The Icelandic volcano drama, bringing travel misery to millions, has thrown into relief another, more permanent, form of suffering: aircraft noise. The grief of the travellers is finite. For those living underneath flight paths, no relief is in sight.
As many have testified, the shock of serenity, when the endless thundering and whining abruptly ceased, was blissful. It did not compensate for the country being incommunicado by air or for the economic loss, but it was a dramatic reminder of the abnormal racket from the skies that we tolerate in British cities.
Living in Hong Kong, I used to pity the refugees in high-rise blocs in Kowloon, a few feet below swooping aircraft. Then I would think, this is the least of their complaints. And Hong Kong has done something about it, by relocating its airport. Today I pity the million or so Londoners and others suffering a similar blight. Unlike refugees, most West Londoners will have chosen to live near a flight path — though night flights are relatively new and plane frequency increasing.
The justification — jobs — is unpersuasive. Environmentalism is not just about saving birds or forests, it is about damage to the human species. You might as well say that employment would be greatly enhanced if we lowered our costly curbs on factory pollution. The argument that sufferers take planes themselves is similarly imbecilic: the point is not to stop flying, it is not to fly low over cities. “People get used to it,” they say, and tragically, they do. I have seen hosts and hostesses in Barnes or Richmond chattering on happily while a noise like the Battle of Britain explodes over their roofs every minute and a half of the meal, leaving guests shaken and subdued. And whether they know it or not, the hosts are damaged too.
People enjoy the animation of cities. But toleration of extreme noise is a form of brutalism that, like our Sixties architecture, diminishes us as a country. Sadly people are too worn down, too tolerant, too inert to protest — the tolerance of the English often being, as Hazlitt said, “indolence of disposition.”
Britain is also the home of habit and custom, fine in the Yeatsian sense — “Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn/ And custom for the spreading laurel tree” — but indolence of disposition means we get used to anything, especially to the idea that economic imperatives must rule our lives, and to bovine acquiescence, like cows who graze on contentedly as fighters roar overhead.
A civilised society should not subject its capital to such cruel and unusual torments, even if its citizens wearily acquiesce. The Tories seem on the right side of this argument on Heathrow’s third runway, but how robust will they be in office?
Where is our national pride? Have we stopped hearing ourselves as others hear us? People in Paris or Berlin do not endure anything on this scale. Yet there is the free-born Englishman, cowering in his bed, earplugs affixed, sheet over his head, trying to grab an hour’s sleep between five and seven o’clock before giving up and preparing for another zombified day.
A fine time to raise such piddling concerns, it may be said. But environmental matters, as we are fast discovering, are indivisible.