30 July. The enterprising Museum of London has just made available two sets of recordings of London noise. The first is a series of gramophone records of street sounds made in 1928.* The Museum claims that these were the earliest such recordings ever made, and that they have never since been heard in their entirety. They were commissioned by the Daily Mail as part of its campaign against what it considered to be the unbearable noise of the modern city. It wrote that:
‘Those who cannot afford the time to travel about the city to hear for themselves how ear-splitting the traffic din has become will be able to have the noises brought to them so that they may be analysed and studied. It is confidently expected that a surprising proportion of them will be found to be wholly unnecessary and therefore preventable.‘
The Museum then had the bright idea of organising a parallel set of recordings of the same streets this May, in the midst of the lockdown.** They are posted on its site as ‘Silent London.’
Much to praise, except the title. The ten, five-minute recordings, listened to through earphones, are anything but silent. The recordings were made during weekday afternoons, and almost without exception they are dominated by the roar of street traffic. It is difficult to calibrate the relative volume of noise in the two sets of recordings. The 1928 sounds, taken from sometimes scratchy LPs with a voice-over describing what is passing the microphone, seem less invasive than the technically much superior modern recordings in which vehicles pass in stereo from one ear to the other. Only in Leicester Square, where there is limited traffic in ordinary times, is it possible to pick up occasional birdsong (particularly cooing pigeons at the beginning) and passing conversations.
By contrast the 1928 soundscape, which so exercised the Daily Mail, presents a wider range of aural events. The traffic is more varied, with steam lorries and frequent horse-drawn carts amidst the petrol-driven cars, taxis, buses and lorries. The bells and wheel-flanges of trams can be heard. And over the background roar there is music – a violinist playing with great clarity at the beginning of one recording, a boy whistling, a band including a clarinettist and a banjo-player, and a barrel organ, the mainstay of later nineteenth-century street players, still issuing mechanical tunes. There is a newspaper seller barking in a strident monotone.
So was the much-discussed phenomenon of the silent, locked-down city an illusion? Perhaps the May recordings were just made too late. My diary entry of April 17 described a 75-mile drive to Manchester where the traffic was lighter than usual but far from absent. The period of grace in central London, if it existed, may have been over before the Museum of London set up its microphones (it is not clear when in May it did so). I am told by a friend who daily walked through the streets in the early days of lockdown that birdsong could be heard loud and clear, though not much conversation between people keeping their distance. And always there were the ambulance sirens.
Perhaps it was and still is seriously much quieter in the side streets. Perhaps a half-empty thoroughfare, on which the traffic can flow freely, is intrinsically noisier than a near-gridlocked one where cars are mostly at a standstill (I assume traffic engineers know about this). There are other silences not picked up by road-side microphones. My son tells me that he remains daily mindful of the absence of planes on the flight-path to and from the City of London Airport which normally pass over his house.
I would like to imagine the possibility of walking about the capital listening to nothing noisier than birdsong, occasional conversations, and intermittent church bells. But I fear that at least in the daytime, the streets of London have never been that quiet since the fields were first built over.
**The modern London recordings were made on behalf of the Museum by Will Cohen of ‘String and Tins.’