It’s been a noisy summer in our neighbourhood, with lots of building work and renovations and loft conversions – none of it ours – going on. The cumulative effect of months of this meant that I was ready as hell for my home-made ‘retreat’, from which I returned just over a week ago: 7 days alone in a rented house in a small hamlet outside a village, with no wi-fi, no mobile phone signal, no landline, nada. There was a telly – but reception was patchy and it didn’t always work. Ditto the radio.
It was quiet. Extremely quiet.
In the daytime, I listened out for the farmer’s quad bike in the field above the house. Sometimes the sounds of the quarry above the village would reach me, or a walker or two would go past. Apart from that, all I heard was the occasional fighter jet on ‘exercises’ streaking through the valley, the cow or bull in the barn kicking and bellowing occasionally, the injured sheep in the smaller field with the hay bleating once or twice, and conversation between the sparrows in the hedge. Once a neighbour was out with her dog and a leaf-blower, tidying up her garden, but that was about it.
In the night, I heard nothing – or nearly nothing. One night, a rainstorm brought fierce wind and clattering at the window. Another night, an animal snuffled and crunched outside the front door. And one night, I heard an owl.
The only other sound that week – as I cooked and washed up and tried to lay a fire and tried to get the telly working and sat beside the fire and wrote and thought and walked – was the sound of my own voice. Towards the end of the week, I went to visit friends who lived nearby and subjected them to an evening of non-stop talking. ‘I’ve been on my own for 5 DAYS’, I kept saying, and I nearly burst into tears when I hugged them hello.
You can probably guess, it was a pretty intense experience. What struck me was the way in which my anxiety and my hyper-sensitivity to noise, which I had been associating with the noise and bustle of London, were ever-present. How I’d fixate on something and find it really, really difficult to let the thought go. The night of the storm, I watched the water level rise in the drainage channel that funnels water down from the hill to a beck and from there to the river at the foot of the valley. I became convinced it was going to flood the house, and even got as far as moving all my belongings upstairs. I knew, logically, that it probably wouldn’t rise that far, but the thought had gripped me and I spent the night entertaining fantasies of dramatic rescue by helicopter and waders fashioned from carrier bags. I had the carrier bags beside my bed, just in case.
Back in Leytonstone, I feel almost suffocated by the constant arrival of sounds from everywhere. So much is happening, all of the time. But it does me good to know that so much of this feeling is me, my habitual response, and that, even in an environment much more conducive to calm, I will still latch on to noise, my mind will still run away with itself. Because if a lot of it is me and my mind, then I can do something about it.
One of the other things I did while I was away was to finish the companion piece to Aldeburgh Music 1. So here is Aldeburgh Music 2, recorded in June this year at the time of the Aldeburgh Music Festival.