My eight year old son has disappeared off to a late night swimming party.
It’s very quiet. He’s not due back until twenty past eight.
He was hopping from one foot to the other for two hours beforehand. It is his best friend’s party; his fellow egghead, his little mate, his playground pal. “What time is it?” he kept asking.
After his tenth enquiry Phil’s patience was thinning. I stepped in.
“Why don’t we use the timer on my iPhone?” I suggested. “Every time you want to know how much time is left, you can just pick it up and check.”
Anything which gave Felix uninterrupted use of the iPhone was a Good Idea, as far as he was concerned. I set the timer, but his hands were fidgeting and restless, itching to take over jurisdiction of this most promising of technological ingots.
A second later and he was muttering spells over it. “There’s just something I wanted to change,” he mumbled to the room in general.
He went through the entire set of alarm sounds to choose the right one. Indecisiveness is his middle name: he could not choose from the sweetie-shop of sounds available. Alien gabbles, submarine alarm hooters, Star Wars spaceship sirens, Caribbean steel-drum riffs, robots.
And I became aware that he could not stop himself from moving to the sounds. Each mime was incisively accurate: it was as if, at eight years old, he had already absorbed enough of this global culture of ours to know the physical shorthand for any leitmotif.
My daughter Maddie joined in. There they were, the two of them, with an act which could have drawn tenners at Covent Garden.
They clowned their way through each sound: slow-mo undersea walking for the spooky submarine sonar; they tutted and perused imaginary wristwatches at the glockenspiel ticking clock; I had eighties-style robotic dancing for the electronic digital ringtone, and some creditable moon landing walks for the sci-fi whine.
There was no end to the entertainment that iPhone alarm could provide.
And stepping out from the shadows in my mind’s eye was an older word than alarm. This was not alarm: it was closer to alarum.
Alarum is confused noise: but it is also bustle. It is this side of alarum which is different to alarm, which the Oxford Dictionary links to danger.
Shakespeare’s stage directions use it every now and then: it appears, for example,at the beginning of Henry VI, Part III when there is great alarum on the entrance of Richard Plantagenet along with his entourage: The Duke of York, Edward, Richard, Norfolk, Montague, Warwick, a lot of soldiers and, or course, a big drum.
Alarum is kerfuffle. It is military fuss. As I shop for definitions I find my favourite is Mirriam-Webster’s: “clamor, excitement, and feverish or disordered activity”.
Which is precisely what was going on in front of me in the moments before the party.
Needless to say, the alarum did not stop there. Felix was not just swimming: he and his friends were equipped with state of the art human hamsterballs. Everyone else, he insists, had oxygen in theirs but his had helium inside, for an involved set of reasons we won’t go into here. Thus (the story goes: was it tall?) his voice went all high as is the effect of helium, and he spent his time causing hilarity and alarum amongst his peers, squeaking at them in high-pitched tones.
Having worked all day, I put the dog on a lead and walked up into the forest at twilight. I wanted to run, and try a new hint of Phil’s. Take the iPod, he said: it’s much easier to run to music.
I hate shutting the sound of the forest with such alarum, but I did. What to play? I began with some Michael Jackson but it was just a bit too vacuous. Then I hit on the theme to Footloose – sung by Kenny Loggins. Perfect heartbeat-timed material with all the exuberance of my youth to back it up. I flew along, spurred by a very modern kind of alarum.
Deep in the forest, with the trees etched against the fading light, I stopped. I could hear something.
I took out my headphones to hear the forest’s own alarum: owls marking their territory with those beautiful, ethereal calls. I walked along, listening to that and the wind in the trees, and a fox barking somewhere. Somewhere ahead, a moving patch that was darker than the forest background indicated Mac the dog’s presence. The whole scene was extraordinarily comforting.
And then I put the headphones in: and ran all the way home to my favourite version of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
There are times when alarum has it place, even in this modern world.