Our Captain Cried



To share a song is sacrament. And this week, that’s what we have done at the waterfront in Ipswich – the marina where the once-trickling Orwell River begins its turn into navigable estuary and, we imagine, onwards to Harwich and the sea; Harwich, from which the Mayflower sailed. Its trickles lead, inextricably, to the New World.

There, beside river/sea, we have shared a song through an artwork: a sonic installation called Clarion Call, using nearly 500 speakers around the top of quayside buildings, and recordings of a hundred and more women and girls singing. We’ve shared a song called Our Captain Cried All Hands, its melody from deep inside England, its lyric as universal as love or dread. I have heard it several times so far, and it is sacrament.

I heard it last weekend and it was different. In the first instance, because I was with my son. He calls it the Mermaids’ Song, and for him it comes from the sea and the sky – from voices scattered among the harboured boats, from the blue-grey sky and the eerie green of algae that coats water in patches. To him, it’s not an artwork – that is to say, not developed by a cunning mind – but a beautiful-yet-ordinary feature of life. It seems no different to him than the fact that sunshine sometimes follows rain, or that a boat can float on water but a stone submerges. There are places in his world where the Mermaids sing.

It felt different, too, because last weekend was the anniversary of my leave-taking, and that is the subject of this song:

The drums are beating loud, the pipes are playing,

I must be on my way, no longer staying.

I left the city of Pittsburgh on 27 October, 2012, after spending more than half my life there, and all of my adulthood. I left to pursue a new life, one I have found and for which I am forever grateful. But I knew, in that leave-taking, that there were aspects to my life in Pittsburgh that could never be replaced: that I was leaving forever the tight-knit community that defines that city and makes it ring with song. There are horrors to that city, too. Dreadful hatreds and divisions and angers. Yet I knew that I was taking leave of that city the way one might a true love, and in doing so, forsaking something vital.

In Clarion Call, voices sing this tune and these words, echoing off the shiny new waterfront developments and caressing the Tudor gates and being swallowed by the sea:

What makes you go abroad fighting for strangers

When you could stay at home free from dangers.

A few hours after Clarion Call’s voices vanished to vapour, a message dinged on my phone: Did I know any freelance reporters in Pittsburgh who could immediately cover an active shooter situation? A man, it quickly came to light – a heavily armed man, his mind deranged by the cancer of anti-semitism – had entered a synagogue and begun to shoot. You know the story.

It felt close: I lived in that neighbourhood for more than a decade. I knew people who were in that temple, hiding from bullets. Many of my friends lost their friends that day. And it also felt distant: I still feel for that city the way that I did for the years I called it home, but thousands of miles of ocean separate us.



In the middle of a less-than-nondescript car park near the Waterfront is an inexplicable brick wall. I’ve seen it before – parked beside it – but something about its nothingness has kept me from wondering about it. It’s a wall. That’s it.

I’d never noticed the small gate puncturing one side of the enclosure. Peer through it and you’ll see, among too-long grass and falling leaves, a scant few gravestones – lovingly clean despite age – emerging from the earth. The 150-year-old engravings are in Hebrew: this tiny plot, landlocked by car park, is the old Jewish cemetery of Ipswich.

There is a key, that’s obvious, but the car park attendants didn’t seem to know who – or didn’t feel like telling me. So I stood beside the gate a few days after the Pittsburgh shootings, and listened to Our Captain Cried sweep over the landscape. The men at the nearby car wash weren’t yet immune to it, stopping their work for a moment. I’ve seen football lads, 11am-lagers in hand, shut their mouths: there is, mostly, a religious respect given to this immersion. And there, beside the gate to the little plot, I did something that resembled a prayer.

This year’s SPILL Festival – of which Clarion Call is part – is on the theme of ‘Time’; it is ‘On Time’. But seeing some of the work, and listening again and again to Clarion Call, it is perhaps better considered to be themed on a subset of time: it is ‘On Survival’. The artists, performers, writers, musicians, everyone in this festival – and almost everyone of whom they sing or dance or meditate – is a survivor. There are no Powers-That-Be represented here; no one is celebrated for having become captain of industry or warlord. They are celebrated for having made it through to the other side of something. Often something wicked.

My son is right: Clarion Call isn’t ‘made’, it exists; it is part of the fabric. Folksong has very few topics, one of which is Survival. The survival of the songs, of the tunes, of the singers; of the characters in the lyrics, or the unnamed narrators who wrote their praises and curses. Clarion Call was made to commemorate the centenary of the First World War’s end. But it’s not about the boys going off to hang on the barbed wire: Our Captain Cried, in this version, is about the women, the girls, the children left behind. The survivors. The vapours they have become, which carry our prayers. The Great War – that’s one version. But for me, now, these voices are a different comfort. They are a version of the ‘dirge-like minor-key chants’ that inhabit a synagogue’s walls. I can still hear the song, the voices, the swoops of notes and crescendos and decrescendos, as being of the war. But in my heart, I know they are more personal than that.

It takes a Mermaid’s song to carry prayer across an ocean. How incredible then, how fortuitous, how deeply human it is that, in the moment of need, there was provision of a just such a ritual. People make rituals to survive. And we make art as rituals. The great rituals, and great artworks, are those that we can all see as comforting to our very particular sins and terrors. And the greatest artworks are those that do exactly that, yet allow us to commune in these individual comforts together. That is a sacrament and a Glory.

Clarion Call is there for the taking: it carries prayers across the ocean; it remembers and is itself a memory; it provides for the goyim compelled to sit shiva. We get what we need from it.

(All Souls Day, 2018.)

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