Noise: driving ordinary people to do extraordinary things

by John Stewart

‘I have never seen anything that affects people like noise does’ Pamela Parker Shine, a noise inspector in Montgomery County, USA

 When noise – any noise – becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives and people will move mountains to get rid of it.

  • A teenager who left school at 15 with minimal qualifications to work in Carnaby Street in the swinging ‘60s became the driving force behind the Noise Act thirty years later in 1996..because of a noise problem she had experienced.
  • A pensioner who barely used a computer forced herself onto twitter and facebook to tell the world about the planes flying over her house.
  • A retired couple spent over 70,000 of their own money to try to persuade the authorities to sort out serious low-frequency noise from a pipeline.
  • A tenant on benefits fought his Housing Association through courts and tribunals for eight long years to improve the insulation in his property.

And, for the most part, we are talking about your average person who led a fairly typical life until the noise hit. Some will be amongst the 10% of people the German psychologist Rainer Guski identified as particularly noise sensitive. Many will not.

It can be difficult for people who haven’t been really disturbed by noise to understand the lengths those who are disturbed by it will go to get rid of it.

I wrote in my book Why Noise Matters, published in 2011:

When noise – any noise – becomes really disturbing, it can dominate every aspect of our lives.  It always seems to be there, an ever-present shadow, darting, taunting, tantalising; forever just out of reach.  The desire to get rid of the offending noise by almost any means possible can become overwhelming.  People spend their waking – and sleeping – hours fantasising on how to stop it.  They dream of poisoning the barking dog; of shooting down the roaring jet; of smashing the neighbour’s stereo; or of derailing the latest lorry that thunders past.”

It is no wonder that ordinary people can become so dogged when trying to sort out the noise.  Here is the story of that Carnaby St teenager:

Little did Val think she would become the UK’s leading anti-noise campaigner when as a teenager she worked for the Small Faces rock band in Carnaby Street at the height of their fame in the swinging London of the 1960s.  She liked the pop music of the era.  Her regular haunt was the Marquee in Soho.  The noise problem that was to change Val’s life didn’t start until 20 years later.  By then she was living with her two children in a house in the Thamesmead council estate in South London.  She had been there for about 12 years.  She was a broadcaster on the local radio station, deeply involved with the community and on friendly terms with her neighbours.  She jumped at the chance to buy her house. 

 And then……a new neighbour moved in next door and the music started.  It was so loud that Val and her husband Phil could hear the lyrics through the wall.  They asked the neighbour to turn it down, which at first she did, but then it was back at the same volume.  ‘We couldn’t relax or watch television and I kept bursting into tears at work,’ says Val.  ‘It turned into a full-scale battle.  We threatened to take her to court but she just sent a note back saying “good luck to you”.  All the council did was to send us a leaflet about taking our own action.’  In the end Val sold up. ‘I had to give some of my right-to-buy discount back but we were so desperate we had no option.  We are permanently sensitised now and, if we hear that bass, those feelings of panic return.’ 

After her experience Val set up the Peace and Quiet Campaign to assist noise sufferers.  At its height in the 1990s it had thousands of members.  She received an MBE for her work.  She then founded and became the co-ordinator of the UK Noise Association.  But she says the noise experience will never leave her. ‘We now live in Kent.  We have had to take out a large mortgage to buy a detached house because, if we were attached to anybody, I would live in fear that a new neighbour might start playing their music excessively loud and our nightmare would return.’

Val is not typical in that, once her own noise problem was sorted out, she spent the rest of her working life battling noise on a national level.  Most people when their noise problem is dealt with go back to living the lives they once had.

But she is typical in the way that people disturbed by noise will strain ever sinew to get it sorted out.  It probably stating the obvious that people who are the most desperate, and perhaps the most motivated, are those who feel they cannot escape from the noise or that it is going to damage their lives by forcing them to move away from family and friends or it will cause them financial loss.

Many of the posts about noise on social media are cries for help from desperate people.  When I read a tweet that a woman is dreading the next few days because an east wind will be blowing and she will be getting planes all day long, this is a heartfelt cry for someone to do something about the noise.

Most noise sufferers are not good, certainly initially, at solutions.  They just want rid of the noise.  But they often don’t know how to go about it.  They have not been in this situation before.  They are not campaigners or politicians.

But the drive to get rid of the noise means many find themselves doing things they never imagined they would: going to rallies; attending public meetings; taking part in demonstrations; writing letters; speaking with lawyers; neglecting family; foregoing a social life. I once said to a noise sufferer “I’ll buy you a drink if you win your battle”.  He replied: “I’m glad you offered.  I’ve forgotten how to go to the bar!” 

Noise.  Driving ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

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