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Street Noises

The Englishman is a long-suffering animal. He bears much and grumbles little, and when things come to the worst is satisfied with grumbling. He even derives pleasure from a grievance, if it be due, or he thinks it due, to the liberty of which his countrymen are proud. And yet how much happier life would be if this freedom were a little restricted. It may be well, for instance, that there should be men and women blessed with Billingsgate lungs; but the sound of their sweet voices "ascending the sky' in the so-called quiet streets of our London suburbs can scarcely be said, in the words of the poet, "to inspire heavenly joys." On the contrary, a feeling very earthly and, perhaps, a little naughty, is raised even in the most Christian breast by these harsh and coarse-grained sounds. Vendors of fruit and flowers, of milk and muffins are not agreeable visitors when they roar for a living, and the poor organ-grinder little knows, let us hope, the anguish he inflicts upon sensitive nerves.

The profits and loss in this matter are not fairly apportioned. A street crier, let us say, gains a few additional peace daily in consequence of rending the heavens with his stentorian throat, and these pence mean pots of public-house beer. This is the gain on the huckster's side, if gain it can be called. On the other hand, his noises inflict a distinct injury—irreparable in some cases—on all men and women devoted to study or art, on sick people, on people with nerves overwrought, on all who have music in their souls, and hate a discord as they hate poverty and pain. There are other sounds permitted, no doubt, by authority, which are almost as intolerable as the yells of costermongers and the squeal of barrel-organs. A merry peal of church bells exhilarates, but a cracked bell tolling at all hours is apt to drive a man from church instead of drawing him thither. Punch and Judy is a street sight not to be despised, but this noisy show is scarcely one to be prayed for when quiet is a necessity of life. Worse than any of these noises—worse, perhaps, than all of them together—is the whining sing-song of beggars, who beg by means of what they call singing, and do so with a laborious prolixity that deprives the tortured listeners of hope.

Civilisation no doubt brings many blessings in its train, but they are for the most part noisy blessings—witness our factories and steam-engines—and yet, considering how men's minds are strained in the conflict of life, there never was a time when quiet surroundings were more needful. It is not so much the steady roar of a great city that distracts the mind; like the sound of waters that may even be soothing, it is the coarse and grating shrieks of the costermonger, the painful tunes of the organ-grinder, the shrill notes of the street singer, that make the suburban resident sigh like Cowper "for a lodge in some vast wilderness." Is there no remedy for an evil which in a measure spoilt the temper of Babbage, enhanced the dyspeptic miseries of Carlyle, and tortured John Leech? One suggestion occurs. The man who will cry turnips or strawberries ten years hence, is now a boy at a Board School. What a comfort it would be to folk with nerves if he could be trained for his profession. If this is impossible, and he cannot be taught to "roar as gently as any sucking-dove," might not the exercise of the costermonger's vocation be limited to certain hours of the day. Publicans are kept within bounds; why should costermongers enjoy the liberty, which is license, of tormenting peaceful citizens to the utmost of their power? Sir Thomas Browne found a charm in street music. and there are people who can listen calmly to a barrel organ; but neither Sir Thomas Browne, nor any one whose ear has been trained to love harmonius sounds, has ever had a word to say in favour of the street cries of London.

Source: The Illustrated London News, July 1, 1882, p.19