I worked for years in central London (above*), in locations where the wailing of sirens, whirring of police surveillance helicopters and constant, substantial traffic noise necessitated quiet and calm at other times of my week. Even though I didn't live in the capital, it was hard to find silent places – out of range of airports, motorways and noisy neighbours – in the overcrowded southeast of England, even on the slopes of the delightful North Downs.
Now I am living in a rapidly growing city in the southeast of Queensland, albeit in a lovely leafy suburb. To pass through Bulimba, you'd think it was a relatively peaceful place, and it is, on occasion, but not often. Curiously, it's often at its quietest on week days during term time. But rarely at weekends, and especially during summer.
First, a bit of background information:
I know nothing about building regulations in Queensland, but our house is not well insulated, acoustically or thermally. (It's a new build, not a Queenslander.) Sounds from outside are often so clear I think I've forgotten to close the windows. And in winter, the house rapidly radiates any heat it's absorbed during the day.
Many Australians keep their dogs in the 'yard'. Why is that? Because it's warm most of the year? Or because they don't like dog hair all over their lounge rooms? I can only speculate. The consequence is that during the day dogs bark whenever anyone walks by and in the dead of night they seem to get spooked by leaf-fall and bark some more. One very often sets off another.
A common driving style in Oz involves much over-revving and sudden acceleration - even if you're less than 100 metres from a junction. Many of the drivers who employ such methods – JIUs (jerks in utes) I affectionately call them – have large-diameter exhausts and monster bars added as extras. They might also have a rego (registration) plate such as KIK ASS. You get the picture? Large-diameter exhausts purport to enhance performance (of the car): they have often had their mufflers modified so they barely fall within the EPA's** recommended decibel limits. In other words, the silencer has been adjusted so the car makes a hell of a lot of noise.
Aussies love gadgets. Especially garden gadgets. Weekends are big gadget days – lawn mowers and edge trimmers and hedge clippers and weed-eaters and leaf-blowers and high-pressure hoses and chainsaws, they're all buzzing about, loudly. It's not uncommon for more than one to be in use at the same time, and no time of weekend day is sacrosanct. So, you're just ready to sit down to your Sunday evening barbie on the deck when Mr Fastidious from just opposite comes out and takes an age to loudly mow his pocket handkerchief out front, and his neighbour's. I suppose it's a bit like the barking dogs: one lawn cutter reminds another that he needs to do his lawns. And in this exceedingly wet Queensland summer, grass grows like the clappers.
Most Australians appear to have inbuilt audio immunity. They rarely even raise an eyebrow as their peace is shattered. And I think genetic modification in response to a noise-filled environment from birth may have contributed to the strident vocal characteristic that many of them exhibit.
So, one day towards the end of last year, I was awoken a number of times between midnight and 1.15am by the yapper who lives across the road and down a bit. One of our neighbours left for work as usual at 4.45 in his squeaky-braked ute. Just before 7, workmen arrived next door: during the morning their woodwork involved high-pitched drop and bench saws. After breakfast a large slasher (tractor-mounted mower) arrived in Waterline Crescent Park for the regular grass cutting. Usually, a smaller slasher – for mowing the awkward bits – follows on a bit later, but on this day they both turned up at the same time. A matter of moments later, different Council contractors turned up at the front of my house armed with hedgies (hedge trimmers) to cut back the bushes in the lane. It would have been a lot quieter sitting by Brisbane Airport's main runway.
I am not embellishing this. There's no point: no one would believe it. I laughed slightly hysterically and smiled as I approached the noise-makers to find out what machinery they were using – for research purposes.
In Germany they have Ruhezeit – rest, or quiet, time – by law. Quiet time is between 8 or 9pm and 7am and all day on Sundays and public holidays. (In the state of Hesse, this used to apply between 1 and 3 every afternoon as well, until that particular bit of the law was repealed in the mid-Noughties.) No household or garden appliances are allowed to disturb the peace during Ruhezeit. Also in the name of neighbourly consideration, washing the car is frowned upon (chemicals are released into the ground water); barbecues are limited to once a month (smells and smoke); and party noise outside has to cease by 10pm (which it generally does in Queensland in any case because everybody goes to bed early and gets up early).
I would never dare suggest that the Australian national pastime be restrained in any way, but, in this rule-loving land, perhaps we could all learn a thing or two from the Germans.
* Noise map of central London produced by Noise Mapping England for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The redder and blacker, the noisier.
** Environmental Protection Agency
*** This sign is near the Powerhouse in New Farm, source of some of my best signs to date