Friday, 27 December 2019

Noise, anti-noise, drama, Jeremy Beadle's private noise research, the Darlington Quiet Town Experiment, and the earliest published story by Mark Gatiss (set in the year 2023)

There are some rustlings afoot: next year promises to be the year that finally sees the release of the long-delayed Oscillatorial Binnage 'post-electronic music' album.  To close 2019, I've decided to dump here, in defeat, a rejected article I've been hawking around magazines and journals for some time.  Regular readers of this blog will recognise the themes of imperilled histories, publicity asphyxia, and the chain of associations triggered by found objects.  The text was originally written to draw attention to one particular pet project I've expended some efforts upon in attempts to make it amenable to BBC radio (often via Resonance FM): a documentary about anti-noise campaigning, or rather, the 'noises' made by these campaigns.  The proposal has consistently met with silence from commissioners who apparently deem it too eccentric, leading me to make ever-'noisier' repeat proposals with equally-futile added razzmatazz.  This prompted some contemplation on the inner paradoxes of noise.

Habitually ferreting in the world of second-hand books ("the last refuge of the unemployable" as a bookseller friend semi-despairingly calls it), I've observed how glitz, high glamour and familiar names sell more readily than, say, old copies of the Philips Bulletin of Recent Developments in the Field of Electronics or similar obscurities that heave with innovation and overlooked histories, yet fail to hold general interest.  All unfamiliar material is background noise to most people.  Appealing to popular taste seems to be the key to getting things noticed, and this same issue was faced by noise awareness campaigners...  How do you effectively insert ideas into the cultural continua and get them favourably acknowledged?

"Six years ago, the city of Dortmund in West Germany found itself engulfed in a rising tide of noise. (...) The leader of Dortmund's noise-abatement campaign is Dr. Helmut Hillmann, the jovial city manager. (...) A natural actor, Dr. Hillmann decided that the way to fight noise was to dramatise it. He shouts at the top of his lungs to simulate the whirrs and roars he seeks to suppress. 'How would you like that when you want sleep?' he demands.  His efforts have made him the public champion of noise victims throughout Europe."

The above quote is from a May 1968 article titled 'The City that Declared War on Noise', removed from an old issue of Reader's Digest by UK television personality Jeremy Beadle and tucked inside his own copy of a 1974 book titled Noise: The New Menace by US science writer Lucy Kavaler.  This book contained many more of Beadle's cut-outs all dealing with rebarbative auditory sensations, and it was found in the basement of Charing Cross Road's Any Amount of Books bookshop in 2013.

A bookplate indicates this copy of Noise was disposed of by Mayfair literary agents Laurence Pollinger Ltd., who were in unresolved negotiations to secure UK serial rights for the US-published title.  It's unclear how it ended up in Beadle's collection.  Kavaler's book dwells on the psychological and physiological dangers of prolonged noise exposure, ending with a chapter on campaigners' activities - 'The People Against Noise' - detailing how noise complainants in America necessarily form residents associations to raise funds for lawyers.  Kavaler also writes about a tenacious anti-supersonic aircraft activist who pestered the US Federal Aviation Administration by letter every three months for six years.  Elsewhere, in an act Beadle would've approved of, Kavaler mentions a Long Island couple who loaded homemade muffins into a "huge medieval catapult" and flung them at airplanes passing very low over their residence.

For those unfamiliar with this book's former owner, Jeremy Beadle, he was best known as a primetime TV prankster.  As a youth in the 1960s Beadle worked as a lavatory attendant in Hamburg, Germany, affording him scope to ply situationist mischief: he'd deliberately block toilets with tea bags, make grunting sounds in cubicles, and place coins in urinals, etc. and would watch people's reactions.  When he found fame with his candid camera prank show Beadle's About in the 1980s and 90s, it's fair to say his style of humour had not evolved significantly.  However, like some other light entertainers of the period his onscreen levity belied wider, profounder pursuits (in the tradition of Barry Humphries, Roy Hudd, Pauline Quirke, Les Dawson, et al); Beadle owned a substantial book collection which was posthumously acquired and dispersed by Any Amount of Books in 2012.  Beadle's friend, the late writer/actor Ken Campbell, had remarked in an interview that it was unnecessary to ever visit the British Library or Oxford's Bodleian Library when he had exclusive access to the "Beadlean Library".  Beadle's eclectic library covered some of the most engaging subjects: esotericism, the uncanny, public nuisances, crime, deception, hoaxes, jokes, disasters, thrillers, as well as seemingly endless trivia.

Beadle's books - most bearing his embossed 'Property of Beadlebum' ex-libris stamp - were shelved across all subject areas in Any Amount of Books' basement.  The Lucy Kavaler Noise book was in the Music section.  Its binding heaved with Beadle's annotated noise-related clippings.  It was intriguing that Beadle had such concern for noise pollution.  Was the 'psychology of noise' a factor in his prank research?  (After all, in his formative toilet attendant days he'd played a radio "very loudly" and juggled toilet brushes to the beat, according to his autobiography).  Or, like noise-sensitive soundmakers Jools Holland or Jimmy Page, did he actively seek silent respite from the hubbub of showbiz?  (Beadle's address label reads "Semley Place, London" - his mother's flat above the busy Victoria bus station).  The truth may be more prosaic - Beadle had a thirst for general knowledge, and apparently collected a bit of everything.  Former Any Amount of Books owner Nigel Burwood explained to me that Beadle "had books on almost anything, especially disasters.  Noise would have interested him, but probably no more than, say, wolf children."  Yet of all the Beadle books I had a chance to examine in the basement semi-regularly over several months, I didn't see another as crammed with material.

Noisy bits and bobs from Jeremy Beadle's copy of Lucy Kavaler's 'Noise'
Kavaler's Noise with its cargo of clippings was a suggestive discovery, highlighting the dramatisations, gimmicks, stunts and the enlisting of high profile figures that all characterised anti-noise campaigning.  Noise-awareness necessitates the noise of publicity.  And publicity needs an element of theatre.  This was also recognised by Scottish doctor Dan McKenzie, who in 1916 published The City of Din: A Tirade Against Noise, a book he dedicated to his wife, Dora Christine McKenzie.  I'd found this book many years ago elsewhere, and was reminded of it whilst shelving Kavaler's Noise next to it.  Dr. McKenzie's 1916 "tirade" took the form of dramatic high-flown prose with as much humour and poetry as hard science.  As well as a throat and ear specialist, McKenzie was a published poet too.  In his later 1923 book Aromatics and the Soul: A Study of Smells, McKenzie remarked how The City of Din was itself a counter-noise of sorts:  "A few years ago I stood before the public singing another song (...) wherein I invoked the wrath of the high gods upon such miscreants as make life hideous with din.  You must not think that imprecations cannot be sung.  All emotional utterance is song, said Carlyle (...) Beside, denunciations are, of course, grunted and growled with more or less semblance of singing in modern opera."

McKenzie went on to co-found the Anti-Noise League in the 1930s, and it's interesting to note that nearly 20 years after The City of Din's publication, copies of the original book remained unsold, most likely due to insufficient publicity, ironically.  Published in the middle of the First World War, The City of Din's medical publisher, Adlard, only produced a limited run for the as-yet-unproven author, but nevertheless, undistributed stock lingered for decades: the catalogue for the Science Museum's Summer 1935 Noise Abatement Exhibition offered extant copies priced at two shillings and sixpence: "arrangements have been made with the writer and publishers of The City of Din whereby the proceeds for the sale of the remaining copies will be handed over to the Anti-Noise League".  (In the copy of City of the Din I have, there's an old makeshift bookmark advertising Aspirin tablets, perhaps giving some idea of the sensitivities of its target audience).

Dr. McKenzie's City of Din epitomises the paradox of anti-noise campaigning: the 'noisy' dramatic frissons pushed through the media infrastructure to garner publicity; making 'noise' about noise.  Attempts to silence noise invariably involve counter-noise, frequently literal.  There was a landmark case in 1892: a 30-year-old engraver for printing blocks - Harry Fitzner Davey - had created a home studio for himself at his semi-detached home in Angell Road, Brixton.  He soon found that his musical nextdoor neighbours hindered his delicate work with their incessant music lessons.  Davey retaliated with his own noise by knocking on the wall, "beating on trays, whistling, shrieking, and imitating [the music] being played".  It was in fact his neighbours, the Christies, who, embarrassed by Davey's counter-noise, took the matter to high court and won their case, almost ruining Davey who was fined just over £400 (roughly £35,000 in today's money).  The decisive point bore down on the fact that Davey's counter-noise was made with malicious intent.  Countless similar cases have played out over the years, as some of Beadle's newspaper cuttings indicate.

Noise awareness is itself beset with paradox...  A Noise Abatement Act was established in Britain in 1960.  At a 1961 symposium of noise at the National Physical Laboratory, physicist Douglas W. Robinson remarked: "new inventions, especially the jet engine, have brought into existence bigger noises than man has previously been able to create.  Perhaps the obvious impossibility of living at close quarters with such devices has triggered off a sort of chain reaction down the noisiness scale, so that even domestic refrigerators now have their share of critics on grounds of noisiness": in a culture of noise awareness, humming fridges accrue affinities with genuine wreakers of industrial deafness.  The 1963 Wilson Report, drawn up by the Committee on the Problem of Noise, assessed auditory annoyances, noting that noise such as creaking doors, crying babies or distant parties can have "an emotional effect out of all proportion to its physical intensity", conveying senses of "alarm, neglect, sadness [and] loneliness".  The Report also highlighted that the commonest annoyance of noise is its hindering of sound-based communication, including "the enjoyment of radio and television programmes" in leisure time, and yet radios and televisions are noise culprits too.

Jeremy Beadle's noise clippings - culled from items published between 1967 and 1981 - span a period when the issue was being pushed by newly-formed groups in the UK such as the non-departmental public body the Noise Advisory Council, and the Noise Abatement Society action group.  Dr. Helmut Hillman's aforementioned quote, that "the way to fight noise [is] to dramatise it" was prescient, as subsequent campaigns sought to grab the public's attention with increasingly dramatic flourishes.  In 1972 the Noise Advisory Council convened the 'Panel on Noise in the Seventies' and its 1974 publication Noise in the Next Ten Years offered an idea of setting up a "Quiet Town Experiment".  It recommended that the Government should select an area where authorities, industry and private citizens would be invited to co-operate in "an effort to see to what extent, given the goodwill of all concerned, the ambient noise level of a town can be reduced".  This experiment materialised two years later and represents the pinnacle of the 'dramatisation' of noise: the Darlington Quiet Town Experiment.

Darlington Quiet Town Experiment attempted to create a town-wide awareness of noise pollution from 1976 to 1978.  Unusually, none of Beadle's cuttings referred to this extraordinary long-running project which represents one of the 'noisiest' anti-noise campaigns in the UK.  However, I've interviewed a few coordinators of this initiative who tend to view it as a failed experiment.  "I am amazed that 40 years after that 'experiment' anyone should be interested," said its former publicity officer.  School shouting contests, plays, and literary competitions took place across Darlington and its suburbs as part of this experiment overseen by the Noise Advisory Council; a cassette containing a specially-composed song 'Turn It Down' was distributed.  "The World's First Quiet Bingo Game" was held, among other events forming a widespread publicity campaign that notably roped in celebrity motorcyclist Barry Sheene, pictured on a poster captioned "if I can win without a din, why can't you?"

During the Darlington Experiment, a shift from a Labour to a Conservative government signalled the end of the Noise Advisory Council, which was killed off as an expendable quango in 1981 (a New Scientist column titled "Quango's Noisy Death" suggested the Council might've been a bugbear to the government due to its public-facing noisy proactivity).  Before its demise, the Council published its summing up of the The Darlington Quiet Town Experiment.  This fascinating 1981 monograph features a pocket containing five publicity examples, with other specimens peppered throughout the text.  There's a distinct flavour of Scarfolk's fictitious hauntology about these bizarre nuggets of ephemera; it's decidedly fantastical.  One leaflet, for instance, encourages householders to "banish the noisy gnome from your home", with the gnome symbol recurring throughout the campaign.  A survey at the conclusion of the experiment disappointingly revealed only one respondent had realised the "noisy gnome" was associated with noise.

Leaflet from the Darlington Quiet Town Experiment.
The role of stories in the Darlington experiment stimulated creativity in schools, fostering noise-awareness in the next generation.  One publication - Children on Noise - collected noteworthy entries from noise-related literary competitions that many schools local to Darlington participated in.  Winning entries were supplied by schoolchildren aged between six and sixteen.  The poems are the exact opposite of the Italian Futurists' early 20th century poetry where, with a "Zang Tumb Tuuum", noise was celebrated.  By the late 20th century the rising generation were waxing poetic on unwanted noise: "Brrrrrm Brrrrrrrm / The motor-bikes go / It makes the tools in the shed go / Rattle Rattle Rattle / Brrrrrm Brrrrrrrm / They make a terrible noise when they whiz round my street..." wrote 7-year-old Niranjani Satha.

Children on Noise also contains stories, some intriguingly futurological.  Almost invoking the fringe science of radionics, 14-year-old Jennifer Simpson wrote: "noise is a form of energy and by the law of physics cannot be destroyed.  If this is true, sound must build up over the years."  In her story, 'The Dangerous Monster: Noise', Simpson develops this premise with the introduction of "Sound Hoovers" that vacuum-up accumulated noise, but these can only be operated by hypersensitive cleaners: "noise build-up cannot be detected by non-sensitive people".  Simpson's story follows the story of Gareth, a sensitive noise cleaner, whose "Sound Hoover" accidentally empties a decade's worth of noise whilst in his car, causing an accident.  The story concludes: "Who can tell what destructive force such as Gareth encountered will not lie dormant elsewhere if noise in its varying forms is not suppressed?"

One story in Children on Noise stands out from the rest for its imaginative complexity.  'The Anti-Noise Machine' is a science fiction tale penned by a future household name (returning here to the theme of celebrity and noise) - an 11-year-old Mark Gatiss, who attended the village Heighington CE Primary School, near Darlington.  Gatiss continues to write and also perform, and is now widely known for his work in The League of Gentlemen, Sherlock, Doctor Who, etc.  In that olde-worlde tradition previously alluded to, Gatiss also has sprawling interests that encompass the art of John Minton and the stories of M.R. James (and he has fronted documentaries on both respectively).  A few days ago, over Christmas, Gatiss' eerily atmospheric M.R. James adaptation Martin's Close was broadcast, and, coincidentally(?), noise was a key feature.  In its opening scene a troubled prisoner is seen clasping his ears to block out an ethereal sonic disturbance: a degraded dirge of an old folk song, The Keys of Heaven.  Last Christmas, another Gatiss ghost story was screened - an original psychological supernatural horror where noise is also apparent: The Dead Room featured a present-day narrator (played by Simon Callow) trying to record a story in an old studio.  He is assailed by a number of sonic cues that trigger delirious memories of a dark misdeed.  Again, the uncalled-for noise is in the guise of a song - Fox's already-unsettling 1976 S-S-S-Single Bed - which becomes increasingly tortured.  Perhaps the threads of noise, in its haunting potency, cropping up in Gatiss' work all link back to Darlington's Quiet Town Experiment?  To end these noisy ruminations, in unsanctioned abandon I'll paste here, in full, the earliest published story by a young Mark Gatiss, 'The Anti-Noise Machine' (published 1978), which, like anti-noise campaigning itself, concludes with a paradox - "if we destroy that [anti-noise] machine, noise will return -  if we don't, we'll be killed every time we shout."

[This blog seems an obscure enough nook to air Gatiss' early literary emission, as it's unlikely to cause any faux pas or be widely seen, swamped as it is by the noise of the internet.  If in the unlikely event Gatiss himself does see this, hopefully he won't mind.  But consider this: 'The Anti-Noise Machine' is set in the year 2023 - three years away - so maybe there's an urgent public duty to prepare people for such things...]


[note: * Stellagram = a futuristic meeting hall]

It was an eyesore, protruding from the buildings it stood gleaming in the sun.  If one had first entered the City of Darlington your first impression would be it was so quiet.  In fact it had to be quiet, if it wasn't it was against the law.  The gleaming eyesore was the enforcer of that law.  It was the District Energy Able Theocomputer Heavy Duty Robot, or D.E.A.T.H. D.R. for short.  In the City of Darlington on the day of 22nd July, 2023, Richard Schlitz began his resistance group.  Schlitz and a group of ten gathered together the instruments they needed and walked from the stellagram* onto the terribly quiet streets.  "On the count of three, start playing." said Olden to another member.  Three was counted and the party started making a terrific noise.  Then a high pitched whine filled the air.  Death Dr appeared round the corner.  A thin tube emerged from the massive body.  Then a pencil of blue light escaped it, with a horrible scream Schlitz and his party were bathed in the blue light, froze, and were gone.  The message was plain, "Keep Darlington quiet or else......"

David Montgomery sat at his desk.  He was on the phone.  "Why on earth should that great lumbering machine have to go round destroying great noises?  Why not 'peacefully'?  The thing's specially programmed not to ruin computer or agricultural machines."  He continued, "For goodness sake, they are human beings you know."  On the other end of the phone, Death Dr's inventor Professor Bernard Krine argued with him.  "Montgomery, in 1978 Darlington tried it peacefully, and no-one would listen, noise inflamed Darlington City and we had to stop it!"  "But why can't we try again, I think they've learned their lesson," retorted Montgomery.  "Destroy my machine and you may as well leave Darlington to rot!"  He slammed the phone down.  Montgomery put his head in his hands.  Tom Montgomery was David's son, he was around 18 when he first started his noise movement.  Today was his final reactionary movement, not in terms of retirement.  As his group began their sound, the whine began again.  Death Dr emerged, Tom and his party crossed quickly to a skyscraper.  Noiselessly Death Dr swept over to the building's third wall, dissolved it with yellow flames and sighted the group.  They were totally destroyed by the blue beam, including Montgomery's son.

"NO, I won't believe it - that dilapidated dustbin has killed my son."
"I'm very sorry David, but it's true," said Gregory Harrison, Montgomery's friend.  "I'm going to destroy it, I'm going to kill it," said Montgomery.  Before Harrison could stop him he rushed outside with a fire axe.  Wielding the weapon Montgomery began screaming - a great noise.  Death Dr fired as usual but missed as Montgomery dodged.  Firing again it again missed.  The huge axe was thrust up at the anti-noise machine.  It hit with dreadful accuracy at Death Dr's computerized brain.  The blue beam cut into Montgomery and destroyed him.  The machine's complex brain was now a complicated mess.  It was haywire: agricultural and computerised machines beware!  Death Dr is out to destroy all great noises!  "Look, don't blame me, it was Montgomery who made my machine crazed ...", the frenzied argument erupted between Krine and the Mayor, it was a signed death warrant.  The noise was enough to register on Death Dr's sensors.  It glided to its creators office, destroyed the wall and dissolved Krine.  The Mayor was next.  "If people had listened in 1978 that machine would never have existed at all. .."  He too was cut off abruptly by Death Dr. The Mayor backed away in terror as he was bathed in blue light and vanished.

"Well, what can we do?  Drop an Atomic Bomb on it?" said Geoffry Blase, a scientist.  "If we destroy that machine noise will return."  "If we don't we'll be killed every time we shout." replied Blase to Henry Ealiey's comment.

Ealiey walked through the desolation.  Crumbled buildings around his heels.  The Bomb had been dropped the people evacuated, and Darlington a ghost town.  He thought, "If only they had listened all those years ago, if only, if only ....."

AGE   11 years
(from Children on Noise [1978])

No comments:

Post a Comment