to be unfiltered, made all the more fascinating for being garbled and absurd.

The Foghorn’s Lament is out now, with White Rabbit Books.

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