The Soundtrack to my Life

GorgOVERears

The massive tower crane across the street hums incessantly. Rising and falling like a siren that whistles and screams, as the metal at the end of its cables clatters and scrapes along the roof of the monster block being built right in front of my windows.

They’ve already started tiling the lower floors. There’s the whine of the chaser they cut the tiles with, screaming like a demented banshee. Stopping and starting. Incessantly.

The workers shout at each other across the block. They’re directing the guy who has just brought a truck full of sand, and the high-up arm on the truck clatters and grinds its way up to one of the storeys, while workers shovel sand noisily into the bucket, the crunch of the shovel not lost, but providing a backdrop to the shouted instructions that seem never-ending.

There’s the persistent loud clippity-clopp of the machine that smooths the stone blocks before they’re laid. It’s left on all the time, in between the sharp wail and screech it makes when each block of stone is passed through it. Then the clippity-clopp returns, accompanied by the clanking of the large chisel used to pat the blocks in place on the cement.

Ah, the jackhammer down the street is at it again. The workers must have broken for lunch. It’s back now, full tilt. Easily the most horrendous noise in existence, vibrating my mind and thoughts with its jiggedy-jig, loud and head-shattering. They must have found some other two-storey house to knock down and transform into a charmless monolith of concrete. It will soon be followed by the horrendous clackity-clack of the earth digger. Those were horrible months, those were, just before the building started on the monstrosity across the way. What fun to look forward to.

One of the neighbours’ daughter’s boyfriend, in his souped up Escort Mark 2 has come to collect her again. The growl of the engine gives him away. It’s left on, of course, as he sits on the horn to call her out. The horn is a loud parp. Pressed twenty times (I counted) before her shrill voice, presumably from a window, tells him she’s coming.

They’re playing the radio full on in the block being built behind us. I know when the workers turn up at half past six in the morning. That’s when the radio is switched on. And it stays on till they leave around five in the afternoon. They must be ready to roof one of the floors. There’s an awful crashing of metal on stone. The net to be used? Possibly. They’re using an angle grinder, that drones, then screeches loudly as it cuts through the steel. Feels like a stiletto of sound, sharp and pointed, piercing my ear drums.

Ah, the neighbour’s daughter did not stay true to her promise to come down. It’s the parp-parp-parp of the Escort’s (undoubtedly customized) horn again. OK. Only fifteen times this time. Her shrill voice silences it. She screams at him. He shouts back, and swears to high heaven, and slams the door of the car. No, the doors. OK, he seems to be slamming doors instead of sitting on the horn, venting his frustration at her tardiness.

A rather large woman who drives a tiny Subaru and has five young kids (all packed into it whenever I see them) has just arrived. She has a voice that would shame the roar of a bull being taunted in Pampalona. And the kids, it seems, who whine and cry and scream and shout and argue loudly, can do no right. She bawls at them, and slams the doors of her Subaru (what is it with slamming doors in frustration in my street?). Good, they’re moving away, the roar of their interaction slowly fading and being drowned out now by the hum of the high-up arm, lifting up the bucket of sand as the scraping shovel perpares more for when it lands.

The sudden elevated growl of the Escort signals the arrival of the prodigal girlfriend, and for nearly a minute it masks the sound of the tower crane and the stone machine, though not the chaser and the angle grinder. Nor the jackhammer. Nothing masks the jackhammer.

They’re hammering next door, and drilling. Both sounds compete with each other, but the drilling actually wins. I get the impression of a meters high drill, twisting holes out of tiny walls. The whir is massive and drones for long minutes. It stops for seconds at a time, but then the hammering (must be more than one hammer… has to be…) takes over with gusto. Occassionaly there’s a symphony, the drill providing the wind and string instruments, and the hammer the percussion. The composer, though, must have been insane and produced a discordant overture to madness.

Oh, it’s the front door neighbour’s son. I had not seen him for the first few years I lived here. But I recognised him from his voice. A fog-horn of a voice, but with the edge of nails scraping on a blackboard. I have only ever heard him shouting and swearing at the top of his lungs. I’ve never heard him laugh, nor have I heard him speak softly (I very much doubt he can). He is shouting at his mother to open the door. He has rung the doorbell twice, and is now impatient to go in. Ah, he’s kicking the door now. And the voice again. Rasping like a bad actor’s in a horror movie. When once I caught a glimpse of him, his bulk fit right in with his voice. Most of it was round the tummy, true, but the chest from where the fog-horn emanated was wide and barrel-like, and might even, with training, turn up the decibels one day. I worry about earthquakes if that were to be the case. Good. She’s let him in. And he’s giving her a lashing of his tongue (it’s a rasping roar that reverberates and echoes till it fades in the innards of the house).

Good lord, it’s Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” blaring from the street. High. Incredibly high. Let’s see what my phone app says. Hmm… it’s fluctuating between 102 and 107 decibels. And I’m five floors up. Must be as high as a jet-engine where it’s coming from. But who…? A quick look out the window. A 1990’s BMW across the way with its front doors open. Its owner has a blue bucket and a chamois and sponge. He must have decided he wanted entertainment as he washed his car. Oh, he’s opened the back doors. Rick Astley’s heavenly voice gives me hell. I close all windows, my double glazing knocking ten or so decibels off the din.

But the jackhammer is magic. It’s jiggedy-jig seems to cut right through double glazing and creates a soundtrack to life.

My life…

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Tortured by the noise

What do Aztec warfare, South and North Korean clashes, the conflict in Northern Ireland, Guantanamo Bay and living in a Maltese town have in common?

In all cases there are instances of intense sound torture, a persistent, damaging loud noise that dominates the lives of individuals, overpowering their senses and damaging them to the point where the lifestyle of each goes to the dogs.

As I write this on a Saturday morning, our small flat is being assaulted on two sides by horrendous noise. Immediately behind us there’s a jackhammer, very slowly and agonisingly demolishing a gorgeous old townhouse to turn it into a tower of flats, the earsplitting metallic stuttering making us shout to be heard. In the meantime the flat shudders and vibrates every other second as in front of us, a metal monstrosity toc-toc-tocs incessantly from seven in the morning till seven at night, digging into the rock of a huge plot that used to be a factory, aided by a large electric shovel that reverberatingly piles the dug-up rocks into the back of a truck. Every day. Six (sometimes seven) days a week. Assaulting every sense, flooding my head with so much noise there is a persistent headache and a feeling of hopelessness that makes me want to run away. Except that, in Malta, there is nowhere to run away to from the persistent, loud noise.

Writing in Torture and Democracy about a 1971 instance of sound torture during the conflict in Northern Ireland, Darius Rejali has this to say about the effect of persistent noise on the prisoners. “Most men reported auditory hallucinations including church hymns, Sousa marches, an Italian tenor, protest poems, and a death service. […] Less attention has been paid [by the guards] to the not so dramatic effects of the tortures, including blurred vision, intense loss of sensation, and intense swelling of the ankles to almost twice normal size.” (p. 364)

There is rampant over-construction going on in Malta, uncontrolled for a very long time, but even worse now that MEPA has lost all sense of anything short of the politically instigated and is allowing everything everywhere. Because of this, normal Maltese people, living their daily lives in homes that should be their castles of relaxation, are exposed to continuous noise pollution This has seriously interfered with our well-being, causing us an irretrievable loss of rest and the undermining of a lifestyle we worked very hard to achieve.

But that’s not the only thing we’ve lost in the process. Peace of mind is absolutely necessary to the functioning of people who need to work for a living and who then need to recharge, otherwise they don’t function. The effect of the constant noise around us is also ruining our health.

According to S. K. Agarwal, in his 2009 book Noise Pollution, persistent noise can have an enormously negative effect on people. Selecting just a few effects from a never-ending list, I can mention: ill-temper, mental disorientation, loss of working efficiency, violent behaviour, and a lot of psychological and physiological disorders – neurosis, anxiety, insomnia, hypertension and even severe effects on foetuses in the case of pregnant women. All of this results in severe health consequences, which include: hearing damage, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, ear pain, burning of the skin, significant change in pulse rate, and prolonged exposure can cause insanity, ear drum ruptures and lung damage.

A 2011 Danish study by the University of Copenhagen’s Mette Sørensen and her colleagues terrifyingly showed that there is a direct relationship between the increase of noise and stroke.

I can continue quoting the literature ad nauseam. Everything says that noise is bad for you. Everything!

So why are the Maltese so apathetic to all of this? When I posted on a social network a sound recording of the horrendous noise that forms the backdrop to my daily life in my apartment (in spite of its double glazing), I got a lot of sympathetic noises, with some people actually telling me they’ve had to buy noise-filtering headphones, and others having to sleep with ear-plugs in, but nobody could suggest anything practical to stop this infernal intrusion into our daily lives. We accept it as if it’s a normal part of who we are. ‘The Maltese are a noisy race, what can we do?’ ‘There is nothing wrong with manically pealing bells being played through loudspeakers in the local belfry at 6.30 in the morning… it’s all part of our traditions!’ ‘The economy depends on the construction industry. They need to work, after all!’

But what about our own civil liberties? What about our own slice of happiness and the right to living a healthy life that is not corroded by someone else’s egotistic activity that ignores entirely the fact that there are those who will not benefit from any of the construction, but who are being severely hurt by the effects of it?

The EU demands that local authorities make action plans to reduce ambient noise, which categorically includes construction noises. In a number of directives, I have found reference to the fact that these authorities have the power to provide that conditions in relation to noise prevention or reduction be included in the planning permission at granting stage, and these are conditions that can apply to either the construction stage or the subsequent use of the building. Or both.

So why do the local authorities (read MEPA and local councils) ignore this? Yes, there might be lip service paid to noise abatement, but it is little more than that given the proof. What can a normal citizen, needing to rest in a home that should be a protector of health and sanity do to ascertain that there is no infringement to the right of the enjoyment of a lifestyle that is not deteriorated abysmally by others?

Our very existence is being threatened by the noise that seems to be increasing every day. Our authorities do not seem to care one whit about this. Maybe it is time for a citizen’s movement to rise and demand a right to sanity!

(Published in THE TIMES of MALTA on March 9, 2016)

JackHammerCartoon

I hate the sound of jackhammers!

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I hate the sound of jackhammers. I cannot stand it. It is as obnoxious as it is loud, and it hits my brain in waves of disruption. It confuses my ideas and stops me thinking, making me want to scream so loud that I drown it out, even if just for a few seconds.

I live in an area that is being built up. That is to say, I live in Malta!

As I write this, a huge tower crane drowns out the landscape to the left of my flat, as a massive apartment block has, since last summer, been pandemoniously on its way up to kill yet another bit of the very limited view we have left. And since yesterday, to my right, workers with a jackhammer are tearing up the roof of another old house, possibly to replace it with yet another hulking block, which will remain empty for many years, in much the same way that so many other flats brought into existence by the artificial building boom that has ruined the lives of so many quite streets, have remained empty and will continue to do so.

The sound of the jackhammer is not just horrendous per se, it is also symbolic of the doom of yet another slice of what we were, all to be replaced by what we have recklessly striven to be for years now. I am not massively nostalgic, and do believe that some of the old houses are better off leveled to the ground. But it’s what we do with the space that’s left that really kills me.

We are pretty much going down an incredibly steep hill very fast and the brakes shattered quite a bit back. Few realise that there always seems to be the word “bust” after the word “boom”, and when “building” precedes that word, then we really are in deep trouble. Just ask the Irish.

Selfishly, I just hate the noise. I cannot work in it, and I just cannot conceptualise that it will go on for months and years, and that the moment it eases (for it never ceases), another one, possibly right next door, will start.

We live in dust and grit and we do it because we know no better. And there is so much infernal noise we should all be deaf.

And right this minute, I wish I was.