There’s a meme floating around (I choose that verb deliberately) regarding humorous responses to noise pollution. It’s not always funny, though, this daily hazard of incessant public announcements, music, phones, sirens and other environmental nuisances. It drove me out of London to rural France for eighteen months so that I could catch up on some sleep. What is rarely addressed is the impact of non-mechanical noise, the personal, physiological racket (aside from shouting) due to the general inability of the population to move quietly and with composure.
Despite putting a polite but firm message on the front door to my block of flats, my previous neighbours continued to slam it shut before stampeding through the hallway and up the stairs like a herd of rampaging bison. The whole place quaked, books fell from shelves, and as my work area was right under the blight path, I became seriously concerned about the detrimental effects on my hard drive – and nerves. These particular residents were – and I’m trying to be kind here – hefty women, whose sex life consisted of what sounded like vigorous trampolining and great thudding wrestling matches with each other. When I asked them to tone it down, they snarled, ”just be grateful we’re not having orgies these days.” Luckily they’ve gone back to Australia (which is as far away as I can hope for) and have been replaced by an acoustic fairy.
Before anyone accuses me of being fattist, heavy-footedness is not actually about size. A friend lived in our block for a while and although petite and ballet trained, she used to thud her way around the building as though dragging a broken leg behind her. Just watching people thumping along the pavement and lugging themselves through life is painful. The nation is either trying to assert its existence above a continuous clamour or is exhausted by its fight with gravity. Either way, it could do with some relief.
I’m not the first to notice this trend. Back in 1859, Florence Nightingale devoted a whole chapter to noise in her book Notes on Nursing. Apart from a repetitious diatribe against rustling crinoline, she also wrote many paragraphs on the impact that sudden or consistently annoying sounds have upon the sick, including loud conversations, banging doors and rattling keys. I’m not sure that her suggestions have made much headway. These days, hospital wards are rarely oases of peace, as patients contend with the clanging delivery of dinners, bustling cleaners and loud-mouthed visitors.
She ends the chapter with a complaint about the flimsy construction of (then) modern houses, where a patient “feels every step above him to cross his heart.” Anyone who lives in a Victorian conversion will concur. My home is a wooden resonance chamber, not unlike a badly-played instrument (with nasty lyrics to match), echoing the thunderous cacophony of homecomings and visits to the loo. It is rare that I have an uninterrupted night’s sleep, even with earplugs.
It seems that tranquillity may only be found within spiritual enclosure. Many religious orders discipline their members to maintain a strict rule of silence, which means more than just holding one’s tongue. Equally important is the training in exterior silence: walking softly, opening doors quietly, catching hold of keys before they jangle. Grace is not solely an interior or divine gift, yet outside of the cloister it seems to be a rare commodity.
I have always been attracted to physical buoyancy and fluidity, a throwback to childhood film influences, perhaps. James Coburn’s feline Derek Flint glides around his luxury flat in complete silence and Aunt Alicia’s training regime of budding courtesan Gigi includes the admonishment, “you don’t simply sit, you insinuate into the chair”. I wish that the elephants around me could insinuate a little lightness into their feet.
Efficient, noiseless movement is not simply an exercise in aesthetics. There are considerable health benefits associated with treading quietly. Osteopath and former dancer, Jennie Morton, explains that working through the foot protects the rest of the body by absorbing shock. Falling hard on the feet has a detrimental effect on knee and hip joints, the lower back, the internal organs, and right up the body to the neck. Pliant feet boost circulation and offer a form of massage that benefits the entire body.
Jennie always looks to the feet first, as their interaction with the ground is the key to correct body function. She says, “I spend much of my time working on the feet, even when the patient may have presented with a neck problem.”
When I was at school, we had prizes for deportment, but these days, it’s rarely encouraged outside of the dance studio. Good posture not only requires an engagement with the abdomen that is the basis of core strength and poise, but strong, supple feet, which provide stability for all movement.
Those too scared of the studio or gym may well consider the undemanding T’ai Chi Walking Forward and Walking Backward exercise. “Transfer weight to the front leg and roll onto the ball then toes. Lift your back heel, then knee, then toes. Move the leg to the front.” In summary, “step gingerly, carefully, gently, and with caution. Walk like a cat.”
Until these apartments are sound-proofed properly, I’m tempted to invoke that admonition as a new clause in the Lease.