It's the sound - A Remembrance Sunday meditation on the sound of the Merlin engine

It's the sound.

In the case of the song by Chris Wood (see video below - lyric at the bottom of this post) that we've just heard it is, of course, the utterly distinctive sound of the Spitfire and its liquid-cooled, V-12, 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin piston engine. This sound is contrasted with one of another kind, 'a land of hope and glory voice an anglo-klaxon over-blown.'

It's the sound.

Chris Wood heard this second kind of sound when in 2009 the far-right British National Party used a Spitfire on its election posters. Woods wrote this song because he felt that in appropriating this symbol they had gone too far and that the Spitfire was one symbol of national identity that he wanted back. (This song is on the excellent album Handmade Life which you can get here.)

It's the sound.

What are we to do with this sound? Is it just a neutral mechanical sound or does it disclose to us something grounding, reliable and hope giving that we should carefully note, especially on this day of Remembrance?

It is possible to raise this question and, in a very limited way answer it, because when we meet together on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday there is an extraordinary collective centring on a "place" - which I am going to call a "clearing" - in which the absence of sound (in the two minutes silence we observe) is contrasted by the presence of sound in the words of this address, our prayers and in our music. Of course, in our services these two elements are always in play but only on this day do we foreground silence to the point where the absence of sound carries a weight that clearly exceeds our usual privileging of sound.

But is it the really the silence that carries the weight, that is privileged? No, once again . . .

It's the sound.

Why? Well, for there to be what we are tempted to call "real" silence, there would have to be nothing and with nothing there could be no gathering together, no remembrance because all that we have called, all that we do call, and all that we will call "real" would be absent. So, in the first instance, I want us to see that it is not the absence of sound that carries the weight, that is privileged, rather it is our recognition that as we approach "it" somehow we brought to a "clearing" where we can notice not only the appearance of sound but, in truth, the appearance of anything at all.

Within the loose religious movement called Celtic spirituality such "places" or "clearings" have evocatively been called "thin" because there we can sense more than we usually do what we have called the divine. In a moment I'll return to this idea of thinness and, at the end, say something more. But firstly we need, briefly, to consider something called "tone". In respect of sounds this concerns the quality of any sound, its timbre and manner of expression and it is clear that Woods' wants us to hear in his second sound a brash over-blown tone that is not present in the sound of the Spitfire. He wants us to experience something of greater worth and trustworthiness in the sound of the Merlin engine that is absent, or at least far, far removed from what is found in the brash "anglo-klaxon" (this is Woods' coinage) sound. Once again . . .

It's the sound.

Now I happen to agree with Woods on this - and I don't doubt that you who are gathered here do too - but I want to push this a little further and see if there might be something more substantive to his and our claim about the worth and value of the tone of a Merlin engine.

Etymology is, as we know, not present meaning but there is something very interesting and useful to be gleaned from noting the etymology of the word "tone." It is derived from the Greek word "tonos" which means, literally, the act of stretching. It is akin with the Greek word "teinein" which means "to stretch" and which, in turn, gives us our English word "thin". All this is, of course, connected with sound because to make a drum you need to stretch tightly over a sound-box a thin animal skin. Once again . . .

It's the sound.

Now we can hold together "tone" and "thinness" I can tentatively suggest why the sound of the Spitfire's Merlin engine might truly be said to be of greater worth and trustworthiness than the "anglo-klaxon" and can tell us a truth by which we can both remember and live well.

Like Chris Woods I recall the many childhood summer days when the sound of a Spitfire emerged from the background sound of life and I was always taken to the thin "place" or "clearing" where being itself emerges. The sound arose - imperceptibly at first, growled around for a while, then withdrew. In it's emerging, it's growling (shining) forth, I was taken, not precisely to the edge of the world - and I'll come back to this thought in a moment - but to the beginning or the worlding of a world. Again . . .

It's the sound.

And it's a sound that today, as an adult, remains as capable of taking me to this "clearing" as it did when I was a child. Only three years ago in late-July I was lying quietly on my back in a secluded sunny glade on Fulbourn Fen when from the quiet of the day with its continuous background sounds of wind, leaves and birds suddenly, again at first almost imperceptibly, there emerged that sound. As it rose to it's growling peak, across the small patch of blue sky above me the Battle of Britain Memorial flight - six Merlin's in the form of a Spitfire, a Hurricane and a Lancaster - flew over. My glimpse of them lasted, of course, only a few seconds leaving the sound slowly withdrew into the background leaving just the present ambient sounds of the wind, the leaves and the birds.

It's the sound.

I'm not, of course, claiming here that this (or any other) sound can exist alone as pure sound. That is clearly nonsense for the sound we are exploring is that, and only that, produced by certain aircraft powered by Merlin engines and it is intimately tied up with an historical event - a brutal world war and the story of a particular people over whose heads the Merlin engine flew.

But for the Merlin engine sound to be itself most truly as this sound any interpretations associated with it must, I think, also be capable of gesturing towards this same "clearing" that is disclosed in the sound - this place at which being and its possibilities are gifted to us, this "clearing" in which we all arise at birth, where we all live for a time, and in which we will all withdraw at our death.

It's this insight that I think Chris Woods has got tentative hold of in his song 'Spitfires'. When Woods interprets the sound we see him speak of six things. Peace (for the Spitfire is an historical warplane not a present one), of the valuing of creative design (the draughtsman's pen), of equality in work which can bring that design forth (the girl's hand upon the lathe - ordinary men and women), of a community's stories and songs (Workers' Playtime) a pragmatic getting on with things (an oily rag or two) and, lastly, freedom from oppression and violence ('hanging a little fascist out to dry' - a line whose tone is the jaunty 'we're not afraid of you' fashion. It most certainly does not carry with it bellicose overtones). In the song all of these things are gathered together and ordered by the sound.

Peace, in the form of the sound of a warplane that no longer kills stands, then, as a reminder of war and, as such, can speak to us powerfully of a way of living that desires that all beings may arise, flourish and fulfil their possibilities before withdrawing again. In a peaceful community which is alert to this arising sound, this being present for a while sound, and this withdrawing sound, all the other things of which Woods sings are bound together and the sound is, in the words of Richard Polt, 'capable of bringing us home to ourselves' showing us 'how to dwell together amid things, making us perceive our own existence as something fresh and strange' (Heidegger: An Introduction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 136). You see . . .

It's the sound.

But, although this sound can shed a certain light on our being (the way we wish to live together and be able to go on) - and so can be said to reveal something - the revealing power of the Merlin's sound is always bound-up with its mysterious arising, growling around and withdrawal and, in its withdrawing, we are momentarily ushered into a "clearing" where we are aware we have come face to face with something deeply mysterious about our world. A mystery that is bound up with the fact that we are given life at all, that there is something and not nothing. It is in this "clearing" that we can most powerfully remember all lives lived and lives still to be lived because our world begins here.

But the "anglo-klaxon" interpretation of the sound doesn't gift us with such open possibilities of flourishing. It tells us from the start in an attenuated impoverished way what's what and what always should be what - it drowns out the complex sound of life and its manifold flourishing and replaces it with a deafening monotone - it tries to convince us that the sound of the Spitfire is fixed and ever-present. In short, it lies about the sound and it's own talking about the sound and never ushers us to a "clearing" where we confront the mystery of life - it never gifts.

The anglo-klaxon appropriation of the sound of the Merlin engine closes us off from the mystery of life and tries to make us believe that we are self-contained and self-sufficient; Chris Woods' appropriation of the sound in the song instead opens us up to the deep mystery of life (that there is something and not nothing) and discloses to us that we are gifted with life in a wholly mysterious way.

Is this why the sound of the Merlin engine has had such a special place in this country? Is it also a place where we can "root" the phenomenon of the increasing popularity of the two-minutes silence on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday?

It's the sound.

Before I finish I feel it is very important to say clearly that we need not experience this thin "place" or "clearing" to which the sound of the Merlin takes us as a boundary between two worlds - our own and the divine. It is important because, as I said in the introduction to the Lamentations of Jeremiah (which we sang earlier) our age has lost a sense of the sacred and we need to regain it. However, we cannot re-appropriate or revive Jeremiah's world-view and (theistic) understanding of the divine but must, instead, seek a disclosure of the sacred that can be gifted by our own world. In our own time and place it doesn't feel right to say we are "surrounded" by (or "grounded in") another silent world - what one medieval mystic called the 'cloud of unknowing' in which we discover God as a pure entity. All I can honestly say is that for me the "clearing" is the place and time where in my life I experience God not as another kind of being but simply as the giftedness of being that always discloses to us a world. In the kind of "clearing" opened up by the sound of the Merlin engine the world always and only begins - the arising, growling around (shining) and withdrawing of the Merlin's sound does not lead us to another world but always reintroduces us to the mystery and creative possibilities of *this* one. What better remembrance can there be than one which always brings us to the beginning - to life and to light?

It's the sound . . . (click on this link to hear the sound of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk2a).

(The address concluded by playing this sound and its fading into the ambient sound of singing birds).


Spitfires by Chris Woods
(From A Handmade Life)

Sometimes in our Kentish summer we still see spitfires in the sky - it's the sound.

We run outside to catch a glimpse as they go growling by - it's the sound.

There goes another England, sacrifice and derring do and a victory roll or two.

From the drawing board to the hand of the factory girl upon the lathe - it's the sound.

It's ordinary men and women with an ordinary part to play.

'Cause theirs was a gritty England, 'Workers'Playtime' got them through and an oily rag or two.

But sometimes I hear the story told in a voice that's not my own - it's the sound.

It's a land of hope and glory voice an anglo-klaxon over-blown - it's the sound.

Because theirs is another England, it hides behind the red, white and blue - 'Rule Britannia'? No thank-you.

Because when I hear them merlin engines in the white days of July - it's the sound.

They sing the song of how they hung a little fascist out to dry.


kbop said…
John Ramsey said…
Spitfires and Chris Wood has left a lasting impression on me that will stay with me forever. Being an aircraft enthusiast,the merlin engine has a sound of its own and brings tears to my eyes. It's also so significant today with the rise of the fascist right.The Merlin engine helped give them the freedom they have today.Well done Chris for highlighting this frightening fact.
Dear John,

Thanks for your comment -- much appreciated. When I gave this address five years ago I was very actively trying to alert people to the dangers of a resurgent, fascist right. In a "safe" place like Cambridge my message was heard by a few as "rather over the top, old chap". Alas, alas, that is, as you are clearly well aware, not proving to be the case -- indeed, I think I underestimated the speed and depth of the resurgence. I may well re-use (and revise) this address this coming Remembrance Sunday so thank you for drawing my attention back to it.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said…
When I first heard Spitfires it brought tears to my eyes. It is as significant today as it would have been during the war.The way everyone played their part.Being an aircraft enthusiast,the sound of those Merlin engines must have brought comfort to the nation and the fear of God into the Nazis.There's no other sound like it.Plus the fact with the rise of the fascist right makes even more significant today. The way they hijack our flag and hide behind false patrotism.The EDL and their evil followers would have been imprisoned during the war and hung for treason.
My Father and Father in Law fought against this filth to give them the freedom they have today.