Friday, 30 November 2012

The Art of Noise

Last weekend I was listening to the chirrup of tree frogs while ocean waves crashed dramatically in the background. There was also a cat purring in front of a crackling open fire. Doesn't it sound heavenly.... if not a little bit of an odd cacophony of sounds? That may be because I was trying to design my own background noise, desperately attempting to muffle the early morning tirade of toddler tantrums and hysteria blaring through the wall, the other side of my headboard, at 7am on a Saturday morning


I was staying in a stunning converted barn in the Peak District, celebrating my friends 40th birthday with four other couples and their children. Rolling green hills as far as the eye could see, the distant mooing of cows, a whinny or two from the horses in the field next door... and the screams of a three year old. Bliss. It wasn't anyone fault, certainly not the children's. I have five Godchildren, two nephews and plenty of friends with children. I know noise and the incredible volume that can come from these tiny humans but usually i can escape from it when it threatens to drive me insane. In this instance my bedroom was a very thin wall away from the main ground floor room in which everyone congregated. When I first saw that my bedroom was just off the sitting room, I had a slight momentary panic that noise may be a problem, but I had remembered my earplugs and there were plenty of pillows to muffle any unwelcome noises. Not a problem I thought.

I have been used to sleeping with earplugs since moving to London. I think anyone brought up in a tiny village in the country with only the sounds of nature to fill their heads, finds it quite a struggle when suddenly greeted with city hubbub. Noisy neighbours, blaring car horns, the rumble of bus engines, police and ambulance sirens, late night revellers, early morning bottle bank collectors, frisky foxes, bin men and the bane of my life... yapping dogs. It never ends, it doesn't stop. It is there 24 hours a day. Ear plugs have saved my sanity... Almost. I think the noise that's most disturbing is the non-constant noise. Washing machines and dishwashers set off late at night, no problem. I've always managed to sleep through traffic noise too unless a angry hooting of a horn suddenly blasts me awake. I've had neighbours that were annoying with nocturnal habits but weren't offensively loud. A couple who lived above me used to have very very early morning sex at the same time every Saturday and Sunday for the same duration. There were no sudden gasps or screams so it was fine. Another neighbour would strum his guitar late at night and that was lovely too. My old neighbour in my current flat would come in at 4am and play Claire de Lune by Debussy on his piano. I could never complain because I had told him that it was my favourite piano piece so although it was too loud and too late at night, I would never tire from hearing it. The same neighbour disgraced himself though, years later, by using my spare key to come and 'borrow' a bottle of wine, thinking I was away for the weekend. I don't know who was more surprised when he stumbled into my flat, knocking into every piece of furniture, andfound me  asleep in my flat having cancelled my trip. Thinking it was a burglar I screamed so loudly that he almost had a heart attack. Another drunken night he lost his key and pressed on my buzzer for several minutes. I didn't hear it, of course, because I had my earplugs in, but my Mother (who was staying at the time) had to let him in, make him a cup of tea to sober him up, and pretty much undress him and put him in her bed. I only knew what had happened when she clambered into my bed, scaring the life out of me, and explained why she was there! She thought it was 'such a hoot'. I didn't. Once woken up, all I could hear was a combination of his snores through my wall and my mothers snuffles next to me.


Sometimes though, earplugs have not been able to block out the noise entirely. My opposite neighbours, until recently, had three staffy/pitbull cross terriers (oh yes, I'm in a classy area) that they would let out at night and leave to fight and bark for hours. It went on for three months until all the neighbours complained to the local dog patrol, the dogs were found to be not only dangerous but illegal and they were re-homed. But those three months were hell. The only way I could cover the barking was to not only to wear earplugs but to turn on my oscillating fan to high. Extreme measures but genius. The constant hum blots out everything. It also silences the late night OCD cooking and cleaning that my Muslim neighbour does all night. It dulls the passionate bedtime arguments of the other downstairs neighbour and it muffles the club music coming from the Aussie house at the end of the block every other night.


So on my first night of the 40th birthday weekend, I was hopeful that with my earplugs in, I would be in blissful slumber by midnight. The reason I was in bed so early on a party weekend, was that I was recovering from a chest infection, so had decided to be sensible (unusual for me), and had taken a last antibiotic with a glass of wine over dinner and was tucked up in bed, saving myself for the Saturday night. At 12:05 I realised it was utterly pointless going to bed until everyone else had. The walls were like tracing paper and so I was pretty much 'in the room' with everyone as they drank and chatted into the night. I got up and joined them in the sitting room, po-faced and tired, creased cheeks, hair in topknot, pyjamas on, not pretty. Of course, the grumpier I got, the more hilarious it was for them. At one point, about an hour later, I got up to attempt to go back to bed and saw two men walking passed the front window. On reflection, it may have been a hallucination caused by strong antibiotics and exhaustion but I was convinced they were either ghosts or creepy locals come to murder us in our beds. Of course, the girls thought this even more hilarious and were in fits of giggles as I slumped off to my room, convinced I would just pass out or be killed in my sleep. Minutes later, I heard the girls outside my window, unsubtly trying to scare me by scraping on my bedroom window. When I didn't react they just banged on the window for a few minutes. Hilarious. I tried the earplugs combined with a large pillow over my head but got up again when the boys came in from the games room and joined the girls. Finally at just after 2am, mostly inebriated, they went to bed. Joy.


Five hours later, I was rudely awakened with a 'boink, boink' noise followed by screams of delight. I swore loudly and got up, looked into the sitting room, trying not to be spotted, and saw two very tired hungover mothers on the sofa and three children man-handling a poor Tigger toy. This toy, when slammed on the floor, emitted this very loud, very annoying, electronic bouncing noise. I went back to bed and lay there thinking bad thoughts about Tigger, when I suddenly remembered reading an article about 'white noise'. White noise is that fuzzy hiss that used to emit from your tv in the days programming would shutdown at night. More and more people are finding sleep a problem and are resorting to noise programmes to help them drop off. A few minutes later, with eyes drooping, I managed to find an App on the Internet called White Noise... mine for only £1.49. I bought it and seconds later was utterly mesmerised as I saw what was on offer as far as noises. 


Amazon rainforest, beach waves, rain on car roof, distant thunder, wind chimes, crickets, fast running stream, cat purring, tumble dryer, hair dryer, oscillating fan, vacuum cleaner, city streets, motorway traffic, train tracks, you name it, it's there. What's even more brilliant is that you can create your own combinations which is why I was listening to tree frogs, waves, a log fire and a thunderstorm all at the same time. It's brilliant, it works and it's really fun. For me, my favourites are the sounds that have always made me feel safe and are comforting. The sound of rain on a car roof reminds me of one of my favourite memories... going on trips in the car with my family, a warm snug interior with the sound of rain outside, the change in the car engine as my father slowed down and the crunch of gravel under the tires as we turned into our driveway, and knowing, as I pretended to be asleep, that I would be carried into the house. I also suppose that because I have lived near fields, woods, and the ocean until I moved to London, those are the noises I most feel relaxed with. I wonder if city people stay in a B&B for the weekend in the country and have to listen to 'city streets' because its too damn quiet. There is even a 'Tibetan singing bowl' soundtrack for goodness sake. Has the Dalai Lama downloaded the app and is meditating to that as he sits in the hustle and bustle of Dharamsala? Who knows. The only thing I know is at 7:10 I went back to sleep listening to a distant thunderstorm with light rain. Tigger was no more. An hour or so later, when most of us were up, I excitedly tried to demonstrate my new discovery to a host of bleary eyed, recipients and felt quite smug that later that night I would sleep through anything.

As we had dinner that evening in the conservatory, it began to rain. As the rain got heavier and pattered loudly onto the plastic corrugated roof, one of my friends said "Jules, is that coming from your phone?".