Old Bag

Jenny Diski

  • BuyThe 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.

It’s true that I find the sound of high-pitched screaming to be actually painful, and have to put my fingers in my ears when a lorry or motorbike passes me on the street, while certain noises don’t reach my ears at all but stab me in the solar plexus and radiate through me like a blast wave. I’m not sure if hyperacusis is what I’ve got (some 2 per cent of people are believed to experience it) or if it’s the other way round, and my wished-for self-imposed isolation exacerbates my response to noise. In any case, I’m loath to find I have a ‘condition’. Apart from anything else, it wouldn’t be normal, but it also wouldn’t be normal in a really annoying way that makes me a sufferer, rather than someone who has a right not to hear the mechanical or thoughtless noises other people make however much they tell me they have to make them. On the whole, I prefer ‘selfish, miserable old cow’ to ‘victim of hyperacusis’.

Keizer partly defines noise with reference to Mary Douglas’s description of dirt as misplaced matter. Noise as aural dirt: unwanted sound. It fits too with the engineering definition of noise as interference which garbles meaningful signals. It’s only noise, as opposed to sound, when it troubles someone, or makes things (your activities, your life: listening to or playing music, reading, writing, watching TV, daydreaming) incoherent. The sound of 85 dB of Led Zeppelin or Chopin in a forest isn’t a noise – let’s suppose the birds and bees don’t mind – nor are they noise if you deliberately put them on your sound system. But, seeping into your awareness when you’re trying to do something (or nothing), Led Zeppelin and Chopin are nerve-frying babble. In addition to plain interfering with your life, loud enough sound is objectively – that is to say, measurably – unhealthy and causes hearing loss, raised blood pressure and increased risk of heart attack.

Clearly, too loud a sound and/or unwanted noise is not good for people, otherwise it wouldn’t have been used by the military and police as a form of torture. The Branch Davidians in Texas were bombarded with ‘the recorded shrieks of dying rabbits during the 1993 siege’ – strangely, as Keizer points out, ‘for the purpose of liberating allegedly abused children’. In 1989, the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was chased from his sanctuary in the Vatican Embassy with 24-hour loudspeakers playing heavy metal music and hard rock songs such as ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ by Twisted Sister. Also using heavy metal music (you can see a sort of military logic), the 361st PsyOps company of the US army ‘prepared the battlefield’ during the siege of Fallujah in 2004. And Binyam Mohamed recalls that his interrogators hung him up in a ‘pitch black room’ where there was ‘loud music, “Slim Shady” and Dr Dre, for 20 days’. Other songs reportedly used to break prisoners down include Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ and, less heavy and metal but perhaps even more terrible, Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s ‘I Love You’. Keizer adds: ‘When a country appropriates its most popular art forms in the service of torturing its enemies, is it not admitting repulsion at its own culture? … Were I a suspected Muslim terrorist undergoing torture, I would hang on to that thought to steel my resolve.’

In 1969, the International Music Council of Unesco passed a resolution denouncing ‘the intolerable infringement of individual freedom’ and declaring the ‘right of everyone to silence, because of the abusive use, in private and public places, of recorded or broadcast music’. It isn’t only amplified music, though, that drills into our heads. While noise as a disturbance has certainly increased at breakneck speed, with the work and pleasure machines of the industrial revolution (thank you, Stephenson, Wright brothers, Ford, Marconi and Edison), and the production of boy toys designed to add decibels to the exhilaration of speed – what Keizer calls ‘thrillcraft’: ‘dune buggies, swamp buggies, dirt bikes, ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), airboats, snowmobiles and jet skis (“personal watercraft”)’ – noise disturbance has a much more ancient history.

The interior noise of tinnitus was first mentioned with distaste on Egyptian papyri in the 16th century BCE, but complaints about troubling sounds imposed from outside go back thousands of years before that. Think of the terrible rumblings of volcanoes and thunder as you were trying to sleep or plan the next day’s hunting and gathering, to say nothing of people sharpening their arrowheads in the next cave (‘How many arrows does a person need for a morning’s hunting?’ perhaps the equivalent to ‘How many doors can one car possibly have to slam?’). Well before Yahweh tried to deal with the noise of men on the building site that became Babel, the Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that the world ‘bellowed like a wild bull’ and ‘Enlil heard the clamour and he said to the gods in council: “The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” So the gods agreed to exterminate mankind.’

I know about this godlike response because sometimes when I long for cold and rain to keep the kids out of the garden, and it is cold and does rain, I feel quite like some juju priest who has surprised herself with her actual power. I have come to believe myself to be responsible for precipitation in East Anglia. And then just think of those centuries of metal wheels, horseshoes and the clomping of clogs on cobbles, although if you were fine enough folk the local authorities would lay straw outside your house while you were in your bed dying. And the bells, the bells … Keizer quotes the women of Aurillac in central France, who in 1896 petitioned against their church’s tenor bell, which was ‘battering us about the head and instilling sadness and grief in our hearts, banishing the sweet thoughts and tender feelings that we harbour towards sex’. Their lurking Lysistratan threat isn’t going to work for me with the drummer and trampoliners, although the women’s description of their sadness and grief and loss of sweet thoughts echoes my own feelings with uncanny precision.

Street cries must have paralleled the monstrous call of the ice-cream van and the plumber eating lunch in his lorry with the engine running, the window open, the radio playing and him shouting above it on his mobile, ‘outside right now’ – and it always was writers who complained. It would be, I suppose, since everyone else was out at work (apart from homebound women, the unemployed, the sick, children and the old, none of whom counted then or now). Dickens, Tennyson and Carlyle were among the signatories of a letter in support of a Bill for the Suppression of Street Noises. Dickens complained to Parliament on behalf of all whining, stay-at-home writers about ‘the frightful noises in despite of which your correspondents have to gain their bread’, and doubtless also gained as little sympathy as I do (so get a proper job like everyone else); and Carlyle (as I did) built himself a soundproofed attic in his house in Cheyne Row in an attempt to silence the ‘pianos, parrots, dogs, fireworks … and the usual extortionist organ-grinders’ who ground their organs until their demented victims paid for them to leave and drive someone else crazy. Goethe, Ruskin and, not surprisingly, Schopenhauer did their own noise suffering in Europe.

If the writers weren’t actually deafened, the warriors were. Until the advent of Playstation-like drones that are controlled in the US and bomb in Pakistan, the noise of battle must have been intense and excruciating. In addition to the literal war cry of a charging battalion, there was the explosive arquebus, musket and cannon, the clash of steel and the screams of dying men and horses, while later, the unsilenced engines of tanks and overhead bombers damaged the hearing of those driving and flying them, at the same time as deafening (and maiming and killing) everyone outside and below. Unless you had one of those nice office jobs – though the clatter of the typing pool must have taken its toll – work, too, made people deaf in industrial numbers. Even before the din of factory machines, Keizer suggests, the sound of slaves being beaten or wailing their misery must have been an unwanted and annoying noise to those who owned them. And God himself (who we know has a still, small voice) has had to put up with all those making a joyful noise unto the Lord. There never was much peace and quiet to be found and noise has never been high on the list of environmental nuisances. Yet, when people want to honour someone or something, they’re likely to take a moment of silence, so there must be some recognition that sound and thoughtfulness might on occasion be inimical and that quiet reflection has a place in the world.

Keizer firmly rejects the notion put about in the 1960s (and earlier by Marinetti and the Futurists) that noise is radical and revolutionary and therefore a good thing for a stuck society. He offers two of his great musical loves as contrasting parables. He is a devotee of early and middle-period Coltrane – especially of those years when the pianist McCoy Tyner played in the quartet. Tyner and the drummer Elvin Jones left the group when Coltrane expanded it and started to explore free jazz. Coltrane began to blow notes that ruptured blood vessels in his nose. ‘All a musician can do,’ he said, ‘is to get closer to the sources of nature, and so feel that he is in communion with the natural laws.’ Tyner acknowledged that Coltrane’s musical search was a flight towards personal holiness but he couldn’t see himself ‘making any kind of contribution to that music. At times I couldn’t hear what anybody was doing! All I could hear was a lot of noise.’ Fine for Coltrane to make an ecstatic sound, but what about Tyner being unable, as a result, to make his? Around the same time, Keizer’s other musical deity told his backing band to ‘play fucking loud’ in response to a member of the audience yelling ‘Judas!’ at him. That was Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966. The year before in Newport, Rhode Island, during Dylan’s first public electric set, Pete Seeger was heard to misquote himself, above the boos and catcalls, yelling: ‘Goddamnit, it’s terrible! You can’t understand the words! If I had an axe I’d cut the cable right now!’ Keizer, my new decibel hero, and as fair as any noise-hating, silence-loving, Vermont-living, old-time hippie can be, takes Dylan’s side here: ‘The booers were the true noisemakers, a fact Dylan himself wryly pointed out: “I can’t put anybody down for coming and booing; after all, they paid to get in. They could have been maybe a little quieter and not so persistent, though.”’

I once read a biography of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame. It was very long, and in my recollection largely consisted of Frame in perpetual movement from one house to the next, each more isolated than the last, in a desperate attempt to find somewhere quiet to live and work. Wherever she went some noise would break through the peace and quiet, until eventually much more of her time was spent moving in search of silence than in writing. I do the other thing: keep still and try to drown the noise. I’ve triple-glazed windows, bought every kind of earplug to find one that doesn’t make me feel as if my head were exploding, and have crept up the scale of noise-cancelling headphones to arrive at the bank-breaking, unwieldy and heatwave-unfriendly Bose ear mufflers. I play white, pink and brown noise through a machine or via my headphones to baffle screams, barking dogs and bass thudding, but multicoloured noise is still noise and essentially caused by someone else, and what I almost never get is silence. The idea of noise-cancelling haunts me: I believe that somewhere there is a sound-wave-maker that tracks and becomes the exact opposite of screaming, barking and other people’s music, which, like an antimatter particle type thing, will create silence in my vicinity. In fact, the more you dread sound, the more you are on the alert for it and hear it (intermittent noise is worse than continuous noise because you are always waiting for it to begin again, begin again, begin …), and the more you plug your ears, the greater your sensitivity to sound becomes. The only solution, though unachievable by me, is to become a nicer, more tolerant person. That is, more normal.

The last time I asked the young man across the road to close his window while playing his CDs, he actually had his loudspeakers on the windowsill, pointing outwards. After another bad-tempered conversation and the slamming of his window, he put a note through the door. He was really surprised, he said, that old people of my generation didn’t appreciate Led Zeppelin, and he imagined we probably hadn’t smoked marijuana when we were young, and that was the cause of our not knowing how to enjoy ourselves. All he wanted was everyone’s happiness, but, he said, being told he couldn’t play his music as loud as he wanted caused him to feel very demoralised. I resisted the temptation to pop a copy of my book on the 1960s through his letterbox, which describes my somewhat wayward youth, or to explain to him that even at my highest and stonedest I’d never been big on Led Zeppelin – because one of the things about being young that the young don’t know is that you get older and wake in the middle of the night, excruciated at the memory of letters you wrote to complaining neighbours all those years ago. But his conviction that he should not be made to feel demoralised was startling. Apparently even the suggestion that it might demoralise him should give us pause when we think to complain about his noise. Clearly, he believed his rights were being violated and this is, of course, the crux of the noise problem. It seemed to me that he thought that his right to play music as loud as he wanted and not to be demoralised was greater than my right not to hear his music and not to be demoralised, because, being young, it was normal to play loud music, and the combination of normal and young trumped any rights anyone else (especially the old who didn’t appreciate Led Zeppelin) might have. Keizer has an appendix at the back of his morale-boosting and humane book for just such a discussion. It’s called ‘Answers to Arguable Statements’, because he knows that the distress of being told that someone has a right to make a noise – when you’ve told them you can hear their music/drumming at the back of the house with all your doors and windows closed – so agitates the rational mind that it prevents any kind of intelligible thought or response. To the statement, I have just as much right to make noise as you have to be quiet, he suggests replying:

You are absolutely correct – in your own dwelling, you do. But when your noise enters my dwelling, your ‘right’ stays at the door. In a public as opposed to a private space we each have a right to expect, and if need be to negotiate, our fair share of its enjoyment, but no one has the right to co-opt the entire space, including the entire acoustical space, for his or her own purposes.

That, put in other words, has already not worked, and thorough as Keizer’s book is, I can’t find any effective reply to the claim that making noise is normal (as indeed, I must suppose it is if you are young, or a modern or a human being or not abnormal), because that, it would seem, is all that needs to be said on the subject.