A Little Peace & Quiet



I’m in a little place called Aiguafreda, where there’s nothing to listen to but the lap of water and the birds in the trees. And, it seems, my tinnitus. Of the six of us who met up a few days ago, four were sufferers.

The process of gathering your thoughts in a moment of calm reflection is, to me, one of the most important parts of being a writer – or indeed, anyone. Stress is insidious, sneaking in wherever it can, and you don’t notice how harmful it has become until it causes poor judgement in a crisis.

In London I live off one of the world’s noisiest thoroughfares; an arterial road that’s also the main road to one of the city’s busiest hospitals. A siren curfew is meant to exist between midnight and six but is ignored. And because it’s a high security risk (having been bombed by terrorists) police helicopters thrum through the sky regardless of anyone’s attempts to sleep.

In Barcelona there’s no traffic noise at all; I live in a pedestrian zone. I sleep two hours longer a night. Research on the adverse effects of noise and sleep is conclusive; sleep longer, stress less. Quite when the tinnitus arrived I don’t know; in London things are rarely quiet enough to hear it. My brother suffers far more badly than me, but it seems we all have it to a degree and maybe haven’t noticed.

Did it start at the rock concerts we attended as teens? Did it continue via the earpods we wore with our Walkmans? I can’t be the only person to complain that the volume doesn’t go high enough on my iPod. I’m amazed at the number of offices wear staff now live in headphones all day.

In all of this nerve-stretching, noise-encroaching chaos the biggest stress-reliever I can think of is not a chemical or medical remedy, but a book. It has got me through situations of grief, impatience, nerves and anger.

Placing your head into another world must be one of the most calming things you can do, and yet the fact that it is clearly not recognised as such is shown by the way in which governments fill our few oases of quiet with audio-detritus. London underground trains are the worst; endless health and safety warnings and absurd station announcements (‘You are approaching Russell Square – please alight here for the British Museum’) break your concentration. On the platforms, guards bellow needlessly through speakers.

In Tokyo or Dubai, Paris or Berlin you hear nothing. London is no respecter of calm except in its parks, which is why I’ve written about them in the next Bryant & May novel, ‘Bryant & May: Wild Chamber’.

Cities can’t be silent, of course. We don’t live in a vacuum. But New York improved its noise levels (I remember NYC in the 1970s and it was cacophonous) so why can’t London?

Until then I’m keeping my nose in a book (who am I kidding, I always have, always will). I’m finally getting around to reading James Ellroy so I need some peace and quiet to follow his complex stories.

And while I’m reading, the noise, pandemonium, rush and lunacy of modern life will fade away to a faint burbling, and my thoughts will belong to the words on the page before me.

The book ‘Quiet London’ is by Siobhan Wall and lists places where you can find peace with a book. ‘Bryant & May: Wild Chamber’ is out in March 2017.

B&M 16 WC

8 comments on “A Little Peace & Quiet”

  1. chazza says:

    Reading James Ellroy won’t do your tinnitus any good whatsoever!

  2. Ness says:

    I’m currently in Naples. Triple glazing aside, it feels like the angry horn honking motorists are in my room. I’d forgotten how noisy Naples was compared to Rome.

    I haven’t read a book for 3 weeks and am suffering withdrawal symptoms. I just read a travel brochure to calm down. I think the de-stressing will have to involve a day trip out of Naples. If you want to experience a quieter London have a few days in Naples first. I’m looking forward to the less angry traffic in London and the church bells from the German church that usually wake me up.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    We’ve been hearing lately about the ill effects caused by working night shifts and the broken sleep that often results from that. To have a regular increase of two hours sleep is disturbing to think about. I wonder how you would feel after a prolonged residence where you always had that full night’s sleep. Less irritable? Less angry?
    Don’t call the station announcements needless interruptions. If I am going somewhere I haven’t been before I am grateful for any advance warning – visual or audible. And then there are people who cannot read or read with difficulty and who would really be grateful for those announcements. Even if you put the tourists last, surely they come in there somewhere. When you get home you’ll be able to enjoy the increased traffic caused by the all night tube service on weekends.
    I sympathise with you about the tinnitus. something has given my husband attacks of it and it wasn’t rock concerts or earbuds. It must be literally maddening – and that is a proper use of literally.

  4. Vivienne says:

    One announcement per station would be enough, but you get more than that. The voice telling you to report any suspicious behaviour to staff or police is just stupid as there are no staff or police. I also want them to stop telling me we are being held at a red signal – if it,s a real problem the driver can tell you – and the AND we shall be moving shortly instead of ‘but’ is even more maddening. Maybe you can see it’s been a stressful day!

  5. John Howard says:

    I think I must be very lucky. Ever since my childhood, either through things taken from the library or from my parents bookshelves, I have been melting into many, many different worlds. From Winnie the Pooh to Our Mutual Friend, via Wind in the Willows and The Big Sleep, oh and a certain Christopher Fowler, I have had fifty odd years of stress relief.
    Have just finished B & M Strange Tide and am currently in the middle of the latest Charles Stross; in Leeds with magical alien beings trying to tear it apart. Humorously of course.
    I’m jealous of the view, it looks good enough to dive into, but am sorry to hear about the tinnitus.

  6. Roger says:

    Smetana incorporated his tinnitus into his second string quartet.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Did Beethoven have tinnitus or just ordinary deafness? I would think it would be almost ruinous to a composer.
    Heard an interview with a woman who found one of the pressure cooker bombs in New York last week. When she walked back past it she thought to herself, “They keep telling us on the subway to report anything strange to the police and whatever that taped up thing on the sidewalk is, it is certainly strange. I think I’ll call the police.” So she did when she’d walked the two blocks to her apartment and the police were there in two minutes, complete with caution tape and bomb defusing robots.

  8. John Howard says:

    Ordinary deafness in the end Helen.

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