Reviewed: Noise - A History on BBC Radio 4

Give us a Scooby.

Noise: A History
BBC Radio 4

“We assume the past was much quieter,” chides David Hendy in the opening seconds of his new 30-part series (weekdays, 1.45pm) on the history of noise (“turning up the volume on the past; making sense of history through sound”). Hendy is clearly walking down a New York street and then suddenly – unusual travel budget alert! – hauls us to a black cave in Burgundy looking for evidence of life from 20,000 years ago. “Put humans in a cave,” whispers David, feeling his way along the bare rock, “and it can become quite unnervingly noisy. If we hum or sing, the cave . . . sings back as if the cave itself is alive.”

How nose-stroking can a lunchtime show get? In the background, terrible sounds recur: groans repeatedly dissolving into the kind of surprised, rising grunt issued by an on-hisuppers Scooby-Doo. “That’s Igor Resnikov,” admits David after a moment, awed. “He’s a French archaeologist conducting an interesting experiment.” No way. Igor communicates exclusively through grunts and taps, uttering not a human word, leaving us to imagine him rocking through weeks of intense glooms, a jungle of bone medallions nestling in a hairy chest, occasionally visited by neuropsychologists and economic historians eager to widen the scope of their funding applications. Igor has been searching for the most aurally resonant places in cave systems for decades, proving that 80 per cent of prehistoric paintings occur in places where the acoustics are particularly unusual. David insists it’s incredibly interesting –but the moment Igor detects something that sounds outré, he turns on his torch and finds a painted bison. “Something drew them to these most inaccessible chambers . . .” ferrets Hendy, a professor of media and communication at Sussex who one suspects is never more than a phone call away from a mixed mezze at the Lebanese opposite Portland Place. “Whoever created this art seems to have chosen acoustically ‘interesting spaces’ as if mesmerised by echoes . . .”

Next up: the alarm calls of the vervet monkey, the “talking drum” and a song to summon rainforest spirits. Put like that, this sounds like the most sub-avant-garde and brilliant new programme on BBC radio. And what a way to intro The Archers!

Professor David Hendy makes some noise. Photograph: BBC

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear