I must apologise for bringing Thomas Dolby back to these pages with such indecent haste, but his showing/performance of The Invisible Lighthouse at the Tyneside Cinema resonated so strongly that I could not resist.
The film is a blend of autobiography (though whether the subject is Dolby or his beloved Suffolk coastline is a moot point) and documentary exploring the decommissioning of the lighthouse that illuminated his childhood bedroom. In doing so he also explored the fragility and validity of human memory; his own recollection of a catastrophic Aldeburgh conflagration, being slightly undermined by his mother’s observation that he was in another county when it occurred! He began to question how powerful the light had been since to his adult eye it seemed week and insignificant, though thanks to a 50-year-old copy of the Guinness Book of Records he was able to establish that the light had once been the brightest in the world.
His love of the North Sea coastline with its tidal erosion, wartime defences, UFO sightings and piercing lighthouse beams may be romanticised but has long formed part of the mythology of his oeuvre.
Perhaps this partly explained the appeal that his songs hold for me. This is after all the same grey sea that I have looked on for years, facing the same invaders, ravaged by similar natural forces, and protected by red and white monolithic guardians. The beam of Souter Lighthouse was as potent in the mind’s eye of my youth as Orford Ness was in his, and indeed it also held the title of world’s brightest at some point in its history. Souter has not troubled the night sky for 25 years and even its foghorn gave its last blast earlier this year.
I asked him how he might change the experience when he takes the film on tour in the US, for this seemed an essentially English experience. His response was that other than the addition of a second performer providing live foley (sound effects) he didn’t intend to change it at all, explaining that whilst the loss of the lighthouse was a real source of nostalgia for those neighbouring the North Sea, when taken further afield it becomes a metaphor for any significant artefact facing obsolescence, and therefore capable of generating a similar emotional response.
For me there was no need of metaphor for though the topography of the South Tyneside coast is very different to that of Suffolk, Souter may well face the same fate. The Leas car park, one of a pair used by visitors to lighthouse (which like Orford Ness is managed by the National Trust), closed several months ago following a cliff fall, and it will never re-open. It is currently being reclaimed by nature, as it awaits it’s sudden and inevitable descent to the shore.
The power of the sea is clear, the coast is scattered with limestone stacks and sea-washed caves.
So what would you mourn if its loss was imminent?
When I was small
I was in love, in love with everything
But now there’s only you
*Cloudburst at Shingle Street