I was listening to Radio 4 about the intention of producing a European soundscape by a Swedish researcher. The soundscape would consist of noises we hear in everyday life. I wonder what people think is a distinctive English sound? Church bells, the whack of willow on leather, the beep of the supermarket till, the roar of traffic, a brass band?
Sound means a great deal to me. I spent the first 10 years of my life in an industrialised area of Stoke in the early 60s which had a very noticeable clamour which instantly takes me back.
We lived between a railway line and the canal and there were also factories and workshops in the street. The sound that the wagons made as they were shunted into sidings with the distinctive, diminishing clatter they made along with the sound of the steam engines as they pulled out of Stoke Station with their whistles was a very early memory. In that period many boats worked the canal. Their engines strained and spluttered as barges moved along the Trent and Mersey making phut, phut sounds and a final cacophony when they unloaded into silos. Over the road was a cooper’s making barrels with the scream of a high powered saw and the banging of mallets fixing the hoops of iron around the planks. Further along the street was a mill that ground flint with the deep pounding, rather satisfying sound. On match days we could hear the roar of crowds of 40,000 from the Victoria Ground less than a mile away from Lytton St.
Then there were the street cries of the rag and bone man and clip clop of horses hooves, the man who sold the local paper, bawling out “Sen-tin-ell” and the costermonger’s distinctive “Cooking Ap-pels, ripe pears,
fresh to-ma-toes””. Street cries, of course, go back a long way. The 16th century composer Orlando Gibbons noted down the hawkers of the capital in “Cries of London” .
Today I can experience the yell of the scrap metal dealer seeking bargains in Leek.
It would also be a mistake to think that the countryside is a silent. Once on Stiperstones in Shropshire some years ago I made a note of the sounds I could hear early one Saturday morning. The roar of a tractor, the barking of a farm dog, the cawing of crows, the sound of a jet far above- all were recorded.
And of course places and the noise they generate can change as the newspaper account from 1936 of Froghall Wharf proves “ Some 50 years ago the basin was a scene of bustling activity with limestone being broken into ballast grades by large groups of men, limestone was burned into agricultural lime. On the other side of the canal brick making was practised and further into the valley coal was mined from galleries running into the valley sides”.
There would have been sounds of heavy industry with bricks being made and stacked, of limestone being crushed and materials being loaded on to narrow boats of wagons, of steam trains trundling up the valley and the shriek of hooters and yells of men.
In short, a scene of noisy frantic activity and not the untouched sylvan glade we see now.