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August 05, 2004

More Silence, More Civility

Posted by Digby Anderson

Digby Anderson discovers the "silence carriage" on the Marseille to Nice train, and considers how extending the "silence principle" - or rather the banning of the wrong sort of noise - could improve many aspects of life.

I was recently travelling on the train from Marseille to Nice. It was a TGV and you will be pleased to know it was just as late as any self-respecting English, rusting, slow train. My carriage contained several French people who activated their mobile phones every ten minutes to explain that we were still standing at Toulon station. I left my seat and went to the restaurant car. You will also be pleased to know that this wasn't a restaurant car in any traditional sense but a man selling boxes of ghastly international junk food, nothing French, not so much as a saucisson sandwich. After making this discovery, I returned immediately to my carriage and seat. However I made another discovery on the way. There was a carriage marked "Silence Carriage". As I walked through it, no-one was speaking. Even more noteworthy was the behaviour of a dog. It had placed itself right in the middle of the corridor. It was one of those nasty, yappy little terrier dogs, just the sort to start squealing and nipping as I engineered myself over it. It made not a sound. It was eyeing the silence notice with a rather cowered expression. Just occasionally one is tempted to admire the power of the French state.

Indeed thinking about it, what a good idea this silence lark might be. It might be just the thing for Mr Blunkett, ever eager to be seen to be tough. And why not extend it? Why not silent shops, a silent pub or even a silent village - during certain hours? Certainly silent or at least inaudible church services would be a vast improvement. Or, would they? What the pub needs is not total silence but noise restricted to a murmur of conversation. The village could do without the shouting of louts but only so one could the better hear the birds sing. Even masses said "in secret" are better if there is an organ quietly Faure-ing in the background. The French state has got it wrong. What is needed is not to abolish noise but to abolish unpleasant noise, shouting down mobile phones, oikish parents yelling at screaming, oikish children, teenage oiks driving nasty little cars with noisy exhausts and Boom-Boom music at high volumes.

If you want a test case, take something very important such as breakfast. Traditionally a good half of the population say they would like silence at breakfast. But they don't mean silence. A true English breakfast means the tinkle of Georgian teaspoons on Crown Derby cups, the sizzling of bacon coming from the kitchen, the scraping of Marmite onto toast, the gentle tapping of boiled eggs, the rustle as readers turn their Telegraph to the Obits page, maybe these days the whoosh of an Expresso and for hardy and more traditional souls, the popping of champagne corks. I once had breakfast in a hotel in Sweden. For some reason, perhaps, knowing the Swedes, connected with hygiene, they had plastic disposable cutlery - no scraping, no tappings, no tinkle. They had no bacon just cold fish, cardboard muesli and pre-shelled hard boiled eggs. No sizzle. Filter coffee meant no whoosh. And champagne was over 100 a bottle. No pops. In fact there was no noise at all. It was hell.

It would not be difficult to get rid of excessive noise. If the police would only do their jobs and start harassing young people for having loud exhausts and Boom Boom machines in their cars, that would stop that. Private regulation could do more than the law. At my swimming club the children scream and their instructresses shout their instructions at them in order to be heard above the screaming. Yet the club has a rule against shouting - and, by implication, screaming. Why not enforce it and ban any child who makes excessive noise and their parents or those responsible for them? The pub used to ban loud swearing and obscenities: no gentleman minds a muttered curse. Those who swore, blasphemed or produced obscenities in such a way as to offend others were asked to behave and put something in the swear tin. Not any more. Why not?

But even if all this were done it would still leave bad noise that is quiet. And quiet noise can be very bad indeed. That dreadful musak in hotels, bars and lifts is the most obvious example of an institutional bad noise. Persons slurping their food is a more individual one. These are lapses in taste and manners and only a society more committed to hounding bad taste and manners will get rid of them. The chance of this society regaining such a commitment is even less than that of our dripping wet and politically correct senior officers letting loose their fine men to persecute yobs again.

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit earlier this year.

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A brilliant piece by Digby Anderson - at last I have found somewhere where I can regularly read his opinion. I have been missing them since the end of 'Imperitive Cooking' in The Spectator.

Posted by: Jane Rothwell at August 8, 2004 11:43 AM

I support the views above, especially regarding noisy exhausts.
I would appreciate your support for the Campaign Against Noisy Exhausts (CANE) please visit for details. Thank you.

Posted by: Agno at June 7, 2006 09:05 AM
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