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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser