Old Bag

Jenny Diski

  • The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise by Garret Keizer
    PublicAffairs, 385 pp, £16.99, June 2010, ISBN 978 0 15 864855 2

The penultimate time I asked the young man over the way in my narrow terraced street to close his window when he played his CDs, he replied that the legally permitted decibel level was 85 dB and that he was not above it, would I like to see the read-out on his player and, by the way, I should ‘get a life’. I suggested that these particular rabbit-warren streets needed a degree of awareness of others, and he said from his window that he couldn’t care less about the local community or the people in it. When I and others in the street complained about his drumming during the day, his mother explained that it was good for him to have a passion and to express it. Recently, while I was sitting in the garden reading, the several children next door and their friends were jumping on the new giant trampoline and screaming beyond my pain threshold, while nursery music played to the smallest child sitting on the grass as her father gardened. He seemed astonished that the seven-foot-high fence between us didn’t keep the sound of music out of our garden and, sighing, turned it down a bit. Then I asked if the children could be told not to scream (idiotic, really, what’s a trampoline for if not to scream on, but what if the screaming disturbs someone doing something else and even actually hurts?). ‘Have you ever had kids?’ he snapped. ‘It’s normal!’ And I’ve been brooding about that normal ever since. Well, to tell the truth, I’ve been brooding about normal since I first learned to brood, but in this case, I suppose, the notion of the normality, naturalness and righteousness of children screaming comes in some vague way from Freud’s theory of repression, and the fear of what lethal form it might return in if they were prevented from disturbing the neighbours.

Over half-term both sides of the road (the teenage drummer and the ear-splitting trampoliners) went away. I paid attention to the make-up of the silence and noted an unusually powerful wind whipping through the trees in the back gardens, a small plane from the local airport humming overhead and what until recently I believed to be the actual sound of silence: a high-pitched, silvery zizzing. I mentioned this to someone to explain how I tell when it’s quiet enough, and they said, ‘What?’, not because they couldn’t hear me above the din, but because they didn’t know what I was talking about. The sound of silence, I was told to my surprise, is no sound. Apparently, I’ve had tinnitus all these years.

The tinnitus hasn’t bothered me – although lately it has been getting louder – but the sound of other people and their activity in the world bothered me to distraction even before I reached an age when I could simply be regarded as an unreasonable old bag out to spoil everyone’s fun and natural development. When I say ‘bothered to distraction’, I mean precisely a state of helplessness and eventually hopelessness. A sense of being overwhelmed and undermined and prevented from living my life (until my conversation with the boy opposite, I considered I had one). Noise coming in from elsewhere becomes an act of negation; a dismissal of my existence, or at any rate of the conditions I might find necessary for my normal existence. This, I grant, could sound extreme.

But if it is, it turns out I’m not alone and I was greatly relieved to discover that my horrid, unsocial responses to the sounds of other people entering my ears and therefore consciousness are clearly described in Garret Keizer’s book about the history and human (also animal) rights issues of noise. It wasn’t a complete surprise, as some time ago, feeling both enraged and guilty, I wrote on my blog about my loathing of other people’s noise, and got numbers of sympathetic comments, including one from a woman in New York who admitted that she had to have the three doors in her apartment closed between herself and her husband when he was clipping his toenails. There is apparently such a thing as hyperacusis (see www.hyperacusis.org):

Hyperacusis is defined as an inability to tolerate everyday sounds. It is also defined as a collapse of the normal range of hearing that is present in otherwise normally functioning ears. People with hyperacusis may find that certain sounds are more difficult to listen to than others, and some sounds may cause pain in the ears, even when those sounds don’t bother others. Often, the most disturbing or painful sounds can be sudden high-pitched noises like alarms, bus brakes, silverware and dishes, children’s screams and clapping. Many sounds that were previously perceived as normally loud or non-intrusive can be painful, annoying, seem amplified, or irritating. This is a very frustrating situation for most people as sound and noise are present in nearly every work, social or recreational setting.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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