Pissed-off Toff

Noise 4: Turn down the music? Are you mad?

in The Way We Live Now

Pissed-off Toff mulls over the difficulty of finding peaceful eateries and watering holes in the capital.

As time goes by, I am increasingly aware of the incessant noise which plagues the modern city-dweller, especially in London. Am I becoming ever more intolerant? Or is the noise of daily life really increasing non-stop?

Take, for example, a typical day in London, some time last week. Early in the morning I was woken up by a helicopter hovering above for what seemed like an eternity. Short of funds though they claim to be, the police must have bought a few new choppers, because this never used to happen. But now it’s an almost daily – and often nightly – nuisance. Sometimes it seems as though we are living in a war zone. Anyway, I tried to get back to sleep, but couldn’t.

Then, at eight o’clock sharp, the builders started up in the street outside my bedroom. The trouble with this stretch of road is that it acts as a sound-box, amplifying every noise. And these builders were nothing if not noisy. From a considerable height they were dropping various heavy objects into the back of a lorry far beneath, creating a loud bang every time, like the thud of a nearby field gun. To this cacophony was added the happy noise of a metal saw. Oh well: it was time to get up in any case.

In the afternoon, I had a reception to go to. On my way to the Underground, a police car hurtled past me, suddenly turning on its powerful siren as it did so. I almost jumped out of my skin. Then on the crowded platform below street level, the usual series of bossy announcements, all of them as annoying as they were unnecessary. “Let the customers off first!” (I’m not a ‘customer’, dammit! I’m a passenger.) “Move right down inside the carriage!” (All right, all right!) “This train is ready to depart. Stand clear of the doors!” (Oh do shut up!)

Inside the carriage, I found myself sitting opposite a boy of Asian extraction wearing headphones which were emitting a loud hissing sound. Not only this, but one of his legs was jiggling up and down infuriatingly. It so happens that nervous jiggly legs come quite far up my long list of pet hates. So I moved … only to find myself opposite a fat Cockney man who now decided that it was time to test the ring-tones on his smartphone for the benefit of the even fatter Cockney friend sitting beside him. Once more I moved, and this time found myself opposite a pretty Muslim girl in a hijab who was watching a loud video clip on her smartfone. Here, I reflected, was modern London in microcosm: no lack of ‘diversity’; no lack, either, of digital noise.

At the reception in a hired venue, the staff were numerous and attentive, the nibbles delicious, and the champagne plentiful. No expense had been spared … so much so that in the crowded main room with its bare wooden floor boards, a small hired band was performing enthusiastically, making it impossible to hear a word that anyone said. Yelling into the ear of the person I was trying to talk to, I suggested that we should retreat into a quiet side-room with – vitally – a thick carpet to absorb the noise, and here we were able to talk.

* * * * *

Noise-wise, then, that was a typical – even rather good – day in London Town.

What caused me to ruminate, however, was not the noise of the helicipter or of the building works; not the arrogance of the inevitable police siren, nor even the maddening selfishness of people on their smartphones. All of this one now expects. No, what the day brought home to me, yet again, is that even when you are in a public venue which in theory is meant to be enjoyable and relaxing, the noise nuisance is all too often intolerable … so much so that there are more and more bars, pubs and restaurants where I will not willingly go. 

Even the places without music can be impossible. I have a friend who lives in the country and likes to come up to London from time to time to see the bright lights. Not for him, therefore, a quiet drink in the flat where I live. So we agreed to meet up in a nearby bar-cum-brasserie. It was at the end of the day and the place was full of office workers winding down. The noise was indescribable. “I think we’d better go to your place after all,” he said. Similarly, I just won’t go inside busy pubs on, say, a Friday evening after work.

Then the places with music, almost always more or less loud. If I’m having a solitary half-pint, I don’t mind. But if I’m seeing a friend for a meal, the whole purpose is relaxation and conversation, and unless the music is discreet, I get twitchy. 

Of the last four times that I have eaten out with a friend, we have on three occasions found ourselves under loudspeakers which made relaxed conversation either difficult or impossible. On each of these occasions I asked for the music to be turned down. On the first occasion, the waiter did so readily. On the second, he did so unwillingly, making it clear that he thought I was some sort of loon. And on the third, the waitress agreed to turn the music down, but then didn’t; and when I asked again, she turned it down a little, and then turned it up again. If, finally, there was no music on the last of four most recent times I have eaten out, it was because I made sure to chose a restaurant where I knew there would not be any.

My most bizarre experience of this sort was at Brinkley’s in Hollywood Road in Chelsea, a while ago. The music was so loud that people were shouting to make themselves heard above it. Any sort of conversation was out of the question. I therefore approached the barman. “Could you turn it down a little,” I said. “We can’t hear ourselves think.” “I’m afraid I can’t oblige,” he replied. “Everyone’s making so much noise that they won’t hear the music if I turn it down.” This was not the time for a philosophical discussion concerning cause and effect, so I retreated, defeated.

All of which leads me to various conclusions. Firstly, music in bars and restaurants is in fact played for the benefit of the staff, not of the customers, most of whom are indifferent to it, and quite a few of whom actively dislike it. Secondly, most musicians performing in public spaces fail to understand that their job is not to deafen the customers, but to gently sooth them. And thirdly, the battle against noise was lost long ago.

* * * * *

Worst of all, by a long margin, is the noise of screaming babies, which is common now, even in quite expensive places where the customer might reasonably expect to be spared this particular form of torture. Whilst I have to admit that I have a low tolerance-level for noise, I cannot concede that screaming babies are acceptable in restaurants, under any circumstances. 

The other day, for example, I met up with a friend for a drink in the bar-cum-tearoom of the National Gallery. This place presumably sees itself as an upmarket venue, and I was looking forward to a relaxing half-hour. But no sooner had I arrived than a baby in a buggy by the table next to us started screaming, and would not stop. What was every bit as annoying as the noise was the sheer selfishness of the mother, who sat there quite unconcerned as the infant bawled its head off.

Nor, in these circumstances, is it always wise to approach the parents. Once only did I do so, in the Thomas Cubitt gastro-pub in Elizabeth Street. I was taking a friend out for a meal on her birthday. Nearby a baby started screaming. The meal, I reflected, was costing a fair bit. We weren’t in the café of a railway station. Why should anyone put up with this? After twenty minutes or so I had had enough, and went up to the parents and pointed out, as politely as I could, that their screaming child was ruining lunch for everyone.

The reaction took me by surprise. Eyes popping with rage, the father – a public school man in his early fifties – jumped up like a jack-in-the-box, put his face right up close to mine and started shouting threats and obscenities. My friend said she feared that he was going to beat me up (he was rather larger and stronger than I am). The reason for his anger was, of course, that he knew he was in the wrong, and someone had presumed to point it out.

Later, I wrote to the head office of the Thomas Cubitt group, and got a long and well-considered letter in reply, saying, among other things, that “confronting people can be dangerous nowadays.” A friend I talked to who knows about the hospitality industry said the same. But this is a separate topic, which deserves a piece all of its own (watch this space).

* * * * *

What, then, does one do?

My solution is to go out less often, indeed rather rarely, but to places where I can be sure that the experience will be enjoyable. Less quantity; more quality. So I have my own little list of good venues. They aren’t cheap. But then how could they be?

Best of all, though, are the clubs in St James’ and thereabouts. White’s, Boodle’s, Brooks’s, the Caledonian, the Garrick, the Beefsteak … with linen table cloths, attentive service, no music, a blessed ban on mobiles and – most assuredly – no screaming children … with so many desirable attributes, these throwbacks to the Edwardian age are havens of civilisation in the noisy modern metropolis.

One has to be invited, of course, but that’s another story …