As I’ve gotten older, one of the things I’ve become increasingly aware of and averse to is noise. Ambient background noise that is present in all our day-to-day lives. Perhaps it’s because I’m a child of the seventies and grew up in a time when there wasn’t a twenty-four-hour culture. People were often indoors by ten o’clock during the week and Sundays were a day of rest. There were less cars on the roads, no mobile phones or music on the go and society by and large, was still bound by the unspoken code of being considerate to your neighbours. Parties and social gatherings were occasional and those having them usually informed everyone affected in advance. Many shared spaces were quiet by mutual consent.
Nowadays we live in a culture of noise. You cannot go shopping without being exposed to easy listening music or the instore radio station. Video screens blare out inanities while you queue to pay at the checkout. Even your car, train or bus hectors you with superfluous data while you travel. If you’re on foot you have to contend with the sheer volume of increased road traffic. Then of course there’s the people. The population in urban areas has increased significantly over the last thirty years and people are the biggest and most problematic source of noise. Even if you retreat to your home and turn on your TV, you’ll find the adverts louder than the programs that you watch. And unless you have robust noise insulation, the hubbub of the outside will slowly bleed through. There’s no respite from it all because of the twenty-four-hour society.
There’s also another layer to this change to the UK soundscape. Not only have noise levels changed but so has societies attitude towards it. Notions of privacy and consideration to others have slowly been eroded. The rise of the individual and “me, me, me” culture means we now have to endure other people’s phone calls on speaker. Listening to music via headphones is obviously a huge violation of a person civil liberties, thus we have to suffer the slings and arrows of someone listening to R&B on an iPhone. Libraries are no longer havens of tranquillity that they were and if you seek solitude while commuting you need to find a designated quiet carriage.
As a culture, it would appear that some have either lost or never learned the value of quiet time and tranquillity. One of the first lesson’s that I was taught as a child was that of being able to occupy myself. The value of silence and either focusing on an external matter or reflecting upon my own thoughts internally. All can be done quietly. Today, there seems to be a mindset of requiring continual external engagement and that being alone with one’s thought’s is something to be feared. It may possibly be because the absence of noise is utterly alien to many because they’ve never known such a world. I remember being on a school trip in Scotland in the early eighties and a friend commenting on the inherent quietness of the countryside. They found it to be unsettling and so they slept with the radio on.
The current culture of noise, also feeds the divide between introverts and extroverts. I sit somewhere between the two ends of this social spectrum but I do find exposure to incessant noise, especially that generated by people to be wearisome. Pubs, clubs and public spaces are often a sea of overwhelming white noise. Then there is the current societal affectation equating excitement with noise. Enthusiasm is measured by volume. Don’t believe me? Try watching ten minutes of The Jewellery Channel when there’s a sale on. It’s saps the strength from you continually being exposed to such behaviour. It’s like being trapped in The Goonies movie. The downside of such a culture is that it emotionally limits your options. If you become loud over trivia, where do you go when something truly significant happens?
The truly sad thing about noise, if you do consider it a social ill, is that your response to it is very much dictated by your personal circumstances. If you live in a neighbourhood that is noisy twenty-four-seven, then your only option is to move. Peace and quiet is a premium option and like everything in modern life, if you desire it then it will cost you. Thus, noise may be economically inescapable for some. I moved last summer and said goodbye to a very noisy environment. Where I currently live, there are times of tranquillity throughout the day. Yet because London keeps growing and expanding this luxury may vanish over time. I’ve never been a great one for holidays but I’m beginning to understand why people travel, simply to get away from it all. Seven days of near silence sounds like something to shout about to me, if you’ll excuse the pun.