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Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

23 September 2009

Weird for sound

HEADLESS CAVALIERS MAY lure ghosthunters to dine on Knorr soup in draughty hotels, but auditory apparations seem rarer than visual ones.

In April 1665, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary:

This morning I was saluted with newes that the fleetes, ours and the Dutch, were engaged, and that the guns were heard at Walthamstow to play all yesterday, and that Captain Teddiman’s legs were shot off in the Royall Katherine.

This was a false alarm. No such battle occurred until June that year off Lowestoft. Then, Londoners in boats on the Thames (doubtless quieter than the city’s streets) scored a perceptual hit by correctly detecting the sounds of distant gunfire.

Rumblings of less certain origin formed the legend of Francis Drake’s drum, whose disembodied beating Plymouth people claimed to have heard during times of conflict. Occasions included Napoleon’s arrival at the city’s harbour as a prisoner in 1815, the outbreak of the First World War, the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the start of the Falklands War.

Other legends of portentous sounds have much older beginnings. Edric the Wild was a Saxon nobleman from Shropshire who appeared in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 1067: ‘he fought with the castlemen at Hereford, and did them much harm’. He didn’t win, but at least he lived up to his name. The story of his resistance to the Normans was popular in the county and became the root of local myths lasting into the 19th century. The folklorist Jacqueline Simpson relates an account by a Miss Burne:

He cannot die, they say, till all the wrong has been made right, and England has returned to the same state in which it was before the troubles of his days. Meanwhile he is condemned to inhabit the lead mines as a punishment for having allowed himself to be deceived by the Conqueror’s fair words into submitting to him. So there he dwells, with his wife and his whole train. The miners call them “the Old Men,” and sometimes hear them knocking, and wherever they knock the best lodes are to be found.

Above ground, some auditory apparations had more ominous meanings. Jabez Allies, a 19th century writer, recorded the legend of the Seven Whistlers in Antiquities and Folklore of Worcestershire:

I have been informed by Mr J. Pressdee, of Worcester, that, when a boy, he used to hear the country people talk a good deal about the “Seven Whistlers,” and that he frequently heard his late grandfather, John Pressdee, who lived at Cuckold’s Knoll, in Suckley, say that oftentimes, at night, when he happened to be upon the hill by his house, he heard six out of the “Seven Whistlers” pass over his head, but that no more than six of them were ever heard by him, or by anyone else, to whistle at one time, and that should the seven whistle together the world would be at an end.

Allies guessed the legend’s likely origins:

It probably took its rise either from the occasional peculiar whistling of the wind, or from flights of wild fowl, such as plovers, widgeons, or teal, which sometimes fly at night, making a peculiar whistling noise.

London seems to lack tales of supernatural sounds. We don’t even have a Screaming Skull of our own. Maybe the city’s population has grown and shifted too fast for such stories to last long.

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