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Street Noises

"If any calm, a calm despair," is the portion of people who would like to reform, that is to abolish, the street noises of London. These noises are constantly commented upon with much freedom in the columns of various contemporaries. Nor is this remarkable, for persons who are occupied with what is called "brainwork," are peculiarly sensitive to the disturbances of the streets. Sometimes they cannot sleep till morning, sometimes they can only sleep in the earlier watches of the night, and, as a rule, they cannot write novels, or articles, or treatises; they cannot compose comic operas, or paint, in the midst of a row. Now, the streets of London are the scenes of rows at every hour of night and day- light. It is not the roll of carriages and carts that provokes irritation, and drives the sensitive man or woman half mad. Even the whistling of the metropolitan trains may, perhaps, be borne with if the drivers are not too ambitious artists, and do not attempt fantasias and variations on their powerful instrument. The noises that ruin health, temper, and power of work; the noises that cause an incalculable waste of time, money, and power, are all voluntary, and perhaps preventable. Let us examine the working hours of the nervous or irritable musician, mathematician, man of letters, or member of Parliament. On second thoughts, the last may be omitted, as if he cannot sleep in a tedious debate, his case is beyond cure.


   "Not bromide of potassium
   Nor all the drowsy speeches in the world"


can medicine him to forgetfulness of street noises. For the others, the day may be said to begin about five, when the voice of the chimney-sweep is heard in the land. Here we may observe that servants are the real causes of half the most provoking noises in London. People ask why the sweep cannot ring the bell, like other people. But the same people remark that even the howl of the sweep does not waken the neighbours' servants. Of what avail, then, could his use of the bell prove? It generally takes the sweep twenty-five minutes exactly to bring the servants to open the door. Meanwhile, the eminent men of letters in the street open their windows, and show a very fair command of language understanded by the people. But the sweep only laughs, and every three minutes utters a howl which resembles no other noise with which men are acquainted. Where do young sweeps learn to make this cry which can only be acquired by long practice? Perhaps it is inherited, like the music of "the damned nightingales," as the sleepless political economist called the Daulian birds.

When the sweep is silent, when slumber is stealing over the weary eyelids, then traction engines, or steam-rollers, or some other scientific improvement on wheels begin to traverse the streets and shake the houses. This does not last more than a quarter of an hour, and then a big bell rings, and the working men and women tramp gaily by, chatting noisily and in excellent spirits. Now comes the milkman's turn. He, like the chimney-sweep, has his own howl, softer, more flute-like in quality than that of the sweep, but still capable of waking any one who is not a domestic servant in hard training. The milkman also cries "woa" to his horse at every house, and accompanies himself on his great tin cans, making a noise most tolerable, and not to be endured. Is it necessary, absolutely necessary, that the milkman should howl? In some parts of town milkwomen distribute their wares without howling. They do, certainly, wear very short petticoats, but that is matter, as Aristotle says, for a separate disquisition. On the other hand, milkwomen exist who howl as loudly as milkmen. We cannot but fear that without these noises it would be difficult to attract the notice of servants. If this pessimistic view be correct, sweeps and milkmen will howl while London is a city inhabited. And even if we could secure the services of milkwomen of the silent species that ring the bell, could we hope to have female chimney-sweeps as well behaved? Here, at all events, is a new opening for female labour. When the milkman has done his worst, the watercress people come and mournfully ejaculate. Now it is time for the sleepless and nervous to get up and do their work. Now, too, the barrel-organ comes round. There are persons who, fortunately for themselves, are so indifferent to music that they do not mind the barrel-organ. It is neither better nor worse to them than the notes of Patti, and from the voice of that siren, as from all music, they withdraw their attention without difficulty. But other persons cannot work while the dirty grinder and the women that drag his instrument are within hearing. The barrel-organ, again, is strong in the support of servants, especially nurses, who find that the music diverts babies. The rest of the day is made hideous by the awful notes of every species of unintelligible and uncalled for costermonger, from him who (apparently) bellows "Annie Erskine," to her who cries, "All a-blowing and a-growing." There are miscreants who want to buy bones, to sell ferns, to sell images, wicker- chairs, and other inutilities, while last come the two men who howl in a discordant chorus, and attempt to dispose of the second edition of the evening paper, at ten o'clock at night. At eleven all the neighbours turn out their dogs to bark, and the dogs waken the cats, which scream like demoniacs. Then the public houses close, and the people who have been inebriated, if not cheered, stagger howling by. Stragglers yell and swear, and use foul language till about four in the morning, without attracting the unfavourable notice of the police. Two or three half drunken men and women bellow and blaspheme opposite the sufferer's house for an hour at a time. And then the chimneysweep renews his rounds, and the milkman follows him.

The screams of costermongers and of rowdies might surely be suppressed by the police. A system of "local option" might be introduced. In all decent quarters householders would vote against the licensed bellowings of cads and costermongers. In districts which think a noise pleasant and lively the voting would go the other way. People would know where they could be quiet, and where noise would reign. Except Bologna, perhaps no town is so noisy as London; but then, compared with Bologna, London is tranquillity itself. It is fair to say that really nervous and irritable people find the country worse than town. The noise of the nightingales is deplorable. The lamentations of a cow deprived of her calf, or of a passion-stricken cow, "wailing for her demon lover" on the next farm, excel anything that the milkman can perpetrate, and almost vie with the performances of the sweep. When "the cocks are crowing a merry midnight," as in the ballad, the sleepless patient wishes he could make off as quietly and quickly as the ghostly sons of the "Wife of Usher's Well." Dogs delight to bark in the country more than in town. Leech's picture of the unfortunate victim who left London to avoid noise, and found that the country was haunted by Cochin-China cocks, illustrates the still repose of the rural life. Nervous people, on the whole, are in a minute minority. No one else seems to mind how loud and horrible the noises of London are, and therefore we have faint hope of seeing nocturnal 'Arry gagged, the drunken drab "moved on," and the sweep compelled to ring the bell till some one comes and opens the door of the house in whose chimneys he is professionally interested.


Andrew Lang