Set the Alarum, Dear

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 Β 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 DictionaryΒ 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 ofΒ A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.

There are times when alarum has it place, even in this modern world.

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43 thoughts on “Set the Alarum, Dear

  1. Very nice, Kate. I’m going to sound ancient now, but give me the sounds of the forest anytime over ‘modern’ sounds and man-made music. I connected instantly with the forest’s own alarum!

  2. an entertaining vision of the sounds making the children do such different things

    we have just heard that ipods/mp3 players are being banned during races here as some play them so loudly they annoy other runners and can’t hear instructions. very sad

    1. Oh dear….I suppose they have a point: we do disappear into our own worlds when we put those earphones in, don’t we? It’s the only way I can run without thinking about how I’d like a break! Nothing like envisaging Kevin Bacon doing one of his dance routines to keep you going!

  3. A very engaging post and I always learn a little English literature and a tidbit of knowledge with each visit. Your description of Felix and Maddie miming was just so visual that I could see them doing the robot and marching to an under sea sound.

    I used to run through parks and light forests and I always turned off the sound to my Walkman (yes, I am that mush of a geezer) so I could enjoy the sounds of nature. It has its own rhythm and never fails to entertain.

    1. Which, of course, we invariably are, Andra! Most of the time I wouldn’t be seen dead with headphones on in the forest: but it really has made running decent distances a bit easier. I’m amazed: it was a bit of a ‘before and after’ thing, actually!

  4. I don’t run, but I imagine I’d need the ipod to get me going at all. I always have music on in the background and I think my body would revolt at the awfulness of running in the first place, without even any music to comfort it

  5. I think Footloose is an excellent choice. πŸ™‚ It definitely beats the many phone alarm options, playing in rapid succession. But the alarum seemed to miraculously pass the time until the party! I laughed at the image of your son muttering spells over your phone. Excellent way to describe it.

    1. There is nothing like a small boy and a hand held device, Angie πŸ˜€ Within a trice they’ve changed all your settings. I posted a while ago after he set Phil’s iPod to Chinese and we couldn’t even understand enough to put it back to English again!

  6. That is so funny: as you were discussing alurum i was saying ‘oh yup.. kerfuffle’, made me laugh when you popped in with exactly the same word! A word that says it all. And the absence of kerfuffle is so NICE! c

  7. I read your posts and the comments of others and my learning process continues (see, Angie?) almost daily. “Kerfuffle” is new to me, and “alarum” has a meaning all its own. Who knew?

    Then, today, I also get to giggle as I clearly see Felix incanting over your phone, and both children creating visuals to interpret those ringtones.

    Lastly, you’ve managed today to dredge up another of my past personas. In the 80’s, when I had a caretaking position at a private residential club (situated in a river valley in the wooded foothills of the Cascades In WA), one of my duties was walking “the rounds” to check on the well-being of the homes/cabins there. Properly done, such rounds could take at least an hour and were an almost daily opportunity to enjoy the woods, possibly scaring up a grouse from the underbrush, being sure to make just enough noise to give advance warning of my presence to anything larger than me (translate BEAR), standing in awe as salmon swam under my feet on the bridge, glimpsing the tops of mountains through the treetops . . . some of the best years of my life. (My current profile photo is the little cabin where we lived). On days when time for my rounds was limited and I needed to step up my pace, I often wore my small cassette player and briskly stepped out to Big Band music or this: http://youtu.be/17dP0QvjsOU Good cardio, and I never “ran” a step! πŸ™‚

    Thanks, again, for another great read.

  8. oh Kate. I’m working on a post just now and think you’ve captured the exact feeling that I am striving for and I didn’t even know it was called alarum.

  9. What a wonderful read this is for me today, Kate, as I sit, nursing a sore tooth, woozy on pain pills, the sun pouring in and a bit of need for some alarum to distract me. Thank you.

    Oh, did see Mr. Fox the other day, slinging past in the far recesses of our property. He stopped and looked at me for a minute, then went on his merry way.

  10. I did it, Kate…made it through the alarum of “The Woman In Black” without dire consequences. I held my breath and clutched the arms of my chair in a number of places. My mantra, “I will not think of this once it’s finished.”

    Actually, what kept going through my mind – throughout the movie – was how this would have been set on stage. Especially the scariest scene while he was in bed.

    Movie over, script writing done, I fell into a peaceful sleep.

    1. Ooooh, I am so pleased you gave it a go, Amy! The stage production is, I think, a masterpiece of suspense. Lots of silhouettes and lighting, a terrifying lead actress who is not even mentioned in the programme. A cathartic experience.

      Also glad you got a night’s sleep!

  11. I’m all about alarum/kerfuffle, etc etc.. I appreciate the sounds of nature, however, music while running or walking the pup is pure inspiration. I’m addicted to Pandora on my iPhone…everyday a new station/a new adventure, luv it ~

    1. It’s nice to be able to choose, silence with that pup of yours or some comforting kerfuffle πŸ™‚ And what a totally gorgeous pup he is! I have never seen him before on your site. So glad you put him up for all to adore. I’m a big fan.

  12. You’ve given me another new word, alarum. Kerfuffle I use πŸ™‚ Sounds like the perfect ending to a day of tension-filled work. I’d love to experience your forest sounds! I also must ask if Macaulay is “halo-free” by now? No unnecessary alarum this week! Debra

  13. I can bet the alarum also made party-time come closer without Felix knowing it. I would definitely hand him a tenner for the bustling entertainment he came up with, for you, and by proxy, for all of us. πŸ™‚

  14. The ability of kids to interface directly with the worlds technological and imaginary is extraordinary. Much like a dog’s ability, through pure excitement with the location, to instill an unshakable certainty that we’re really missing something when it comes to how awesome Outside can be.

    1. Deftly linked, Connor πŸ™‚ You wrote my conclusion for me! Outside can be more than one thing, I guess: there’s a cyberworld out there, as well as the beauty of acres of forest πŸ™‚

  15. That was nice – I could hear the rising noise throughout, and then the quiet sounds broke through – nice to be reminded that those sounds can always make themselves heard if we’re willing to listen for them.

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