Review: The Odditorium—Foghorns and William Blake at the Brighton Spiegeltent

“The first ever show about foghorns and William Blake. But hopefully not the last.”

Review: The Odditorium—Foghorns and William Blake at the Brighton Spiegeltent

I was feeling a bit apprehensive as I waited for the beginning of this Odditorium. Was it because it seemed like the audience was composed chiefly of people over the age of 50 who eschewed masks indoors? Was it because I’d had my second vaccine dose that day and was feeling slightly donked? Was it because I’d clocked someone whose show I’d given an unfavourable review to recently and was worried they might have read it and then recognised me from my profile picture despite my mask? Possibly all of the above; thankfully all my concerns were defrayed by the appearance of David Bramwell, curator of peculiar and interesting spoken word stuff going back many years. He was a very light-touch presence in this show, though, only co-ordinating Q&As and introducing the speakers.

The first of these was Jennifer Lucy Allan, a musicologist and writer of The Foghorn’s Lament, which is, indeed, a book about foghorns. A dying breed now, in the age of GPS—and, according to Allan, not all that useful when they were in active use—they still retain a certain mystique and charm, which her talk detailed. She covered 19th century noise complaints, the setup and operation of the horns, and some of the horns’ cracking names: The Lizard, Wolf Rock, The Hawkser Mad Bull. My favourite part—in contrast to the reverence with which they’re treated by the author—was the bathos of the flippant and dismissive attitude of many of the lighthouse keepers to the horns being shut down; their seeming to regard them as a bit of a nuisance of which they were glad to be rid. Allan seemed a little uncomfortable initially, but really came alive during the audience Q&A, especially when she got to play foghorn DJ.

Following her was John Higgs, already a favourite of mine, talking about his new book William Blake Versus The World. There was a discussion of Blake’s unique place in the British cultural imaginary as a unifying figure across political tendencies and cultural divides—though, given the attention Higgs draws to the Church of England projecting the image of Urizen, a (Miltonianly) Satanic figure in Blake’s mythos, onto the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one wonders whether perhaps this is because many people misunderstand his work. Regardless, there is no doubt that Blake’s writings and paintings are tremendously resonant for a tremendous number of people, fully understood or not. “I don’t understand Blake, but I know he’s my boy”, as a friend of Higgs’ remarked. The audience, as seems to be becoming a theme this season, were lamentably keen to use the Q&A as “more of a comment than a question”, but Higgs was well able to wring something interesting out of it. Both speakers were excellent, and were duly rewarded afterward with a long queue at the book table.

The Odditorium returns on the 29th of June for a live performance of Chactonbury Rings: