Modern implement of torture

Noise 5: A better life for all … at zero cost

in The Way We Live Now

Returning to one of his favourite bugbears, Pissed-off Toff points out that much of the noise of modern life is as unnecessary as it is unbearable. However, he has a solution.

For the last few days the inhabitants of the metropolis have been enjoying a glorious Indian summer, with the skies clear and blue, the temperature warm but mild, and the hours of daylight still long. Not only that, but in the streets surrounding the flat in which I live, there has for once been a lull in the normally incessant din of building works. 

Since this is a residential area that estate agents class as ‘desirable’, the flats here change hands frequently, and are invariably given a make-over which involves many months of banging and crashing and much use of ear-splitting angle-grinders. And as soon as one flat is finished, building works start up in another.

Part of the problem is that streets hereabouts are all lined with terraces of tall mansion blocks. These create an all-too-effective sound box, with the result that from the open window of my bedroom on the fourth floor I can hear every single word of any conversation that takes place even a hundred yards away in the street below. When a lorry drives by the roar of its engine is amplified to terrible effect; when a 1,000 cc motorbike accelerates, its rider rejoicing in the gutsy power of its engine, the noise is indescribable; and as for that loud beeping sound that vans and lorries now make whenever they reverse …

Yes, I suppose I could close my window to muffle the worst of all this. But except on the coldest nights, I like to sleep in a room with the window open. Plus, for once there are no major building works nearby. No non-stop noise, therefore.

Or so I thought … and then bang on the dot of 8 o’clock yesterday morning the peace was shattered by the angry roar of a chain-saw, causing me to jump out of bed like a Jack-in-the-box. A relaxing cup of coffee while I drew up the day’s to-do list was now out of the question. Instead, I rushed outside to see what was going on.

In a nearby courtyard round the corner, a man with a chain-saw was tied to the trunk of a perfectly healthy tree and was dismembering it, top down, while three workers in high-visibility jackets looked on as they munched their sandwiches.

Back inside, I installed myself at a desk at the front of the block, on the opposite side from my bedroom, hoping to ignore the chain-saw. Then an angle-grinder got going. Oh no! So we have some new building works after all. Next, and quite unexpectedly, the most hideous thudding and drilling sound started up; and looking out onto the street below (there are streets at the front and the back of this flat) I saw a large yellow JCB digging up the road with a pneumatic drill. 

By now the cacophony made any brain-work unthinkable. Rushing out into the street once more to inspect the cause of this unholy din, I bumped into a neighbour who was as unhappy as I was. They were laying fibre-optic cables, she told me, and the works were going to last at least two weeks. “They’re at the other end of the street now,” she said. “But imagine what it’s going to be like when they move down to our end.”

Shuddering at the thought, I again retreated inside. “Now listen, Pissed-off Toff,” I said to myself, “you’re being neurotic. It’s just noise. Ignore it!” But it was no good. I can no more ignore this sort of thing than I can ignore someone hitting me on the head with a hammer. 

Nor did it stop there. From time to time the big JCB would pause and its smaller brother would lurch forward to scoop up the smashed tarmac and concrete; and whenever the latter moved or rotated in any direction, it emitted a piercing beeping sound, the volume surely turned up to maximum. Amplified by the sound-box effect of the street, this intolerable noise went right through one’s head. In comparison to this, the yelling and screaming of the children during their play-break in the nearby school was like the dulcet tones of a mandolin.

Leaf-blower: invented by the Devil himself

Finally, as though to complete the torture, a leaf-blower struck up. Now almost gibbering with rage, I rushed out onto the balcony. In the street below a council worker was wandering along the pavement, swinging his infernal machine from side to side, causing particles of dust to move from one place to another; an operation which achieved precisely nothing.

At some stage in the afternoon the builders and road workers desisted, as did the tree-surgeon. The sense of relief was physical. And when, at six o’clock, it was time for a strong G&T (well deserved, I thought, after the trials of the day), I could feel the stress oozing out of my system.

* * * * *

All of which causes me to wonder, once again, whether I am uniquely intolerant of mechanical noise. I do not in fact think I am. Yes: most sorts of noise bother me considerably more than they seem to bother others (whereas cigarette smoke does not bother me in the least, and I’m not even a smoker). But there are plenty of people like me.

My various neighbours include a distinguished retired diplomat and his wife. In casual conversation with them I recently learnt that he cannot bear the noise of those powerful motorbikes accelerating up the street at full throttle, the amplified roar loud enough to wake the dead. Indeed, he hates this noise so much that at considerable expense he has had double glazing (or is it even triple?) installed throughout the flat.

Another neighbour in her late middle-age can’t bear the sound of the radio. Here I am entirely with her. The noise of other people’s TVs and radios has me ripping my hair out. When some painters in the street below switched on their ghetto-blaster, this neighbour rushed out onto her balcony and shouted at them to turn it down (not off, you note). Did they take any notice? Of course not.

* * * * *

I might have said it before and I’ll no doubt say it again: Quite apart from the inherently objectionable quality of all this noise, one of the worst aspects of it is that it is so often not associated with any useful result.

I do see, for example, that fibre-optic cables have to be laid, and that this creates noise; I understand that trees sometimes have to be cut down and that this also creates noise; I appreciate that neighbours will want to carry out building works; et cetera et cetera. To one degree or another, this things are unavoidable and necessary.

What makes so much noise especailly intolerable, however, is the fact that it is quite unnecessary. Take that maddening bleep that all lorries and delivery vans now make whenever they reverse. It is generally turned up to full volume, and from the early hours of the morning half the neighbourhood is woken up by it. What does it achieve? Nothing. Has anyone not been run over because of this infernal noise? I doubt it. And the same could be said for that infuriating recorded message, again blaring out from lorries, informing us that the vehicle in question is turning left or right.

And worst of all – my top-of-the-list pet hate – are leaf-blowers. They make the most insane racket. But not once in my long career as a leaf-blower abolitionist have I ever seen this machine, invented by the Devil himself, being deployed to useful effect. Indeed, the other day I observed a leaf-blower operative for about half an hour while he lazily blew a single leaf around the courtyard opposite the front of the flat in which I live. I am not making this up. Amplified by the high brick walls on three sides of said courtyard, the noise reverberated round the entire neighbourhood, doubtless causing much gnashing of teeth.

This is a theme to which I will return. In the meantime I can only fantasise about what I will do when I assume the purple … an event which, I feel sure, is not far off. On that happy day, I will impose a ban on all building works and all road works within a mile of where I live; I will close the nearby streets to all traffic except my own yellow Bentley and the vehicles of friends and favoured neighbours; and the only sound allowed will be me playing the grand piano, and the Chopin recitals and the weekly sessions of the Bach Choir in the nearby concert hall; oh, and – on Fridays – the sound of a trumpet blowing to announce that my copy of The Spectator has arrived.

I jest in part only. Because you will not deny that if all alarms and all sirens and all reversing beepers were disabled tomorrow; if all leaf-blowers were destroyed; if all helicopters were banned from hovering overhead except in cases of the direst national emergency … if all this were to happen (and that’s just for starters, noise-wise), the quality of life would be immensely improved; and at zero cost.

Indeed, one could probably win a general election on this basis alone. Why, I wonder, has no-one thought of it before?

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