PC 105 Sirens

Some sounds are very evocative and some words engage the imagination. My regular readers will know that Celina’s brother and family are firmly established in Estoril in Portugal and when her sister moves there in October, the focus of the family will shift from Rio de Janeiro to Estoril. We were there in July to soak up some sun …….. and at exactly 12 noon, a siren sounded over the town of Cascais, some 3 kilometres from Estoril.

Firstly the sound is evocative, as it ties my memory to the old Air Raid siren sounded in England before an imminent air raid during the Second World War; there was a slightly different sound at the ‘All Clear’. And before you think I actually heard them, I was born after the end of the war, so the memory is from watching films set in and around that time!! But was Cascais about to be attacked? No, of course not, this was a signal to indicate the hour, a single note noise. It probably started back in the late 1800s or early 1900s, used throughout the industrialised world to signal the start of work; there was probably one for the lunch break and one at the end of the day – indeed if you look up siren in a dictionary, it says “Factory siren or hooter …… a siren or steam whistle used as a signal for work to begin …. or finish.” The sound was produced by revolving perforated metal discs over a jet of compressed air or steam.

And in this week, the start of the new Academic Year in the United Kingdom, it has similarities to the school bell that signalled the start and finish of lessons.

If you have been watching the world news recently you may have heard, during the report of North Korea’s missile test flight across mainland Japan, an Air Raid Siren. Here is a siren being used in anger, as it were. Such a strange and mournful sound, rising and falling, a wail, a warning to the civilian population that they should head for some form of shelter. The converse of course is equally true, a signal for Civil Defence Forces to head for their work stations to help in the aftermath of whatever unfolds.

Normally the only sirens one hears on the streets are those of ambulances, fire engines, of those of a police car on its way to stop criminal activity or indeed at the end of the shift, to get through the heavy traffic and back to base (sorry, a bit cynical huh?). In The USA the sound for a police car is a perfect 4th, for an ambulance a perfect 5th and for a fire engine it’s a perfect 2nd. However, being musically almost tone deaf none of this means much to me!

At school I was taught Latin, initially by a chap who was the Mayor of Wells as well as a teacher. Inattention or mispronouncing a word got a clip around the ear with a wooden ruler. Later we ploughed through some syllabus but it’s all forgotten, apart from remembering the Dog Latin:

‘Caesar adsum jam forte, Brutus aderat, Caesar sic in omnibus, Brutus sic in at.’

which, when read aloud, sounds like:

‘Caesar had some jam for tea, Brutus had a rat, Caesar (was) sick in omnibus, Brutus             (was) sick in hat.’

I was useless. We probably read bits of Homer and other Greek writers but the whole library of Greek Mythology, that body of teachings and myths concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world etc was, and remains to this day, a complete mystery. Ulysses? The Odyssey? Jason and the Argonauts? Nah! But for some reason the word ‘siren’ stirs my imagination.



HJ Draper’s Ulysses and the Sirens

In Greek Mythology sirens were dangerous creatures who lured sailors with their enchanting music and voices towards the rocks of their island. They were incidentally all female, the daughters of the river god Achelous while their mother may have been Terpsichore, Melpomene, Steropre, or Chthon. These names may mean something to you but to me, it’s all Greek! In fact, how do you pronounce ‘Chthon’?

Ulysses escaped the danger of their songs by stopping his crew’s ears with wax so they were deaf to the sirens’ calls. Ulysses himself wanted to hear their song so had himself tied to the mast of his ship so he couldn’t steer his ship off its course. The classical painter Herbert James Draper was one who attempted to portray this struggle between good and evil, for the sirens were undoubtedly evil.

And who could not remember the 1994 film ‘Sirens’? Set in 1930’s Australia it tells the story of Tony, played by Hugh Grant, an Anglican priest newly arrived in Australia from the United Kingdom. He is asked to visit the notorious artist Norman Lindsay (Sam Neil), out of the church’s concern about a blasphemous painting of the crucifix that the artist plans to exhibit. Estella, (Tara Fitzgerald) the priest’s wife, accompanies him on the visit to the artist’s bucolic compound in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, where incidentally the film was made. There they meet Lindsay’s wife, Rose, two models (one Elle Macpherson), and the maid, all of whom pose for Lindsay.

As the story unfolds, both Tony and Estella find themselves observing the young women bathing naked in a nearby pool and instead of turning instantly away, each pauses to watch, betraying an underlying sensual interest in the lifestyle they outwardly deplore.

 Sirens from the film

Portia de Rossi, Elle Macpherson and Kate Fisher as the sirens

If you never saw the film, maybe that’s enough to whet your appetite to watch it now? The film uses the word ‘Siren’ to describe Lindsay’s three models, and also the message they portrayed – a siren call of their lives and surroundings, enticing and tempting others.

Just some scribbles as always!

Richard 9th September 2017

PS     A hooter, in addition to being a siren-like device, is also the slang for someone’s nose, generally those of the larger variety!

PPS Those of you old enough may remember a garment called a siren suit, consisting of one piece, the ‘jacket’ part of the trousers, so easy to put on in an emergency, much trumpeted by Sir Winston Churchill. His of course was ‘pinstripe’!!

Churchill's Siren Suit - pinstripe of course


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