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The 1939 Register: where did Britain sleep as war was declared?

The register brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. What will happen for other records like it?

The 1939 Register is a “wartime Domesday Book”. Vast and yet intimate, it is a picture of precisely where people in England and Wales slept on the night of 29 September 1939. Forty-one million handwritten entries record jobs, date of birth and marital status, filling books that would reach twice the height of St Paul’s Cathedral if stacked together. Refugee children who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe are listed with their adoptive families. The “Cambridge Five” Soviet spies are there. Ian Fleming gives his occupation as “stockbroker”, not novelist; Oswald Mosley is an “ex-officer, ex-MP”.

In the online version, which was published last week, the Register is feted as a powerful tool for family history. And why not: 1939 was the year when Virginia Woolf – sleeping at her country home in Sussex on the night of the 29th – wrote: “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious?”

It brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. But there is an enormous distance between the way it was made and the way it is now being sold. During National Registration Week, data was gathered by 65,000 public enumerators – often unemployed office workers – who delivered questionnaires and wrote them up. “Were it not for the fact that there is a war on,” the Daily Mail said on 26 September, “Mrs Great Britain would not be taking kindly to the man presenting himself on her doorstep this week.”

When an attempt was made to introduce a national registration scheme during the Great War, it was smeared as “Prussification”, an adoption of German bureaucratic values. In 1939, parents were just as nervous about drawing attention to children who might be conscripted. It worked the second time because it was linked to ration books. Children not on the Register might not be conscripted, but neither would they eat. Rather grimly, civil servants referred to the Register’s success as “parasitic vitality”.

After 1945, the information was used to found the National Health Service. The originals are held at the National Archives in Kew, with the records of both the living and recently dead redacted. But as of 2 November, 28 million records have been released online by the family history company Findmypast. Searching is free, but to look at the documentation for one household costs £6.95. Fifteen households costs £54.95.

Ancestry is a lucrative business. Andrew Marr, who has been promoting the resource out of enthusiasm rather than any paid brand ambassadorship, tweeted: “hardworking geeks spent two years digitising this . . . a huge job. Don’t they deserve to be paid?” Certainly, the National Archives don’t have funding enough to support this sort of undertaking any more.

Two days after the Register was published, the government released its “Snooper’s Charter”, the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. “Spooks have been harvesting our phone and email data for 14 years,” the Mail said.

Rather than a freeze-frame of one night, this would be rolling, documentary footage for future historians. But if they can get hold of this data, it seems likely they’ll have to pay for that, too. On 20 November, consultation closes on the introduction of charges for Freedom of Information requests: the very tool used by one researcher to trigger the release of the 1939 Register. 

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain

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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.