From quite a young age, I was often left alone. My mother was suddenly widowed and left with a young child to bring up. Money was scarce and it was hard to make ends meet. As soon as she possibly could, my mother went back to work to support us both and I became what is today called “a latchkey kid”. In those days, I often suffered from bronchitis and was then kept home from school and not allowed out to play with the other kids. All in all, I spent a lot of time on my own.
There are two words to describe the state of being alone: loneliness and solitude. In my case, being alone was always solitude, never loneliness. I never minded being on my own and always found plenty to occupy me. We didn’t have a TV and we turned on the radio only in the evenings. My solitude was therefore a quiet world, one that was filled and peopled by my imagination.
Some people, when they are alone, like to create the semblance of company by turning on the radio or the TV or by playing music. I never do. I find that a background noise either disappears from consciousness (in which case, why bother with it in the first place?) or becomes irritating. That is not to say that I do not enjoy certain sounds, such as good music or conversation. But if I play music, then it is to listen to it, not to run it as a background noise. To me, one of the most agreeable sounds is complete silence or, at least, that almost-silence in which the occasional sound stands out in a meaningful way, like birdsong in a quiet woodland.
Nature has conspired to help me in this. Over the last few years, I have suffered a loss of hearing. At first the diminution was mild but it gradually increased to the point where conversation was becoming difficult and I was persuaded to seek assistance in the form of digital hearing aids, those devices that I often refer to in my blog as my “dolbies”.
When I first wore my hearing aids outside, I was horrified by the volume of sound hitting my ears. Was this really what the world sounds like? I still don’t know the answer to that because there is no way of letting someone else know what you are hearing so that you can make a comparison. All I can say is that, in the absence of an ‘off’ button, I often switch my hearing aids to the Bluetooth setting, which has the same effect.
Being sensitive about noise and my hearing has made me aware of other things. For example, compared with the world of my childhood, today’s world is almost insanely noisy. I am sure people living under the Heathrow flight path will agree with me. This fact – the noisiness of the world – is often remarked upon, of course, as are the deleterious effects that it has on our health and emotional stability. Less often mentioned is the effect it has on behaviour. I read somewhere that the calls of birds living in cities are louder and more piercing that those of the same species living in the countryside. In the same way, people in cities, in seems to me, no longer talk normally but at an increased volume, almost (and sometimes actually) shouting.
When the Walkman first appeared, it was hailed as a novelty and anyone wearing earphones in the street was noticed and pointed out. No longer. As I go about in the streets, the buses and tubes, the shops and cafes, it seems to me that every other person is wearing earphones, and not small ones, either, but often gigantic ones that look as if they belong in a recording studio.
Why people have to blot out the audible world with a barrier of sound is an interesting question, but what concerns me here is that people today seem to have developed a need for noise that is so imperious that they have to carry noise-making equipment with them wherever they go. I find this worrying, not merely because they are damaging their hearing and making it difficult to talk to them, but because it implies that the already frighteningly high level of noise has come to be accepted as normal. We are in serious danger of losing an irreplaceable treasure, the treasure of silence.
I dutifully wear my “dolbies” when out and about in order not to have to ask people to repeat themselves too often and in the hope of having some idea of what is going on around me, but not when I am at home alone. There I can relax with my natural hearing. It is also a pleasure to take them off at night before going to bed when the world becomes a more peaceful place.
If things continue to evolve as at present, we will soon all be wearing headphones, not hi-fi devices for listening to music, but noise-cancelling headphones of the sort worn in factories and helicopters. Perhaps these will incorporate Bluetooth so that we can also wear microphones and speak directly into one another’s ears in order to bypass the ear-killing din around us. We will then move about in an artificially silenced world, insulated and isolated like astronauts or deep-sea divers, from an environment that threatens to shatter our all-too-delicate sense of hearing altogether.
In the meantime, those of us who speak out against the drowning of meaningful sound in an endless storm of noise do so in vain as our words dissolve into silence against the hard plastic of earphones throbbing to the beat of rock music.