Noise, noise and more noise

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Weeds are plants in the wrong place. Sound in the wrong place is "noise". In rural Oxfordshire, Rossini, Haydn and Richard Strauss are now officially acoustic weeds. Leonard Ingrams and his wife were fined £1,000 for noise nuisance from their fiv e- year-old Garsington opera season. The opera is over before the fat lady sings.

Garsington Manor was previously best-known as the country home of the Bloomsbury set. Lytton Strachey had a notoriously high-pitched, almost castrato giggle, but neighbours then were more deferential. Battles over noise are a legal growth industry.

City dwellers who move to the country are astonished to find how noisy it is. One couple said they had to move bedrooms to avoid the mating rumpus of rabbits kept by their neighbours' daughter.

Nationally, complaints to environmental health officers have tripled in 10 years. Since last January, they can switch off unruly car alarms (though they must search for the owner before breaking into the car). A national survey claimed that one in every hundred people had their home life "totally spoiled" by noise. The Mail on Sunday is campaigning to make unneighbourly noise a crime under English law, instead of a civil offence. (The paper probably had reggae parties in mind, rather than The Barber of Seville.) The government has set up a task force.

Anxiety about noise is all-pervasive. Till a generation ago, smoke was the classic nuisance. But the mill chimneys have been knocked down. The home fires burn only gas. More typical now are the rows that surround the attempts to increase night flights atHeathrow airport. On the same day that the magistrates ticked off Rossini, the citizens who live under the noisy flight paths persuaded the High Court to scupper the Department of Transport's plans.

Noisy Heathrow is as central to London's economy as smoky worsted mills were to Bradford. On most counts it is the world's greatest airport, and no one who goes to live anywhere near it can claim ignorance of its proliferating growth. Yorkshiremen gave their mills a grudging acceptance: "Where there's muck, there's brass." No equivalent acoustic proverb has yet emerged. It is more like: "Where there's noise, there's a lawsuit."

You could call it a conspiracy for silence.