A pain in the ears: the ubiquitous thump, thump of the noise thugs

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The Independent Online
THE CAMBRIDGE college that has forbidden building workers to whistle or make remarks to passing women students has got its priorities wrong. For one thing, I doubt that a single young woman is blessed with a sensibility so delicate that she is upset by an admiring shout from a building site. Much more to the point would be an injunction against the men playing radios while they work. Sexual harassment is the fashionable complaint, but electronic noise is the real torture of our times. The Hungarian diplomat who threatened building site workmen with a gun, maddened by their noise, was out of order of course, but if it was the sound of their radios played at full blast that upset him, he has my sympathy.

Against loud, continuous electronic music you are as powerless as against being tied up and beaten by thugs. And it is spreading, always louder, invading more and more parts of our lives. We need a Quiet Air Act as badly as a Clean Air Act.

I grew up in a house where music was played and sung loudly at all hours of the day and half the night. It was live music, though, which is limited in its duration by the energy of the performers; and it was kept indoors.

Electronic music is heard everywhere, and seems to be increasingly accepted as something we may not question and are obliged to live with. Some regard it as a treat they are eager to share with friends and strangers alike. The other day, at a National Trust garden, I drew up next to a car in which sat a comfortable looking middle-aged man, smoking his pipe and enjoying his radio with his windows wound down to give us all the benefit of his taste for old-fashioned romantic dance music. He was still sitting there in the car park when I came back, and the music was still wafting out into the country air. I think he felt he was performing a public service.

You have to assume the same about drivers who let music blare into the ears of every passing motorist and pedestrian. Minicab drivers often extend a similar courtesy to their passengers, and look hurt if you ask to have it turned off.

From the car park I could at least walk away. As far as shops go, too, after one visit in which you find yourself distracted and deafened by music, you can simply choose not to return. But what about the increasing number of shops that spill their electronic sound effects out over the pavements and up and down the street? There is no protection from them.

Hotels and restaurants are also danger spots. Enter a deliciously silent, empty bar or dining room and as often as not, when you have sat for five minutes enjoying the quiet, music will suddenly sprout from a pillar in the corner. If you ask, you are likely to be told it has been turned on expressly for your benefit. Proprietors tend to believe it attracts more than it repels, and that the majority of the human race does now require music with everything. For the minority, hotel and restaurant guides could try indicating silence by a symbol: a deleted loudspeaker, perhaps. It would do away with the terrible irony of choosing a place particularly recommended by Michelin as 'very quiet and secluded' only to find the voice of Frank Sinatra floating through its dining room.

Even home is vulnerable. I live in a terraced house with a strip of garden that backs on to another strip, more strips stretching away on each side. We are squeezed pretty close, although when we look out of our upper windows we survey a park-like oval of trees, grass and shrubs, split up by walls. They keep us, if not our sound- effects, apart.

Give or take builders working on the houses from time to time, and a normal number of parties, it is usually pretty quiet; and since many of us work at home and most of us sit in our gardens in summer, we are grateful for the peace. The worst breakdown in the fragile etiquette governing neighbourly noise happened a few summers back, with a sudden explosion of sound one Sunday morning. It seemed to be coming from every window and door of one particular house, and it was a tape, I suppose, of heavy rock music, played so loudly that it shook the eardrums, reverberated through the whole area and bounced off the walls. Sitting in your garden was out of the question. Even when you shut all your windows you could still hear the thump, thump, chunk, chunk, thump, thump. And it went on, and on. After two hours, I reached for pen and paper and wrote a note. It was an extremely polite and careful note, especially since I had no idea who lived in the house from which the music was coming. I suggested that whoever was responsible might not realise the effect it produced on others; and I wondered whether the volume might be lowered, or reduced by closed windows.

I walked round and posted my note through the door of the vibrating house. As I opened my own front door again the telephone was ringing. A stream of the rudest words I've ever heard - really foul, unprintable words - came pouring out. What was said was not entirely coherent, but it was threatening. I was accused of spoiling the speaker's innocent happiness. I had better look out. If I were a man he would come straight round and knock my head off. He took particular exception to the fact that I was a woman. So it went on, delivered with such ferocity that I had to hold the receiver at arm's length.

But the music stopped. A heavenly silence fell. People re- emerged into their gardens. The whistle of the robin and the song of the blackbirds and the thrush re- established themselves.

Since then I've asked myself whether I behaved badly. Perhaps I should have tried to enter into the feelings of the man. Perhaps he was celebrating something tremendous in the only way he knew, and I spoilt it for him. I can see how priggish I must have seemed, insisting on the principles of John Stuart Mill on that sunny day which my neighbour experienced so differently.

My son tells me I should understand that people enjoy hearing very loud noise in the open air. I still think they should enjoy it somewhere where we don't have to hear them. And after due consideration I don't believe I was wrong.

I am considering another priggish action. I am going to circulate all the houses around our gardens suggesting that we enter into some sort of agreement with one another not to play radios, tapes or other, electronic music with our windows open; and further, to restrain any builders working on the outsides of our houses from playing music. It may be ineffective, but it seems worth a try, pending government legislation. Like the men and women who started asking for clean air in the middle of the last century, I want to make a gesture, however small, against the battering of electronic music; and hope that others may make similar ones.

Neal Ascherson is on holiday