Hendy Noise

Din from gyms, bars and brothels is nothing new…

author and broadcaster David Hendy considers how the impact on society of global and historical soundscapes must inform our management of neighbourhood noise in today’s complex, crowded cities.

A year ago, while recording my BBC Radio 4  series, I found myself at a busy road junction in Accra, the capital city of Ghana.  I could barely hear myself think, surrounded as I was by a rich sonic brew of passing cars, taxis, and lorries, competing with lamp-post loudspeakers blasting out advertising jingles.

Was it noisy? Undoubtedly. Unacceptably noisy? I didn’t think so. Not because I harboured some romantic notion that Ghanaians have some magical tolerance towards noise.  They don’t: in Accra I also witnessed quieter neighbourhoods where whole families faced the almost daily aural assault of nearby evangelical churches blasting out amplified sermons at ungodly hours. Those Ghanaians certainly weren’t happy about what reached their ears.

It’s a commonplace to say that noise is in the mind of the beholder; that one person’s music is another person’s din. And most of us would agree that, whatever the merits of the decibel as an objective measurement, noise is ultimately a highly subjective matter. But what Accra brought home to me was something less often acknowledged in debates over sound-levels: that often noise is deep down a matter of simple inequality. Inequality between rich and poor, yes. But more generally, inequality between the powerful and the weak. Which is why we might fruitfully try to think of noise as an abuse of power.

At that busy road junction in Accra, people tolerated the racket because it was the accumulation of sounds, piled one on top of the other, from many different sources. No single sound dominated. No single person caused it. Responsibility – and suffering – was evenly distributed and mutually acknowledged. In that sense, there was no abuse of power going on. The noise, so to speak, was owned collectively. In the quiet neighbourhoods, though, the sound was all one-way. There was the offender – a church – and a group of victims – those living nearby. Responsibility and suffering were starkly divided. There was no collective ownership, and, in short, an obvious abuse of power.

Across history, those in positions of strength and authority – churches, colonists, slave-holders, factory-managers – have by and large been able to impose their standards of behaviour on those with no authority: citizens, parishioners, indigenous peoples, slaves, factory-workers, and the rest. They’ve decided who makes a noise and who doesn’t. They’ve exercised their power to shape the soundscape. In ancient Rome, for example, a city of a million people living cheek-by-jowl, delivery carts would trundle loudly along the narrow stone streets all night long. Gyms, bars, brothels – all stayed open into the small hours, and sleep was a rare commodity. The city’s elite, of course, lived in calm oases such as the Palatine Hill, where they’d only be disturbed by a few footsteps on marble and the trickle of ornamental water. Not only did they care little for those living in the teeming apartment blocks below – why would they? – but they made things appreciably worse for them: night-time deliveries were required specifically to ensure the ruling class could move through the city with ease during the day.

Modern towns and cities are more muddled and layered than ancient Rome. Rich and poor don’t necessarily live together. But neither can they live entirely apart. The city is now a place of rapid movement and constant turnover. Dividing lines between those who make noise and those who don’t are blurred. A great deal of noise is irritating and unwelcome, but much is also generated by productive activity: the whirr of commerce, the buzz of street culture. Silence, meanwhile, can signal calm gentrification – or a place of bleak abandonment. There is also that modern condition: a retreat into private solutions – moving to the suburbs, putting on one’s headphones, soundproofing our places of work and rest. All of which is easier for some than for others. The result is that all too often, the world’s supply of unwanted sound has been distributed very unevenly – and that a collective response to the problem of noise is too often abandoned as simply too much for us to contemplate as individual citizens.

What remains even today, then, is this fundamental and enduring difficulty: ensuring that noise is in some sense ‘equitable’ – generated by all and experienced by all, under the control of no one person more than any other. That way, everyone has an interest in ‘solving’ noise – by which I mean agreeing some sort of mutually agreed notion of what is tolerable and what is not. Creating this delicate equilibrium is never easy. Wanting an off-switch will lead to no end of trouble: it sets the bar too high. The more realistic aspiration is to find some point in the volume dial that is workable, some live-and-let-live ethos. The Dutch had a slogan for it back in the 1970s. It simply said, ‘Let’s be gentle with each other’. That might sound a little wishy-washy to contemporary ears, bruised and bloodied as they are by all our disputes and anxieties and suspicions. Yet it reminds us that even today sound has to be managed not by technology or by force but by ethics.

That, of course, is where noise enforcement and legislation comes in. For we cannot always trust ourselves as individuals to be as ethical and as selfless as we would wish. In our democratic era, it is local councils that are – or at least should be – able to ensure on our collective behalf a proper balance between all our competing needs and desires. The powers-that-be don’t always get it right, of course. In ancient Rome, one of the few attempts at reducing noise ended with the bizarre rule that coppersmiths mustn’t operate in any street where a professor lived: a great victory for the education lobby, but hardly much use to anyone else.  In New York at the start of the 20thcentury, street hawkers, newspaper sellers, buskers, roller-skaters, children playing were all targeted – with the result that streets were soon abandoned to traffic and stripped of the sounds of sociable human interaction. Generally, though, we’ve learned by our mistakes. And a simple but profoundly important set of principles has come to be embodied in the various noise regulations now enforced in most modern British, European, and American cities: that there are limits to the noise we can make if it disturbs our neighbours, and there are certain times of day that we can and cannot make a racket.

It’s a code of ethics to which we submit, sometimes happily sometimes grumpily. But it is based on a relatively simple set of compromises. And it is for the public good. Over the years, and with a certain amount of rough justice, it has helped hold cities together and minimise strife. The results have been life enhancing, in the true sense of the word. So whenever we hear our leaders urging that ‘red tape’ is to be slashed, we need to remember what that might mean in practice: the cutting of legislation that keeps the soundscape of our living environment in workable order, the destruction of a social compact, and the potential loss of one of the great democratic achievements of the modern era.

David Hendy wrote and presented Noise: a Human History for BBC Radio 4 in 2013. A book of the series has been published by Profile, and is out now in paperback. He is also Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Sussex.

Robert Light as the head of the new Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise (ICCAN).

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