Anything for a quiet life

The weather's been delightful recently. I know this because I have to keep drawing the curtains so I can see the World Cup properly on my TV. I've been venturing out regularly, however, to push the baby in his pram around my little corner of London, which is home to so many other "young families" that it's not uncommon to find yourself stuck in a tailback of buggies that stretches for miles.

The purpose of these excursions is normally to get the baby to fall asleep or to keep him asleep. This has made me highly sensitive to any unexpected noise, and I can reveal with some authority that everything is much too loud. We all need to pipe down.

Racket man

The world has always been loud, because of our enthusiasm for travelling around, producing things and maintaining more ambitious lifestyles than most of our animal counterparts. In days gone by, the noise was unavoidable. Factories, steam trains and heavy industry were all noisy symbols of the march of progress. But as we've gone on, science and technology have got better and better at keeping out of our way.

Gadgets have been scaled down considerably: a computer, which once occupied a space the size of Oxfordshire and could only do simple sums and play chess really, really slowly, can now fit in your pocket and store a million brains' worth of information without fuss. Car engines are now almost inaudible; we've invented headphones, volume controls and "silent" compartments in trains. Yet somehow people manage to make an absolute racket.

Headphones are a good example of our perverse tendency to pluck noise from what might have been silence. We invented them so that other people didn't have to share in the consequences of our decision to listen to Bach or "The Birdie Song". As designs have become more advanced, though, headphones have turned into puny earphones, so small that they absorb hardly any sound - as anyone who's shared a train carriage with a 16-year-old will confirm. Unfortunately, people wearing them get the sense of self-satisfaction that comes from being public-spirited, and so turn the
music up louder than they would have done. Miraculously, headphones have made people's music more intrusive than before.

This pattern is repeated everywhere. Your car engine doesn't make an annoying noise like your dad's used to? Don't worry: it's equipped with an alarm that will scream all night long if someone walks within ten metres of it. Your computer runs much more quietly than your old 1980s machine used to, and you miss the hum of its hard drive? Problem solved: every time you go on the internet, "pop-up" adverts blast jingles at you.

Pubs don't have good old-fashioned jukeboxes and good old-fashioned fights as much as they used to? Never mind - we'll make sure they play pop music for "atmosphere", even when there's no one there. In fact, we'll make sure incidental music is coursing through every public space - shopping centres, hotel lobbies . . . I wouldn't be surprised if prisons had "Whiskey in the Jar" playing on loop during visiting hour.

Peace mission

Perhaps the truth is that we simply can't deal with quiet: it reminds us of the loneliness of each of us in the face of the universe. Or perhaps I'm just unsociable. One radio station has the slogan "join London's biggest conversation" to attract callers for its phone-in; to me, the idea of "London's biggest conversation" is a nightmare of crossed wires and raised voices, and four million people all trying to out-complain each other about the unreliability of the Circle Line. Some people don't consider it a party unless the neighbours have complained about the volume, whereas I'd more or less leave the country and change my name if I found myself in that position. It does seem that my kind, who dislike noise, are in the minority.

So I can only suggest that, just as trains offer "quiet carriages", we ought to start earmarking "quiet areas" of the world. I know there are libraries and so on, but even these are no longer safe, not in this age of mobile technology, when people are more likely to be reading about books online than reading the books themselves. We need zones in each major city where no noise is permitted beyond the bare minimum produced by breathing.

I hope you enjoyed this, but without laughing out loud. Now, please, for goodness sake shut the magazine quietly. Put it down without knocking anything over. And pull the door to - don't slam it - on your way out. Thank you.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.