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Auditory Boundaries

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

When staying in north London this summer, I noted one evening loud music travelling across the city. My heart sank. I like my sleep and have often had problems with noisy neighbours. When living next door to a pub, I and others had regular altercations with the owners. Ironically, they claimed to be a 'community-friendly' establishment, which I eventually understood to mean for those who drank and smoked a lot. Yet every two years, it being a fishing vilage, there was a festival with traditional sailing ships turning up, several from France. The first time I experienced it, I was prepared for a noisy weekend. Sure enough, people spilled out into the street right outside my apartment, celebrating into the wee hours. Yet I slept like a baby.

The difference, I realised the next day, was that the celebrants - many of them French - were happy. What had been keeping me awake was what I was picking up underneath the voices. A similar thing happened when I was staying in an Italian house, my bedroom right above the dining room where many had stayed up late, talking loudly. Again, I slept well. They were happy voices. With the village I'd had problems with, I recall someone quipping that it was a 'drinking village with a fishing problem'. A nearby town was even worse, recognised as one of the heroin capitals of the UK.

In Chinese healing, one learns to distinguish the tones of voices, beneath the words. Those with a Metal imbalance often have a weeping quality at the back of their voices, and can lead to a smoking addiction as if seeking to ease the pain stored in their lungs. The Metal element is associated with grief and loss. Those with a Wood imbalance can sound like they're shouting all the time, even when whispering. This can lead to an addiction to alcohol, and manifest in angry outbursts. Their pain is stored in the liver. In a healthy society, one can recognise these deeper issues and, hence, deal with them. When not dealt with they can manifest as just... noise. Unconsciously, people are desiring to share their pain.

And we have become a very noisy society. There used to be an issue on public transport with occasional idiots feeling they had a right to subject other passengers to their taste in music. As this is also a manifestation of pain, confronting them could often lead to stressful altercations, even violence. Now with smart phones and tablets, the noise has increased exponentially. Private conversations have now become public. One woman I sat next to on a London bus had a loud, detailed conversation with her hospital concerning a masectomy that had gone wrong. I learned a lot, but maybe I shouldn't have. At least not that way.

In the superb Only Murders in the Building TV show, Steve Martin wonders how to contact Selena Gomez about something important. 'Should I phone her?' he asks. 'No,' says Martin Short, 'they don't like that'. 'They' being the younger generation. Even when I wrote The Poisoned Dragon during the advent of mobile phones, I reported on what I had read about Japanese teenagers preferring to use texts as speaking on phones in public was considered gauche. When I was disturbed in a cinema by all the screen glare from phones and tablets, I was surprised when the lights came on to see it wasn't the kids with their gadgets, it was the adults. Gen Z may be adapting quite brilliantly to new technology in ways that put us oldies to shame, incorporating a sense of boundaries and etiquette despite what we may think.

Overall though, the proliferation of noise is concerning. I turned down an apartment a few months ago because of the noisy neighbours, I just didn't want to go through that again. As I write this, I am staying a few days in a similar apartment which is, however, very quiet - the sound-proofing is extremely good. It should be mandatory for all new buildings. A GP told me, many of his patients suffering from anxiety and stress were doing so simply because of noise. Think of the money that could be saved in the health service if this problem were sorted at source.

The pain being shared through people's voices, I realised recently, can also be heard through their music This may seem strange, that it's not the music itself, but the way in which it is chosen and played. To be harmonious, it has to be in harmony with and contribute to the atmosphere, regardless of personal taste. All together, with the cacophonies increasing in our world, I can't help but hear a species crying out in despair. The discordance is now collective. I hear it on the train, in the streets, I hear it in the media. I hear it in people's voices.

So why, when faced with the prospect of a sleepless night in north London that evening, did I hear only harmony? I looked online and saw that the music was coming from Finsbury Park, and included a comeback of the band Pulp. Also, the website stipulated, there was a strict curfew of 10.30. The authorities had wisely imposed a boundary to the concert, which was honoured. At pretty much precisely 10.30 the music stopped. I slept well that night and the following days, the papers were full of rave reviews about the triumphant return of Pulp. The kids really are alright.


Originally this blog was entitled 'Looking for a Murderer', referencing the short story The Murderer by Ray Bradbury, an astonishingly prescient tale of a man so infuriated by the din of communication technology around him, he decides to start murdering machines by pouring ice cream into them. When arrested he admits to feeling guilty only towards one of his 'victims', as it was a machine that quietly got on with its job without bothering anybody. Although this blog took on a different direction, The Murderer is a superb piece of writing, highly relevant to today and well worth checking out. It is in Bradbury's The Golden Apples of the Sun collection. Below is the original illustration for the story.

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