By: Giles Fraser (The Guardian)
The 20th century, declared Aldous Huxley in 1946, had been “the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise, and noise of desire – we hold history’s record for them all.” As a pacifist, Huxley blamed the war. But he also blamed technology for the “assault on silence”.
The first use of a PA (public address) system was for a Christmas carol concert at San Francisco city hall on 23 December 1915. But despite being something of a futurologist, Huxley could scarcely have predicted the way in which the later generations would crank up the dial on the noise of the world. In the UK, the Noise Abatement Society was founded in 1959 after its founder, John Connell, wrote to the Times complaining that “noise is the forgotten pollutant in our society”.
His society was responsible for rubber dustbin lids and plastic milk crates – but it was a rearguard action, with places that had long been pools of silence and tranquillity being swiftly overwhelmed by a world of technological clatter: engines, phones, intrusive advertising, jingles and muzak, pneumatic drills, amplification. And now we are assailed on every side.
Silence is not a luxury. It is crucial to our physical and mental heath. We need it to think, to sleep, to recover from life’s frenzy. My particular interest is that silence has been at the heart of the spiritual life of the church for centuries. For many religious traditions, silence is the great proving drawer of prayer. And continual noise is an assault on the soul as much as the ear. But it’s also important for the arts, indeed even for music itself. Creativity, concentration, contemplation all demand it. It is little wonder that being constantly bombarded with noise was used as a torture technique during interrogations at Guantánamo Bay. The military and the police understand that “sound bombs” are highly effective at disrupting civilian populations. A world without silence is a world that is inhospitable to human flourishing.
So yes, I have much sympathy with the residents of Richmond Park and elsewhere as they contemplate the effects of another runway at Heathrow. London is already one of the noisiest cities in the world, a beleaguered environment of continual mechanical roar and clatter. As studies have shown, those living under the flight path – and there are going to be many more of them now – will suffer long-term consequences for their health, and children in schools will find it more difficult to concentrate. No wonder they will re-elect Zac Goldsmith in next week’s byelection, despite his nasty campaign to be mayor.
But of course, there is no such a thing as absolute silence. When the composer John Cage experimented with an anechoic chamber in 1951, a place in which there was supposed to be no sound, he could still hear the workings of his own body. And listening to his famous 1952 silent composition 4’33” only forces the audience to be more alert to the noises around them. Silence is not zero decibels, it is the volume of human tranquillity.
And one cannot celebrate silence uncritically. Being silenced is what happens to those who are victims of abuse. Moreover, what counts as bad noise is often controversial. The Israeli Knesset is currently passing legislation to silence the Muslim call to prayer, legislation that has been recently redesigned not to effect the Jewish Shabbat siren. “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,” goes the carol about the city of Bethlehem. Hmm. Even silence has its politics.
Nonetheless, standing on Oxford Street this week, assaulted on every side by the soul-sucking retail ennui of Christmas shopping – Huxley’s “noise of desire” – I recall a passage from the great German novelist WG Sebald. It describes Norfolk fishermen sitting on the sea shore, not caring all that much about the catching of fish. “They just want to be in a place with the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.” And as someone else jostles past me to grab another bargain, I understand exactly how they feel.