Quiet please

Since life has calmed to a pace slightly less frantic that normal just of late, and I’ve caught up with sleep sufficiently to actually have the energy for some late nights and beer drinking, I spent two pleasant evenings in a row in London last week, chatting and carousing with friends. Since neither I nor said friends were really up for super-loud, feel-the-music-shake-your-internal-organs sorts of venues, both socials occurred in pubs, in town. We weren’t out past 11pm, didn’t get rowdy, and had no need to bellow to people across the bar. I make this point not to prove how boringly un-party-animal-ish I am, but because it’s important you know these details before I tell you that when I woke up the morning after the second social evening, I had a sore throat and a cough.

In the past, I’ve always been mildly amused when people have asked me, curiously, how I manage to speak so much in public without straining my voice. I mean, I’m usually just chatting about Brahms, not commentating the Grand National. Often (but not always) I have a microphone. If I don’t – and frankly, even if I do – I use my voice in a way that seems to project fairly effectively, and doesn’t involve straining or pain. I have a fairly loud voice anyway, when I make an effort. I mean, I have quite a big head (literally, rather than metaphorically, I’d like to think – buying hats is a bit of a nightmare). Maybe that gives me extra resonance or something.

But after two nights of trying to hold normal conversations in bars which didn’t seem excessively noisy, I begin to see why people ask me this question. And what strikes me is not, in fact, the volume at which I was speaking – it’s the volume of ambient noise that I was prepared to judge as ‘not too loud’.

Woman with her finger to her lips

It’s amazing how quickly we get used to noise. When I first moved to London in 2006, I had a bedroom with a single-glazed bay window overlooking a one-way road which formed the main northerly route for all ambulances leaving the A&E Department of a nearby hospital. Within three weeks, I completely ceased to notice the frequent squeal of sirens unless I was actually sitting in the window on the phone to someone. When I moved to a quieter part of town, for the first few nights the silence freaked me out – and then I adjusted and it was no problem again. I’m sure we can all think of examples like this of passing, regular sounds that become part of our everyday aural landscape, those sounds we simply ignore automatically because they are familiar.

Then there are the added sounds, not the traffic or ticking clock or clanking pipes, but the sounds that are put there for a reason. Like music in shops. Music in restaurants. Music in the supermarket (thank heavens only at Christmas in my local, although if that many renditions of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree drives me as potty as it does, I’m amazed the staff don’t all need sectioning by the end of December). Music in the shopping centre, which clashes with music in the supermarket. Music in the cafe which used to have no music, or where the music seems suddenly rather louder than you remember. Music in pubs which is gradually cranked up over the course of the evening as the lights are slowly dimmed.

I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the music volume was being subtly increased as I sat in various pubs this week – much like the frog in the slowly warming saucepan of water, I was completely oblivious until it was far too late to do anything about it. I’ve noticed the noise of London (generally, and in shops and restaurants and so on) far more, I have to say, since I stopped living there permanently. Breaking the pattern of being used to certain things is a sure-fire way to bring them back to the front of your conscious awareness. (Which is also why being rude to me on the tube is now a very bad idea, because I’ve entirely lost my London filter and will very politely demand why you didn’t feel it necessary to ask before shoving your backpack in my face – just FYI, if you ever spot me at rush hour.) What I have made something of a point of doing, though, now that my home is in a very quiet place, is making the most of that quiet. The temptation to have background music with everything, every activity, every social engagement, is huge, because we’re so used to it. But every now and then, don’t. Switch it off. Be quiet. Embrace the silence and get comfortable with it. It might surprise you what you hear, freed from all that sonic distraction. In a particularly fantastic passage in Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, a character muses on the modern tendency (in 1923) to colonise even the quiet places in the human mind. ‘We built bandstands and factories on them. Deliberately… And the jazz bands, the music-hall songs, the boy shouting the news. What’s it for? What’s it all for? To put an end to the quiet, to break it up and disperse it, to pretend at any cost it isn’t there. Ah, but it is; it is there, in spite of everything, at the back of everything.’ Wise words indeed. Perhaps a little quiet time could help you rest your brain and give you a moment to ponder, as well as saving your vocal cords.

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