In bloom: the golden flowers of a forsythia bush. Photo: Cyrus McCrimmon
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To every place there is a season – or several

From the glorious July that I once spent deep in the Arctic Circle to the treacherous climate of central California.

“Midwinter spring is its own season.” So T S Eliot remarks at the start of “Little Gidding”, reminding us that, in the time “between melting and freezing/The soul’s sap quivers” – and we recognise this brief, transitional season immediately, in much the same way as we recognise e e cummings’s very different “Just-spring”, that first phase after the thaw when the world is “mud-luscious” and “puddle-wonderful”.

The truth is, every place has its own, sometimes surprising, seasons, from the glorious July that I once spent deep in the Arctic Circle – cloudless, dazzling days when the thermometer frequently hit 30°C – to the treacherous climate of central California. “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” may not be an authentic Mark Twain quotation but it describes perfectly the foggy midsummer chill that, in the Bay Area, clamps itself on to the unprepared tourist and gnaws down to the very bone.

On the other hand, some places seem to have no seasons at all. I recall a horticulturalist friend of mine leading a party of visitors around the arboretum at Sheffield Park Garden during a particularly spectacular autumn. He pointed out the rich crimsons and deep golds of the black tupelos, the several varieties of maple and the Persian ironwoods reflected in the lake – then suddenly a young African woman in his party began to cry, thick tears rolling down her face as Mike launched into yet another rhapsody on falling leaves. It turned out that the young woman, never having seen an autumn garden before, thought that the trees were dying – a sight only too common in her home landscape – and she was upset that Mike could take such pleasure in the transient beauty occasioned by their demise.

Here in Berlin, it is one of my favourite in-between times, the fortnight or so that I think of as forsythia season. One of the first garden shrubs to bloom, the forsythia bears its flowers in bright, golden rows along the elegant, bare branches around about the time of cummings’s “Just-spring”, the leaves only emerging later, when full springtime has arrived and the other, more cautious shrubs put out their blossoms. Now the soul’s sap, which quivered for Eliot’s midwinter, warms and quickens. Meanwhile, another season has begun to unfold, one that is taken very seriously here. To my mind, a clear sign of a successful society is its ability, notwithstanding all the agribusiness and supermarket pressures, to recognise and celebrate the changing seasons in its cuisine – and now that it is asparagus season, the market stalls and greengrocers’ displays not only foreground both the white and green spears of this wonderfully earthy product, they also sell sacks of specially selected potato varieties and bottles of wine to complement the asparagus recipes that have been handed down from one food-loving generation to the next.

Keats writes: “Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;/There are four seasons in the mind of man . . .” I cannot help but think he is wrong on both counts. The year unfolds through its first summer, heavy with the scent of mock-orange, and on into strawberry time – followed, sometimes, by the second summer of Emily Dickinson (“There is a June when Corn is cut”), before slipping into autumn colours, when the tree sheds everything but its essentials in order to go on living. It seems clear to me that there are many seasons in the measure of one year – and many seasons in the human mind. This is what keeps us interesting, this ability to surprise others and ourselves with new flowerings, unforeseen growth, inward winters made to host some Pentecostal fire and, most of all, the unlooked-for fruit-falls that come when we thought that harvest time was long gone.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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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.