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Monday, 19 October 2015


Is sound the most powerful of our senses?

My brother is frequently moved to tears when he experiences a performance of Cosi fan tutte. I have also had similar feelings from music, Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony for instance.

Last night I watched a documentary about RAF display teams covering the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Britain.

On the Tarmac invited guests sat in camp chairs to watch a fly past of Hurricanes and Spitfires. They included a 94 year old be-medalled pilot veteran of the battle, and as one would expect for someone of that age he sat dignified and immobile awaiting the arrival. As the fly past approached he became more animated and finally arose halfway from his chair and the expression on his face unfolded in a flash to enthralled excitement and in particular his aged eyes switched on like sparklers on Bonfire Night.  I reckon most of those guys thrived on the adrenalin in the same way as racing drivers do, but here it was just the sound of those Rolls Royce Merlin engines - so distinctive, evocative, and as emotional for me as the Tchaikovsky.

The Lancasters of Dam Busters fame had the same engines. Permission was given on that raid to over rev the engines for the steep climb out from the dams, and that, exceptional whining, almost screaming is memorably captured in the film.

I acknowledge I run the risk of romanticising aspects of a war that was appalling in all aspects and that should never be forgotten.


If you click in the top of the video it will take you to YouTube and you can then view full screen.


afootinthehills said...

The sense of smell is perhaps just as important Conrad. For about five years before I had sinus surgery in 2005, I had 'lost my sense of smell' and thus, my sense of taste too. No smell of coffee brewing or of food cooking; no meal or drink gave pleasure. On the hill, I could feel the summer breeze but it carried no smell of heather, no tang of the sea. No longer the scent of fresh grass after rain, no smell of the intake fields. No smells to trigger memories of hill days past.

All in all, the world was a colourless place even though I could see and hear.

gimmer said...

agree with afoot . . . -
smell is as blind as sound - and seems to work in the same pre-conscious way:
I remember the smell of a rope works in Newent we walked past when I was about 3 - a sort of grassy sweet light creosotey pitchy smell (this was a tar-proofing rope works) - which brings back that exact mental image instantly whenever I smell that smell - and nothing has changed in the centuries since to dull or fade that image.
But it is a pretty private sort of sense, whereas sound is, almost by definition, a public matter - sound and its use, like war, brings out the worst and best in people, working directly on the emotions - as you say, beyond consciousness
- so the 'deep, thrilling' sound of an engine that 'won the war' (like many other machines and deeds of which the same is said, of course) is bound to evoke the most powerful emotion-soaked memories in both the individual and the mass - whether of pride, terror or grief - but it must be the association of those particular notes with 'triumph' and 'victory' that evokes the deepest response: I have never heard a battleship's main horn at full blast but I am told that for those who have, and know the meaning of its full bellow, when they hear the still impressive sounds from today's big ships, they once again walk again those same quarterdecks, with the same pride, as in their glory days.
Both a bit like the effect a Churchillian roar must have had - as with de Gaulle, for whom the radio alone was his not-so-secret weapon - even later, he never used television when the matter was vital.
Triumphal noises perhaps, but all triumphs, from Rome onwards, at their heart, recognise loss and sacrifice and deliverance, not romanticisation in the sense you disavow (and of course if the general did stray into triumphalism, there was always that tribune at his ear, warning of the price of hubris).
So i don't think you need to fear being labelled either a romantic or a war-monger - just enjoy the thrill like the rest of us!

Sir Hugh said...

Afoot and gimmer - My opening sentence was of course rhetorical. I reckon there could be a case made for any of the senses and you have both championed smell in style, and I would not argue.

Gimmer - you might like to look at/hear:


Copy and paste the links, I don't think I can make them live here.

AlanR said...

Where i used to work was where the testing was done of the Merlin engines. The wall thickness was immense and the brickwork was as hard as nails. There was still some remnants left in the test bays but the majority of the kit was gone unfortunately. That was 1969 in Trafford park.
I have heard since that when the place was knocked down about 10 years ago the contractors had a right job to demolish it. They knew how to build in those times.