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.

Photo: Alamy
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Chain of command: how the office lanyard took over corporate culture

“I realised that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

Compulsory lanyards arrived at BBC Broadcasting House in January 1991. Until then, a cursory flash of your staff card to the uniformed commissionaire would do. The Gulf War changed all that.

News trainees like me were pulled back from our regional radio attachments across the nation to serve the so-called Scud FM. In 12-hour shifts, we recorded CNN output on giant reel-to-reel tape machines, cutting packages to feed the rolling news. There were so many new faces, and the bead-chain lanyards gave a semblance of organisation.

Barely out of university, some of us were thinking: emergency civic responsibility. We had only seen lanyards worn in those 1970s and 1980s panic films such as WarGames. We were young outsiders getting access to the establishment.

Two 1990s television shows gave us our figureheads: Agent Dana Scully in The X-Files, flashing her FBI ID at every opportunity, and later Allison Janney’s C J Cregg in The West Wing, who embodied the idea of the female who had broken through, thoroughly qualified to run the operation. The lanyard was their symbol of arrival and as much of a challenge to the old order as their brightly coloured pantsuits were.

In a recent reassessment of the liberal love affair with The West Wing, Current Affairs magazine mocked fans who “think a lanyard is a talisman that grants wishes and wards off evil”. But it’s a good summary of how it felt then.

The novelist Bill Beverly, who grew up in the US Midwest, confirms my suspicion that the lanyard’s 1990s appeal lay in its historic gendered status: “They were for gym teachers and coaches. A lanyard for one’s whistle, for one’s stopwatch, for other elements of communication and control.”

Unlike military dog tags, which remained hidden, the lanyard was about publicly declaring that you belonged. Corporations, introducing them long before electronic scanner-gate entry became the norm, benefited from their identity as a symbol of cool access. Think of the Wayne’s World films, in which the backstage VIP lanyard is a celebratory badge of entry.

Over the years, lanyards have come to reveal so much about status. One charity worker, who asked to remain anonymous, has noticed who does and doesn’t wear them outside NHS hospitals: “I used to get the Tube into London Bridge and you’d see all the young doctors from Guy’s wearing their lanyards, quite proud. You never saw nurses or porters wearing theirs.”

At a big charity with compulsory lanyards for security cards, she saw tribal divisions: “The fundraising and facilities people all wore the work lanyard they gave you. But in public affairs and marketing and design, we all wore our own lanyards and turned our photo ID around. The electronic thing still worked, but no one could see your face. I realised within weeks that I had to sort myself out with a new lanyard or I was going to struggle with my tribe.”

When she moved to a small women’s charity, a more conventional rebellion emerged over corporate conformity: “I noticed they still needed an electronic card to get into the building. I was used to wearing a lanyard with one on, so I took a handful of nice ones in with me and gave them each one, and every one of the women just looked at me and went, ‘We’re not wearing that.’ It was the absolute opposite of command and control.”

At the Labour party conference last September, she saw how lanyards affected the mood. She observes that, as well as the standard union-sponsored lanyard, many members of Momentum were wearing a special lanyard with the Palestinian flag colours. “They really stuck out because they were like a party within a party,” she recalls. “Inside, they moved in packs. It was like the savannah – much more divided, even among the MPs.”

Journalists in the US have a tradition of bonding through novelty press cards on lanyards. One enterprising hack made them during the 1996 O J Simpson civil trial, with mugshots for each significant calendar date: Hallowe’en horror, Christmas, a Thanksgiving one featuring Simpson in a pilgrim hat with a turkey and the slogan “I’ll carve”.

Such small-scale rebellions over how we wear our lanyards are a distraction. Wearing our data around our necks, even displaying it boastfully, seems, in hindsight, a preparation for the normalisation of giving out our personal data online to corporations that can predict where we’ll go and how we’ll consume. If you have nothing to hide, what does it matter?

Twenty-six years on from my first encounter with it, in the new open-plan BBC Broadcasting House, lanyard-based security is much tighter for many reasons (including a break-in by a bunch of teens who found an unmanned door to the newsroom and wandered around posting rather giggly videos online).

There are still gestures of defiance. One colleague used to wear 20 or more lanyards collected from dozens of BBC buildings, twisted into a kind of giant wreath, like a Grand Prix winner.

My defeat lies in the way that I wear a second special labelled lanyard around my neck for the one day in the year that I might need access to a tiny, cordoned-off BBC area outside the Royal Albert Hall to record a line of voice track in an outside broadcast van.

Lanyards may have given us access but in accepting the myth of entry to august institutions, we are tagged and controlled for ever. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder