Clotted cream, cooing pigeons, vengeful croquet – I’m living the English summer dream

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

So, I am enjoying a pot of Assam and a scone heaped with jam and clotted cream, on the terrace of the tearooms at Hidcote Manor Garden, Glos, and, as so many men in similar situations do, idly and with no serious intent whatsoever, I’m checking out the talent.

It’s a Monday afternoon, so we have a mainly senior set of visitors around us. It occurs to me, with a mild shock, that apart from the Beloved, her twin sister and her paramour, I am by some measure the youngest person here, if you don’t count the staff. (The man at reception was older than me, though, and had a manner about him that strongly reminded me of Pickles, the louche long-haired posho who used to prop up the bar of the Coach and Horses and deliver withering verdicts on your personality in exchange for the odd drink. Could they be the same person? The receptionist at Hidcote is far nicer but still has a way of talking that makes you feel as though you are sitting in the cheap seats and have been caught picking your nose. The Americans buying tickets are positively writhing in pleasure.)

This new-found youthful feeling is rather pleasing, if a little unsettling. The only time I could ever imagine being the youngest person in a place would be if I stood in a graveyard, and even then it would be touch and go. And yet here I am. Relatively young. But not as young as the B and her sis, even though today they are officially a year older, as today is their birthday. Quite a few years – enough to insert a young person of voting age – separate the B and I but circumstances have contrived to make her seem as though she has come from an earlier stage of British history. Growing up in a household too poor to afford a TV, she and her sisters had to learn to make their own entertainment. I always suspected that the notion of doing without telly and “making your own entertainment” was bogus and intended to make people my age feel guilty about watching Wacky Races but it turns out it wasn’t bogus at all, and when I’m with the B it can feel like I’ve been catapulted back to the 1930s. Not only can they all play about five musical instruments each, some of them pretty arcane ones too, they are expert and inspired at making up games, and on the train to Banbury, where we are to be met, my book is confiscated and I am commanded to give the B my full attention.

The first game is Hangman, by way of easing me into the whole concept of mutual conviviality. There is a small boy sitting next to us who starts taking an interest and offers “danger” as a suggestion to the word I am thinking of, but when the B works out that the word’s first letter is a W and its fourth is a K, she confiscates the piece of paper and we move on.

“Guess which one of the colours in Joseph’s Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat I’m thinking of,” she says. “How will I know you’re not fibbing?” I ask, although this is the least of my worries, as I have not seen the musical since my children’s primary school forced an audience of stunned and disbelieving parents to endure a loose performance of this work about ten years ago, and not all of us were giving it our full attention. She scribbles a word down on a piece of paper and hides it, and after about 20 minutes, and several clues, in which I name every gaudy colour I can think of, I correctly give the answer “ruby”.

But then we have a pub lunch and pétanque and then off to the National Trust’s Hidcote Manor. “Are you Trust members?” asks the man who looks like Pickles. “No,” says the B’s sister, “but our mum’s on the cover of your leaflet” – and fuck my old boots but there she is, along with the B’s older sister and her husband, busy admiring some lupins. I have landed, it would seem, bang in the middle of the most English family in the world. Being technically only a quarter English myself, I find this extraordinarily thrilling.

We enjoy a delightfully rancourous and vengeful few games of croquet on the massive lawn (to play the game croquet properly, it is important to suspend every generous and sporting impulse you have). I retire to smoke a crafty jazz cigarette under a massive pine and watch the others race around in improvised croquet-related games while the sun blazes down. The wood-pigeons coo in the trees; we virtually have the place to ourselves. After a while I beckon the B over and whisper in her ear. “Sorry to bother you,” I murmur, “but isn’t heaven meant to be rather like this?”

A woman playing croquet, 1930. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.