June 28, 2013 § 31 Comments
I’m currently reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic London: The Biography. This is the third non-fiction book I’ve read in the past year on the history and culture of London (the others were Peter White’s London in the 20th Century, and Iain Sinclair’s luminous London Orbital). I’m not entirely sure why I’m reading so much of London, a city I don’t have any connection to; nor is it a city I feel any attraction to. But, here I am, no doubt attracted to these books because I find the city to be so fascinating (that’s the city in generic, not London particularly). And London is the most written-about city in the English language. Anyway.
One of Ackroyd’s chapters is about the sounds of London in the early modern era. I find acoustic history to be fascinating. Historians are increasingly interested in the sounds of the past (including my good friend, S.D. Jowett, whose blog is here), and this shouldn’t be surprising. Given the innovative uses we historians have made of our sources, it’s really no surprise that now we’re beginning to ponder the smells and sounds of the past. And cities, of course, are prime locations for such explorations. One of my favourite Montréal websites is the Montréal Sound Map, which documents the soundscapes of the city.
Ackroyd has done interesting work in excavating the audio history of London, including references to the combined sound of the city in the early modern era, like a cacophony or like the roaring of the ocean. These noises, of course, were and are entirely human created, the noise of people living in close quarters in a big city. Even the sounds of nature in cities are mediated through human intervention, such as the rushing streams and rivers of early modern London, or the mediated parks of the modern city, such as Mont-Royal in Montréal or Central Park in New York, both of which were created and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. It came as a shock to me when I learned that most of the flora and fauna on Mont-Royal were not, in fact, native species, but were brought in by Olmsted and planted there for aesthetic reasons.
When I think of the roar of the city, I tend to think of Manhattan. For my money, there is no urban space on this planet as loud as mid-town. The endless roar of traffic, the honking of horns, the sounds of people on the streets talking, sirens wailing, fights breaking out, the sound of planes flying overhead, people hawking things along the sidewalks. I had never really thought all that much about the noise of the city, it was just part of the background noise. But a few years ago, I realised that I like white noise machines. They were, I though, supposed to be evocative of the ocean (near which I grew up), but that’s not what the sounds evoked in me. They evoked the sounds of the city, the constant hum of human activity. The only other place I’ve been that challenges Manhattan for the capital of noise is my hometown. Montréal is downright noisy, as all cities are, but Montréal hurts my ears. Hence my love for Parc Mont-Royal. Once you get amongst the trees on the side of the mountain, the sounds of the city become a distant roar. The same is true for Central Park.
Where I sit right now, I hear the sounds of the city, over the sound of the loud music blasting out of my speakers. But I can hear people walking by my house, I can hear the traffic on the busy street at the end of my block, and sirens.
It’s not surprising that academics as a whole are starting to turn to the sounds that surround us, given how much of an impact our environment has upon us. This is just as true of rural areas (in which case, the silence can tend to frighten city folk). In the late 19th century, the anti-modernists took hold of a part of North American culture. They were turned off by the city, by the noise, by the hustle & bustle, by the fast pace of life. People began to develop neurasthenia, wherein the patient began to feel frazzled, burned out, and depressed due to a frazzling of the nerves. It was particularly common in American cities, and for awhile was also known as “Americanitis.” So the anti-modernists, who preached a basic ‘back to the land’ message. Canada’s most famous artistic sons, the Group of Seven, were predicated on this kind of anti-modernism, they championed the mid-Canadian north as a tonic against the aggravation of living in the city.
But what I find most interesting about the kind of acoustic history that Ackroyd introduces us to is the way in which he is so successful at recreating the past, I can almost put myself in the streets of London in the 17th century. Perhaps this is not surprising. I read something once that said that sounds, more than sights, triggered our other senses, as well as our imagination and memory (think of this next time you hear a song that has meaning for you, you will be transported back to that meaning). But, for historians, acoustic histories (as well as histories of smells, the other incredibly evocative sense) really do work at making history come alive, so to speak. Plus, it’s also just kind of cool to imagine what a city sounded like 200 years ago.