A street scene with people and carriages deep in mud, street traders and musicians and hot-air balloons in the distance. Coloured etching by Paul Pry, 1828
We are big on peace and quiet in Oxford. For eight hours a day, the most that is likely to disturb me from my research is the faint lowing of cattle in the fields behind the college, or the movement of papers around me in the Bodleian. The occasional student outburst or blast of music from the halls is quickly quashed. Stéphane Mallarmé, in his capacity as a visiting lecturer in 1894, was astonished by this town whose guiding principle in its development over the past thousand years has been to create and sustain an environment conducive to contemplation and concentration. It is a vast and elaborate greenhouse constructed with the express purpose of nurturing those tender, rare and ever-so-delicate orchids we call inspiration. Of the many kinds of fertiliser on offer, the one they thrive on most is quiet.
The other twelve hours of my days, however, offer a stark contrast that never ceases to amaze me. I commute from Central London, daily battling buses and Boris bikes, taxis and tourists – bad enough as physical obstacles slowing my already painfully slow progress between work and home, but what about the noise they make? The thunder of the traffic pouring into Marble Arch, the boom box that seems permanently fixed outside Marks and Spencer, or the polyglot cacophony of people shouting to hear each other over it as they shoulder their way through Piccadilly Circus? I have been living with a construction site outside my window for the past year, waking before dawn to the sounds of workmen’s matutinal natter bellowed by the early arrivals at the top of the scaffolding to the stragglers dragging their feet below. Then the jackhammers start. And the circular saws. And the cement mixers. And the hammers…
But I don’t want to whinge. This is London. I signed up for this. I’m one of the eight million wedged sideways into this great city, in which there is so much to love, and it seems to me that an essential part of the condition we call ‘being a Londoner’ is being sick of noise. It is no great coincidence that our English word ‘noise’ is derived from the Latin nausea. The inhabitants of this city have suffered from noise-sickness for a very long time.
It was writers and philosophers of the nineteenth century, such as Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and Charles Babbage, who were among the first to bear witness to the hazards and disruptions of an industrial soundscape. Dickens’ letter to Parliament in the 1860s closes with mention of those ‘frightful noises in despite of which your correspondents have to gain their bread’. Babbage, too, waged a passionate and very personal war against street musicians, declaring that his ideas were being destroyed by the sound of organ grinders in London’s streets, and that the sum total of these interruptions reduced his work by one quarter of what it might otherwise have been. Earlier, in 1853, Thomas Carlyle, driven to breaking point by the distracting sounds of his neighbourhood in Chelsea, endeavoured to raise his house by another storey to install a soundproof study at the top of it.
The array of psychological and physiological responses to noise ranges from headaches, sleep loss, distraction, and stress to hearing loss, tinnitus, hallucination, and even suicide. These are the symptoms of the diseases of modern times, modern cities, modern life. I must, I realise, expect to catch at least one or two of them over the next five years even as I investigate them for my project, ‘Sounding Out the Body in Victorian Literature, Science, and Medicine’, but it is an investigation worth the pain, for what they inflict on us is constitutive of our modernity. That said, as I sit gazing out across the college quad through my double-glazed windows, I am also glad that I can sometimes be at a distance from the noise and turmoil of London, which fades away now, leaving only the rustling pages of work to be done.\