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The Alan Rickman I remember: a good man, a Labour activist - and a local boy

Andy Slaughter, the MP for Hammersmith, who went to school with Alan Rickman, pays tribute.

It is a tribute to his acting skill, his personality and unique voice and style that the sad death of Alan Rickman announced today went round the world on social media within seconds.

He will be foremost Hans Gruber to some, Severus Snape to others.  To me he will always be the greatest Sheriff of Nottingham, a film-stealing performance to top the lot.

But the international movie star has another profile.  As a west London boy, Labour Party loyalist and supporter of the arts in his local community.  And in the Hammersmith constituency I represent this means more than the Hollywood CV.

Alan was born in Acton and went to his local primary, Derwentwater.  Then on to Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith – now an independent school, then a direct-grant grammar.  A few years later, Mel Smith was a pupil and in the 1970s so was Hugh Grant (not to mention Keith Vaz and myself). 

Alan, Mel and Hugh all kept in touch with the school and continued to support it for decades after they left, in tribute to the liberal education it provided, with an emphasis on theatre and the arts.

I came across Alan not only at school reunions but at the Bush Theatre.  Always an exciting venue for new plays – and always existing on a shoestring at its long-term home above a pub on Shepherds Bush Green – the Bush got a new lease of life when a few years ago it moved to a better, more permanent home in the old Shepherds Bush Library in Uxbridge Road.

I last saw Alan in the bar at the Bush last autumn, after the Visitors, a wonderful play by Barney Norris about the effect of Alzheimer’s disease, which moved him to tears.  After the production he was generous with his time talking to the public, the cast and Labour activists. It is difficult to believe he won’t be there when I attend the latest Bush preview, Pink Mist, next week.

He lived with his life-long partner, Rima Horton, whom he recently married, and both were strong Labour people.  Alan described himself as born ‘a card-carrying member of the Labour Party’.  Rima served as a Labour councillor in Kensington & Chelsea, where they lived, from 1986 to 2006.

Alan Rickman had back story and local story which was authentic and grounded in the community he grew up in and to which he gave so much.  I think and hope it helped him excel in his chosen profession.  He will be missed by millions, but especially missed in his home town.    

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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.