The Week in Radio: From felines to farts - an epic survey of sound

  • @FionaSturges

"Now you're talking," I thought as I checked out the blurb for Radio 4's Noise: a Human History, a mega-series told in 30 parts. If the likes of The Listening Project and The People's Songs – both hugely ambitious and beautifully made socio-historical documents – are anything to go by, size really does matter in radio.

Rolled out over several months and served in digestible portions, these epic series sit well with the likes of me who are thirsty for new facts but whose brains are of limited capacity after doing battle with Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time.

Yes, Noise: a Human History is a proper series, presented with terrific gravitas by the writer and academic Professor David Hendy. It takes us from prehistoric man saying "Ug" in a cave and dropping his club in astonishment as the word continued to echo around his head, and Seneca getting his toga in a twist at the racket of the Roman baths, to the maelstrom of activity and noise that was the 18th-century Edinburgh high street with its clattering carts, clanging tanners, and drovers noisily guiding livestock across the city for slaughter, which led the middle classes to hightail it to New Town.

Broadcast daily, the series has been going for a fortnight and it's already clear that 30 episodes are going to be nowhere near enough for me. That's not to suggest that Hendy is doing a bad job. It's just that these daily, pocket-sized aural vignettes are radio catnip and I'm not ready to give them up so soon.

In previous episodes, we have heard about the roots of human language and how they can be found in the rhythmic sounds of our bodies, notably heartbeats, breathing and walking. We have supped on the "singing wilderness" and how the sounds of living creatures became our calendars and our clocks. We have learned how the lives of monks were measured out in bells, and how the spoilsport Elizabethans railed against burping, spitting and breaking wind in front of others, acts which had previously been indulged freely.

Now we are just over halfway through the series and in the last week Hendy has uncovered the noises of colonising nations and how the "acoustic ammunition" of bells, trumpets, horns and gunfire helped powerful nations to conquer alien soundscapes, to terrify indigenous tribes and ultimately stamp their authority. He has also investigated the rising problem of eavesdropping that arose from 18th-century servants living cheek by jowl with their employers and how it landed adulterers in hot water, and sometimes in court.

Most unexpectedly, he has enlightened listeners to the strange events in Paris in the 1730s when apprentices at a printing shop, driven to sleepless distraction by nocturnal feline yowling, orchestrated the killing of hundreds of the city's cats. Some were bludgeoned, others were thrown of bonfires and, in front of jeering crowds, a select few were subjected to mock trials and hanged.

Noise: a Human History is full of these peculiarly random titbits that you would be unlikely to hear in any other context. Do you ever hear Schama or Starkey talking about cats being hanged or Elizabethans holding in farts for the sake of decorum? You do not.

Hendy's series is not about the science of sound but the effect of sound on human life – unconscious or otherwise – in particular times and places.

It's about power, control, social mores and anxiety. He plays hopscotch across the centuries and, in 15-minute bursts of brilliance, illustrates the limitlessness of his subject and of his imagination. The best thing we can do is be quiet and listen.