Don’t drown out awkward information
21 March 2010
Official policy statements from Whitehall tend to be bland and full of sincere-sounding generalities, but just now and then something important, perhaps even revolutionary, can be glimpsed in their pages.
So it is with the latest paper from Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), The Noise Policy Statement for England, which was published on Monday. Through the carefully worded legalese of this document, it is recognised – somewhat belatedly, many would say – that noise in the air around us is as worthy of the term “pollution” as poison in a river. Its intrusion can ruin a person’s quality of life and over time can have a serious effect on health.
To most of us, these ideas will be startlingly obvious but to the powerful, who love the roar and rumble of their daily lives and are wealthy enough to escape from it at weekends, they are something of a novelty. In the battle between the right of a business to make money and the right of individuals to a basic quality of life, there has been a heavy bias in favour of money and growth. It was almost eight years ago when the EU, which has so often led the way when it comes to the rights of citizens, issued a directive requiring governments to draw up strategic noise maps of areas most seriously affected by roads, airports, railways and industry, to “inform and consult” the public about the problem and to get local authorities to address specific noise issues.
This week’s much-delayed response may be cautious and hedged with qualifiers, notably that all-purpose get-out clause “within the context of sustainable development”, but it does admit that over time noise can seriously damage human health – something the World Health Organisation has been pointing out for some time. Bravely it also declares that action should be taken before the problem occurs. “In the past, the opportunity for cost-effective management of noise has often been missed because the noise implications… have not been considered at an early enough stage.”
Or, Defra might have added, when they were considered, awkward information was suppressed – occasionally by ourselves. In 2006, a government-appointed report from an acoustics firm discovered that the criterion for judging the noise made at night by the turning turbines of three wind farms was set too high, that people’s sleep and possibly health could be affected. Those awkward comments were simply edited out of the publicly published version.
The publication of the Noise Policy Statement for England will make it more difficult even for government departments to get away with that kind of trickery. Indeed, it should influence many of the most significant proposed changes to our national life over the next decade.
In the debate over the expansion of Heathrow and Stansted, the effect of noise on the life and health of those on the ground can no longer be ignored. Noise will be central to discussions about new high-speed rail links and widened motorways. The irresistible evidence of stress, sleeplessness and ill-health caused to some people by proximity to wind farms will at last be impossible to dismiss as myths and delusions.
Behind all these rows and debates will lie a simple but important principle: noise can ruin lives. Over the past few years, the political establishment, with its deep love of business and development, has elected to ignore that fact. Perhaps, at last, attitudes are about to change.
The jealous and the dead – Mallory’s Norman conquest
After the sad maunderings of Martin Amis about the effects of age upon creative powers, how reassuring it is that, from beyond the grave, Norman Mailer is still making the case for literary potency.
Mailer was 60 when he met Carole Mallory, a former air stewardess, model and actress who wanted to write a book (could there be a more perfect CV for an author’s mistress?). Mallory had quite a lot of material for her memoirs already – Robert De Niro, Richard Gere, Rod Stewart, Peter Sellers and the inevitable Warren Beatty are among her alleged conquests – and Mailer quickly joined the list.
Now, two years after Mailer’s death, Mallory has put his literary help to good use with her book called Loving Mailer which will shortly be published. Frankly, the story it tells will do the old boy’s reputation no harm at all. There was lots of bedroom role-play apparently, with the ageing novelist playing the part of Ernie the gardener, or a Hollywood director, or a German called Herr Lipschitz. Occasionally he would hang upside-down on an exercise-machine to get the blood flowing “creatively to his head”.
What a lucky man Mailer was. Even when behaving like a bit of a chump (he actually called Carole’s breasts “Laura” and “Angelica”), he seemed to be making the best of his life and his talents. Who else would manage to find not only a spirited and enterprising mistress for his sixties but one who would manage to make his rivals jealous, even after he was dead?
A sober lesson to be taken with your stag do
It happens once or twice a month – that moment when a press story or TV programme convinces one, finally and beyond doubt, that we are living through an age of unparalleled decadence and general oddness.
For many, a story from the travel pages this weekend will have done the trick. Two British holiday firms specialising in setting up package weekends for stag and hen parties in Poland are offering their clients a range of treats which include a strip club, white-water rafting, paintballing – and a trip around Auschwitz or Birkenau.
It is a life-affirming experience, according to an employee at one of the firms. “It almost makes you think, ‘To hell with that, we have seen the worst humanity had to show’ and then gone out on a major night on the tiles with strippers and booze.”
Perhaps it is too easy to disapprove. Even British stags and hens might benefit from a history lesson.
Independent, Wednesday, 17 March 2010