Falling on deaf ears

I went into the cathedral. It was a boiling hot day, and inside it was blissfully cool. And something more -- it was quiet.

Many churches and cathedrals are not quiet at all. That’s not always wrong. Some sounds are absolutely essential in a church. Nothing is more glorious than a great cathedral choir. The sound of a congregation singing a good old hymn is glorious too. Voices raised in prayer are pleasing to God. Children’s voices in crescendos of excitement at a Nativity play are a joy. A reasonable buzz of neighbourly noise as a Sunday service ends is all right (but can’t some of the chatter be saved until outside, or over a cup of coffee in the church hall?).

But silence has its own glory – and not only in church. Today, we seem to be surrounded by interminable noise. Of course a lot of it can’t be helped -- no one seems yet to have invented a silent car, much less a bus or lorry or aeroplane. Traffic roars past our ears all the time: people living near airports get special grants of money to have double-glazing fitted, and people living in busy streets pay for their own. We shout at one another as we walk along the street with cars roaring past, or wait in noisy bus stations. It’s part of life -- the price we pay for the swift transport that has replaced the plod of a horse.

But a lot of noise is wholly avoidable. Some in the UK are dismayed at the trend among fellow Britons to turn their gardens, once spaces of reasonable peace, into "outdoor rooms" in which they cavort till all hours in summer -- just like, good heavens, Australians. The Noise Abatement Society has just published a report noting a 28 per cent increase in complaints last summer from neighbours fed up with the sound of people talking outside on mobile phones, shouting conversations and playing loud music around their barbecues. Like the familiar annoyances of barking dogs and noisy children, these new noises are accentuated by high-density city living.

Let me add a couple of bugbears of my own. I don’t want piped muzak in shops or in restaurants. I especially loathe it when it is a radio station that is being blared at me: inane comments interspersing pop songs. At the dentist, I asked if it could possibly be changed to a classical music station and my excellent dentist complied immediately and now changes the station as soon as I arrive: it’s kind, but he obviously regards it as an amiable eccentricity rather than as something normal.

Pubs are a roar of noise, partly because everyone must shout to compete with the pop music that is foisted on all -- and played loudly so that even those seated on tables outside are obliged to bear with it. (All is not lost, however -- one chain of pub-restaurants in Britain has banned music altogether -- hurrah! -- and is deservedly popular).

Some people have a constant noise in their homes by keeping the television switched on all day. I do understand that it might be a sort of companionship for those who live alone -- but what about busy families? How can they endure it? Their children then add pop music to the din while doing their homework.

Noise seems almost an addiction for some. Apple recently sold its 100 millionth iPod -- one for every 65 people on the planet, and counting. People jogging, people sitting in trains, people at home, have sound being piped into their ears at a rate never known before in history, and at decibels that can reach the level of pneumatic drill. Two years ago the Royal National Institute for the Deaf reported that 43 per cent of young people admitted to turning the volume up too high, and the institute expressed concern about what this might be doing to young ears. Has its warning fallen on deaf ears?

Because of the manufactured noise, people are noisier too. It’s now considered normal to shriek and yell in situations where, until comparatively recently, people would have got mildly annoyed or even laughed. The other day, at a crowded bus stop, a schoolgirl dropped some money from her purse. She let out a string of loud, filthy words, and when a friend accidentally jostled her as she was scrabbling for the money, a shouting match began. I had thought of helping to pick up the coins, but backed off. The noise was menacing.

I remember being puzzled as a teenager by the sight of crowds of girls on TV shrieking and shrieking at pop stars. It made me determined never, ever to go to a pop festival (never have, and I’m safely out of the age-range now).

Oh, for some peace and quiet. In the silence, you can hear things that matter: birdsong on a country walk, water lapping when you are by a river, the wind in the trees -- all those things that have always entranced and ought to be allowed to do so still, without being interrupted by the blare of pop from the couple ahead with their wretched radio.

The birds themselves are retreating from human noise. Robins are starting to sing more at night, something which has never been regarded as being normal for them, and one possibility is that they are confused by the over-use of artificial light which is now so prevalent in our towns and along our brightly-lit motorways. But apparently that’s not the case: it’s the sheer noise during the day that keeps them silent: they can’t compete, and the lady robins they hope to attract can’t hear them, so they are silent!

And there’s more. Sometimes silence can make human contact easier. Once in the quiet of a cathedral, I heard some one weeping. A great silent church can be a good place in which to cry. I proffered a tissue, and some silent solidarity. If she wanted help, she knew she some one was there. And the silence wasn’t menacing – it swallowed up the human sounds of a sob or a whispered conversation, and placed them in a normal context. Weeping in a noisy disco would mean some one shouting, "Are you OK? What’s wrong?" or hauling you outside just in order to communicate. The silence of the church invited companionship, made human bonds possible.

And while silence can be lovely, so can the buzz and hum of everyday activity -- people chatting on a bus, a playground full of children giggling and laughing and calling out or (very rarely these days, alas) chanting skipping-rhymes. It is so horrid when these things are drowned out by incessant blasts of pop, which robs a day of the sounds it ought to have.

I’m quite a noisy, talkative person. I like to chat, I enjoy a good laugh. I do some things rather loudly -- applauding, for instance (my husband is always embarrassed when I get over-enthusiastic at a concert). But I cherish silence. We all need it. Can we have a bit less noise, please?

Joanna Bogle writes from London


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