Saturday, 31 May 2014

A cellar full of noise

For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to mark students’ work in my office accompanied by the ambient noise of drilling and banging in the basement. God knows what the builders are doing down there, but the walls in my room have actually vibrated with their efforts. The odd thing is that I seem to be the only one bothered by the din. It has made me wonder about the subjectivity of noise, the way that certain sounds that some of us simply filter out can drive the rest of us to distraction.

I have just read Michael King’s biography of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, and am struck by how much the story of her life was a gradual retreat from extraneous noise. In her solitary bedsit in London in the 1950s, she tried to build a soundproof booth in the centre of the room, draped with towels and blankets, to keep out the noise of her landlady’s baby and a booming TV set. Back in New Zealand, she moved house any number of times simply to get away from the noise of motorcycles or barking dogs. On the suburban sounds of lawnmowers and do-it-yourself carpenters she wrote:

‘They are all an invasion of privacy. You wouldn’t let a stranger enter your house without knocking, so why let his noise come in unwanted? Chekhov made the same complaint, and in some meagre way I can compare myself to him. Silence and solitude are the only ways to get on with my work. If you want to write you must get on with it. There’s no point in socialising. When I was younger and leading a sort of hippie existence in London I used to go to the cafés and see all the young people who said they wanted to write. But if they had really wanted to write they wouldn’t have been there, would they? They’d have been in a quiet room getting on with it.’

According to Michael Foley in his book Embracing the Ordinary, Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust spent most of their only meeting with each other moaning about how much they were distracted by other people’s noise. Proust recommended that Bergson try Quiès ear plugs. ‘I have found that people are curiously insensitive to the nuisances they inflict on other people,’ the Orcardian poet George Mackay Brown wrote in his autobiography. ‘The air is full of noises; sound is thought to be a natural and acceptable background in the twentieth century. Silence is the thing to be dreaded.’ Brown was so sensitive to noise that, during a stay at a TB sanatorium, he grabbed his roommate’s transistor radio in a fit of rage and smashed it against the wall.

I don’t want to become like these people, aural versions of the fairy-tale princess distracted by the tiny pea under dozens of mattresses. I don’t have the talent to justify their neuroticism. But sometimes I can’t help agreeing with Jules Laforgue who wrote that ‘the modern world has embarked on a conspiracy to establish that silence does not exist’.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Have you noticed that the BBC keeps its silliest programmes, and its jokiest announcers, for those times in the morning and evening when people are on their way to and from work. It’s very significant. Why should the BBC choose those times to cover the land in a pall of fatuity? What is it about work that we have to be hurried to and from it by drivelling idiots?’ Alan Bennett, Getting On

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