Artists and authors alike turn to the lighthouse as a meaningful symbol. Photo: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis
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Sinister structures or homely beacons: why lighthouses stand firm as a cultural symbol

Though they are rarely operational these days, lighthouses remain culturally powerful and maintain a strong hold on the imagination. 

In Tomm Moore’s marvellous Oscar-nominated cartoon Song of the Sea – currently on cinema release – a widower raises his young family on the west coast of Ireland after his wife dies in childbirth. At the centre of the story is Ben and his strained relationship with his younger sister Saoirse, who is still mute years past her infancy.

The family live an isolated life on an island, which the children’s grandmother calls “awful” and their home is a lighthouse, father Ben being the keeper. For a film that is about mythical Celtic sea creatures called selkies and the sea’s enveloping embrace, the choice of location is a fairly obvious one.

Lighthouses by necessity tower over the waves, yet they are not quite of the land either – most tend to be located either on rocks or promontories, far from any neighbouring buildings. They are outcrops of dry land built to take everything the elements can throw at them.

Song of the Sea (2014)

They also appear to be favourite locations for children’s films and books – before Song of the Sea, the British version of the Eighties Jim Henson show Fraggle Rock was set in a lighthouse presided over by Fulton Mackay and his dog Sprocket (as opposed to the North American version set in a rag-and-bone shop).

Another show of the same era was The Adventures of Portland Bill, which also used a lighthouse as setting and its characters were all named after various maritime locations of the UK and Ireland. The largely forgotten 1977 Disney film Pete’s Dragon also had a lighthouse backdrop, as did one of Tove Jansson’s later Moomin novels, Moominpapa at Sea

What is it that children like about lighthouses then? Or rather, what makers of children’s film and TV believe kids to like about them? Their novelty is undoubtedly one attraction – lighthouses are by default monumental, all the more so for the fact they usually stand out starkly against a bare coastal landscape. Many of them are striped for greater visibility and they are, or at least were until quite recently functional.

It’s not hard to imagine children getting a kick out of the notion of living in a lighthouse, close to the sea, its inhabitants fulfilling a vital task and, most importantly of all, there aren’t enough lighthouses for every girl and boy, so it unlikely that your friends would be able to live in one too.

Where an adult might find the interiors of lighthouses claustrophobic and restrictive, younger people probably see them as cosier and homely. This is certainly the impression given by Song of the Sea, with its characters depicted snugly ensconced amid the spandrels and alcoves.

But children tend not to focus too much on the impracticalities of their wishes – the geopolitical implications of being a princess don’t loom too prominently in the minds of little girls – and there are few parents willing to oblige their offspring by buying a lighthouse to move into. 

Still, there are some grown-ups who fancy the life in a lighthouse. After decades of automation which vacated lighthouses of their operating residents, decommissioned towers are now being snapped up by enthusiasts for conversion into homes.

Some might be attracted by the sea, others by the lack of neighbours within any appreciable distance, there are more still who might simply be youngsters at heart. It has to be said though that there is a divergence in the attitudes towards lighthouses among children and adults – at least, that is, if their respective cultural portrayals are anything to go by.

It is not for nothing that the formative incident in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (the most famous one in literature, surely) is a child’s wish to go and visit a lighthouse while on holiday on Skye, a wish that is stymied by the overly cautious concern of his father. Resolution is only reached a decade later, after the family, the Ramseys, have experienced death and war and they finally pay the visit to the lighthouse. There is aesthetic reconciliation too, with Lily Briscoe completing her long-planned lighthouse painting (the structures are a perennial favourite of amateur painters, and quite a few professionals too).

Though the robust majesty of lighthouses features in many a seascape, from Neoclassicism through Romanticism to Impressionism, in the 19th-century lighthouses began to take on a more ambiguous cast in narrative fiction.

It all started with Edgar Allan Poe’s unfinished short story, popularly known as The Light-House, which has intrigued literary scholars and writers alike, with its tantalising intimation of what might have been. The nobleman narrating the tale speaks of his increasing discomfort at the Nordic lighthouse he has just taken up residence in, noting at the end of the fragment that the structure appears to be “like chalk”.

Lighthouses tend to be far sturdier than that (it took an earthquake to destroy the great one at Pharos, and a Roman lighthouse at La Coruña, built in the 2nd century AD, is still standing and operational) but there is a clear echo of Roderick Usher and his crumbling abode in this fragment.

Ever since then writers and filmmakers have made much of the capacity for lighthouses to unsettle. Jules Verne’s posthumous novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World has a lighthouse, based on a real one on the Argentine island of Isla de los Estados near Tierra del Fuego, besieged by pirates. 

The Fog (1980)

The isolation of lighthouses is taken to its extreme here and later artists have played with the disorientation endowed by a building that exists to illuminate in the least favourable of weather conditions.

In John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), the residents of a California port are revisited by the ghosts of stricken mariners and the film deprives the lighthouse (where heroine Stevie Wayne broadcasts her radio show) of its sureness and safety. It is instead host to the frightening mysterious messages from the vengeful dead sailors and becomes engulfed in the titular fog and the terror it brings. The proto-slasher movie Tower of Evil (1973) and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) make lighthouses similarly sinister locales.

Their architecture makes them paradoxically insecure for the purposes of a film – safe and strong from the outside but once you’re in, you have very little room to wriggle, hemmed in by winding staircases and cramped alcoves. You don’t really want to get stuck in a lighthouse with a malignant force.

Tower of Evil (1973)

This ambiguous nature of lighthouses was foreshadowed by JMW Turner in his painting, The Beacon Light, which unlike most other paintings of lighthouses, reduces the structure to its light alone. Though the painting is a vigorous paean to the steadfastness of the beacon in the midst of a turbulent storm, there is also something unnerving about it. The lighthouse is scarcely visible – only the line of the clifftop and the beaming light give a clue to its whereabouts – and the tableau is a thrilling yet disquieting portrayal of the loneliness of a lighthouse battered by a tempest.

The word “beacon” naturally has overwhelmingly positive connotations, and the sight of one would have been welcomed by many a desperate sailor in distress, but the lighthouse is nonetheless a lonely, sometimes dark, place.

But handsome too and incredibly photogenic. And it is not as if lighthouses are inexorably overrun with sinister connotations, despite the efforts of artists of a gothic bent. Lighthouses are indeed skeumorphically versatile – they never fail to look recognisably like a lighthouse and they are adaptable in a near infinite proliferation of logos and used to sell everything from financial consulting to churches to beer.

The parabolic arcs the beacons describe across the dark night have a geometrical precision that is brilliantly conveyed by Song of the Sea’s animation, with its palette of two-dimensional planes and high-contrast solids (and also by the idents for Rob Reiner’s production company Castle Rock Entertainment).

Lighthouses are structures like few others and, even as technology has meant they are not quite so vital as they were in the past, there is still something about the sight of one that inspires both awe and admiration.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage