IN The Screwtape Letters, C S Lewis writes a series of letters from the senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter, on how best to subvert mankind into evil. In one letter he suggests that Satan chooses to distract us with ‘noise’ so that we will be unable to hear the silent voice of God. There is a passage in one letter which runs:
‘Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since Our Father [Satan] entered Hell – though longer again than humans, reckoning in light years, could express – no square inch of infernal space and no moment of eternal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the great dynam-ism, the audible expression of all that is excellent, ruthless and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly questions, despairing scruples and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We will already have made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is progress.’
Looking at our contemporary scene, Screwtape would be delighted with the mindless noise and bustle of modern life. I remember as a young man how it was possible to walk even through the streets of central London while preserving a sense of inner tranquillity. It was not unusual to sit in a comfortable railway compartment and engage in peaceful reflection. I used to be able to read or even write the occasional article accompanied by the soothing clickety-clack of the train wheels with no intrusive announcements coming over the loudspeakers.
The late afternoon train from Euston to Northampton had a buffet carriage where you could take afternoon tea, sitting at a table with a cosy lamp on a white tablecloth, pouring tea from a small teapot into proper teacups and eating toasted teacakes brought to the table by a waiter. You could spend the whole journey in there, enjoying the quiet elegance and musing on the passing scenery. These days such a journey would feel more like being imprisoned in a particularly unruly secondary school, with loud and intrusive chatter and the mindless rat-at-tat of people listening to pop music or ‘rap’ on their mobile phones, or shouting into the mouthpiece to whoever they are phoning, as if they didn’t know their devices have an inbuilt microphone.
Shopping in the high street used to be a tolerable or even civilised experience, until ‘pedestrianised’ areas provided ear-splitting street ‘entertainments’ and traditional shops gave way to indoor ‘shopping malls’ with all their vulgar ‘attractions’, piped ‘muzak’ and ‘family fun’.
An ‘escape’ to parks is no longer what it was. Marble Hill Park in Twickenham, for example, was once a refuge. The Palladian villa, Marble Hill House, built in the 1720s for Henrietta Howard, mistress of King George II when he was Prince of Wales, was an idyllic retreat set in 66 acres of relatively unspoilt landscape. In recent years the place was taken over by so-called English Heritage which characteristically decided to bring the park ‘up to date’ by removing scores and scores of trees, and planning many ‘exciting events’ to attract tourists.
For many, staying at home is no longer peaceful. Many suffer from noisy neighbours who love late-night parties with the almost obligatory rock music played at astronomically high decibels, even for outside barbecues on summer nights. There is a growing fashion to finish off the night with the crashes and bangs of firework displays (no longer confined to Bonfire Night). Even if you watch a sedate classic film on television, closing credits and music are rudely interrupted with an Ill-mannered and strident pre-emptive strike advertising the next programme.
The noise pollution I have referred to is not merely a matter of sound levels: it is related to the imposition of flashing images, as in advertisements, and the blinding vulgar flashing lights of many popular TV shows with their manic exhibitionistic presenters and guests with their verbal incontinence, frenzied mannerisms, and their shallowness.
A familiar warning about the excessive noise of modern life is that it can damage physical and mental health. But to consider that to be the only damage, serious though it might be, is rather superficial. It is not necessary to share C S Lewis’s religious belief to see that constant overwhelming noise and bustle is damaging in a much deeper sense. It is not fanciful to call it spiritual damage.
The modern frenzy is symptomatic of a constant restlessness and distraction, an aversion to intellectual contemplation, or even thinking. It isn’t simply that quieter people are being disturbed, but that the willing participants are distracting themselves from anything deeper or more meaningful. It is an evasion, an avoidance of meaning in life, a refuge in emptiness and meaninglessness. I am reminded of the ‘young clerks’ in John Betjeman’s poem Slough:
It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead.
You might think that I am hankering after a life in the deserted countryside, or even in a monastery. Not so. I have lived in the London area for most of my life and I am, I think, by nature a city person, requiring access to art galleries and large libraries, concert halls, theatres and opera houses. But the life I once led has been polluted. To resist the infectious spread of babble and manic activity is itself a kind of activity, and by no means an easy one because it goes against the herd-following tendency in human nature, which makes one a rebel. It requires courage to set one’s mind and heart against what has become the rushing, pushing, ill-mannered impatience and the chaos of what modern life has become.