Pissed-off Toff wonders what it is that makes some noises unbearable, and comes up with his candidate for the most awful noise of all …
I recently made a long list of the noises that besiege the ears of modern city-dwellers and of Londoners in particular, and I then started to ask myself what it is about some noises that make them almost unbearable, whilst others are innoffensive or even soothing and agreeable.
On the scale of agreeable to unbearable, for example, I have a happy memory of waking up in a house outside a small town in northern Italy to the sound of a cock crowing and a church bell ringing. Similarly, when I lived abroad, an unidentified neighbour was training to be an opera singer, and the sound of her voice drifting in through my open windows was always welcome. At the other end of the scale, however, expose me to the ear-splitting screech of a police siren or the intolerable roar of a leaf-blower, and I become a man possessed.
What lies behind these different reactions?
Some of it is just personal. For example, I hardly mind the noise of aeroplanes, and yet in a restaurant I cannot sit near an air-conditioner or one of those large glass-fronted fridges that make a loud humming noise; just as I cannot – no: will not – try to have a conversation if the television is on in the background. These things lay me wide open to accusations of being neurotic. For me, however, they are torture. On the other hand, a friend of mine cannot bear the click-click noise made by the wheels of suitcases being pulled along a pavement, whereas it does not bother me at all … although I strongly object to people pulling their suitcases along the paths of public parks and thus destroying the peace of spaces that are there to offer a respite from the stresses of the city.
Which brings us to another consideration, namely that as much as the noise itself, it is the context in which we hear it that determines our reaction. Take screaming babies. If a baby is screaming next door, you put up with it because you realise that it’s hardly the parents’ fault. However, if you go to a gastro-pub and the couple at the next table have brought a baby with them that bawls throughout the meal, a large part of the annoyance is not the noise that the baby is making, but the unashamed selfishness of the parents in bringing it there at all, together with the fact that no manager will ever ever do anything about it.
Similarly, whilst I don’t mind the inane noise of a radio if I am at the barber’s shop, I cannot bear it first thing in the morning, when what I want is silence, rather than the intrusion into my life of pop music or round-the-clock news. That’s right: first thing in the morning, it’s got to be silence, or failing that, classical music.
Further reflection on this whole question suggests to me that the various noises we object to generally annoy us for three main reasons.
Firstly, some noises are by their nature ugly, enervating and intrusive. Screaming babies, of course. Or the endless loud drilling that Londoners must put up with, made even worse by the fact that even if some accursed property developer makes your life intolerable for months on end with massive building works, you receive no compensation. Indeed, quite the opposite, sometimes, because when works carried out by a new neighbour of mine recently made the flat I occupy impossible to be in during working hours, it was – incredibly – my neighbour who threatened to sue me, not the other way round. And now that the whole of London has turned into one vast building site, we all suffer while the developers line their pockets.
Then there are the noises which you might not initially think are ugly and intrusive, but which become so after a while. Take the screech of the parrots that have colonised London’s parks. When there were only a few of these exotic birds, their screeching didn’t much matter. Now, however, they are a plague. Similarly, a friend of mine who lives by the coast in Cornwall has developed a loathing for the sound of seagulls – an aversion which rather complicates her life.
We now come to the second reason why noises annoy us; and this is when they are pointless. It was some time in the early 1980s that I first heard the infuriating and entirely useless beep-beep that all buses and lorries now make when they reverse. My rooms at Oxford happened to overlook the coach station there, and the beeping noise was a constant low-level annoyance. Anyway, why the beeping just when they are reversing? Why not when they are going forwards too? And now the health ’n’ safety people have dreamed up another fatuous noise – the loud pre-recorded message that is automatically played whenever a lorry indicates left or right. “Attention! This vehicle is turning left!” it shouts. Of course it’s entirely useless, just another noise to contend with.
Another example of a pointless noise is police sirens – not only pointless because we can all see the flashing blue lights anyhow, but also ear-splittingly, agonisingly loud. So when a police car rushes by at break-neck speed, covered in aggressive high-visibility stripes, its lights flashing and its siren slicing through the brains of hundreds of innocent city-dwellers, I do not think: “Oh, there goes a nice policeman kindly doing his job for the general benefit! How glad I am that I live in a marvellous country where the police do such sterling work!!” On the contrary, I rail at the needless, self-important hysteria of the whole show and mouth obscenities which, if said directly to any officer of the law, would have me banged up in no time.
Now for my third and last criterion regarding what makes noises annoying. This is when you have no idea when they will stop. At least with a police siren or an aeroplane passing overhead, the noise comes and then goes. But how about a neighbour’s TV that is on too loud for hours on end? Or a powerful burglar alarm wailing for an indefinite length of time? Or the noise of a lorry’s engine idling under your window for what seems an eternity?
This is a particular hate of a friend of mine under whose office delivery vans will sometimes wait for hours on end without switching off their engines. It drives her mad. She isn’t worried about the spiralling national debt; mass immigration doesn’t much bother her; the numerous serious socio-economic problems that our country faces leave her cold. But get her on the topic of the engines of lorries left idling … it’s a noise she hates almost as much as I hate the noise of the helicopters that hover overhead for whole afternoons, achieving nothing while ruining what little peace the inhabitants of London might otherwise have hoped to enjoy.
Ah yes! Helicopters! Even as I write, a helicopter is hovering above, its loud drone driving me nuts; and it was there all yesterday, too, creating a sense of drama and tension that prompted me to fantasise about firing off an Exocet missile and blowing the accursed thing out of the sky. Was its presence there in any way necessary? No. It just gave the police something to do for an afternoon, a nice little jaunt in the skies, paid for by the taxpayer whose peace they are destroying.
What, then, is the very worst noise of all, the most hateful sound that modern life imposes on us? Assuming for a moment that we accept the three categories of annoyance that I have outlined above, the most annoying noise must, logically, be one that is at the same time 1.) loud and ugly; 2.) pointless; and 3.) of indefinite duration. Accordingly, I now put forward my own candidate for the most-hated noise of all time. It is the noise of a leaf-blower.
Firstly, the noise is very loud and very ugly. Secondly, the machine serves no good purpose. I have indeed observed gardeners blowing a few leaves round and round in circles for hours on end. That’s on one side of the flat where I life. On the other is a school where the boys take it in turns to clear the courtyard with a leaf-blower, and again it’s the same story. The boy blows a single leaf around for an eternity, with the noise, already awful enough, being amplified by the walls of the courtyard, whence it issues to infuriate the entire neighbourhood. And thirdly, of course, you never know when the noise will stop.
Yes, we all have our pet hates, and that is mine. The reader will not therefore be surprised to learn that when Pissed-off Toff is raised to the purple, his very first act, executed within minutes of assuming power, will be to have all police and ambulance sirens disenabled; all helicopters banned from hovering over cities; and all the leaf-blowers in the country confiscated and destroyed. Oh happy day!