The Art of Listening: vuvuzelas

On the sound of the 2010 World Cup.

A couple of mornings ago, I awoke from a dream about being chased by a bee. I might have thought nothing of it, but in the days since, friends have reported similar occurrences. It would seem that the likely culprit is a long plastic horn which non-African football audiences are only now familiar with as the vuvuzela.

Many people do not like the cumulative and enveloping buzz produced by thousands of spectators blowing the horn in unison. Some have complained that it ruins the tournament atmosphere; others that it puts players off their game. RW Johnson, the South African historian unfavourably compares the sound to that of a chainsaw and says the instrument should be banned. (He's not alone in this, but the World Cup organisers have refused to do so.)

I beg to differ. For devotees of pure sound, as followers of the Art of Listening must surely be, massed vuvuzelas are a fascinating thing: more than simply the aural equivalent of a Mexican wave, the constant, tiny variations in volume and tone turn the crowd into a single, responsive entity. When a goal is scored, or a foul committed, there is no change as such, merely an intensification of the sound already there. The usual noises - cheers, chanting, insults, a brass band playing the theme from The Great Escape if it's an England match - are all subsumed into the drone emitted by the horns.

While the drone may be a new discovery for football fans, it has an extensive musical history. Perhaps one or more of the following clips will serve as a good alternative soundtrack to viewers who tire of the vuvuzela.

"De natura sonoris No. 2" by Krzysztof Penderecki. Readers may recognise this from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - film being an area in which mass audiences have long been conditioned to accept sounds that would otherwise be dismissed as avant-garde or "unlistenable". (Hat-tip here to Zone Styx Travelcard.)

 

L Subramaniam, live at the Royal Albert Hall. An excellent example of how a drone - used extensively in Indian classical music - can act as a springboard for a virtuoso performer, in this case the violinist Subramaniam.

 

Sunn 0))), live in Berlin. Distorted guitars played in low tunings and at high volume.

 

The late guitarist Jack Rose. His reinterpretations of American folk and blues were anything but traditional - which brings us to a final point about the vuvuzela. The South African tourist board claims it is derived from the ancient kudu horn. But beware the authenticity trap! The vuvzela's manufacturers say instead that the prototype came from America, while they have traced its use to a Chinese women's basketball game. A true child of globalisation, then - and a reminder that what you hear is never less than the product of its circumstances.

 

You can read more from The Art of Listening column here.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.