Letters From London

The Present Sound of London

A big city creates a unique din and racket as recognizable as its skyline. Presenting a day in the sounds of London.

I’ve been lured to London by money at the hottest, stickiest time of year. Every time I visit, I’m struck by the noises—not necessarily their volume, but their strangeness and variety in comparison to the quiet humdrum of the provincial town where I live. So this time I’m equipped with an audio recorder.


Waterloo Station

Two camp guys cavort around Waterloo station at eight a.m. They’re talking too loudly, invading the personal space of their fellow Londoners, but they don’t care. Perhaps aware they’re setting off a chain of disapproving tuts, they stop and make the best apology they can: disapproving sounds of their own.


Beneath Waterloo Station

You have to pay 30p (about 50 cents) to use the gents at Waterloo. Not long ago it was 20p. Recessions even make catching urine a more expensive business.

Small wonder when they’re installing Airblade hand driers. These are the Ferraris of electric hand driers. They don’t just blow air, they sculpt it. Noisily. The invisible air-sculpted cheese slicer flows over your fingertips, scraping the water from your skin like a barber scrapes beards.


The Waterloo and City Line

Rails in curved tunnels create howling screeches as trains creep along them. Wind in tunnels howls too; you hear trains coming a long time before you see them. The winds prowl the pedestrian tunnel network, looking for a way out to the surface. They push commuters along, blow dust into their faces and their hair, annoy, distract, and sometimes provide blessed cooling relief from the fierce un-airconditioned heat. Sometimes.


Beneath the River Thames

Everything’s a robot down here. The trains speak to you, explaining where you’ll be taken. The doors speak, not in Douglas Adams-style wistful sighs, but in stark nagging beeps: get out of our way, get out of our way, get out of our way or we’ll close on your limbs.

The beeps are high-pitched, designed to annoy and nag. They chivvy you on board and they chivvy you off again when your journey’s done. Those who stay on board—getting off later—cease to listen until they’re on the threshold once more, foot above platform.


Some Station Somewhere

Everywhere you go in London, you’re watched. Everyone knows this. Look up and you see cameras. Anywhere and everywhere. Does this cut crime? Does it make the city safer? Do Londoners give a damn? It seems not. Do a small number of people make a living creating voice announcements telling unconcerned Londoners that they’re being watched? Yes.


Bank Station

Chep-chep-chep-chep-chep—out from the Tube and onto the street. Expecting the roar of traffic, but there’s nothing like that. All there is to see while ascending the steps is legs at ground level: a businessman’s pinstriped pants, a woman’s unnatural fake tan stretching from expensive shoes to expensive hem.


Park Near City Road

In a small park, office workers eat lunch. One man paces, his suit jacket over one shoulder and a phone held tight to his ear. He’s so angry. As he speaks—and as the person on the other end presumably cowers and makes excuses—his eyebrows leap up to show they share his concern. Nearby munchers-of-sandwiches watch him impassively; it’s impossible to tell which side of the conversation they’re on.


Bank of England

The streets of the city are unexpectedly quiet. There’s not much traffic on a weekday lunchtime near Bank station. Most of the workers here arrive and leave by tube and train; the only cars are those of couriers and taxi drivers and the people who deliver sandwiches to the Square Mile’s thousands of sandwich stores.

So stand on this corner on this day, right next to a crossroads, and the only sound is a thugga-thugga-thugga of a pneumatic drill churning up chunks of ground. Probably construction work. A new sandwich shop, most likely.


The Barbican

A busier street corner. Waiting for the signal for pedestrians to cross. One American is showing another American around the city. He’s absolutely right, they are about a block or so from the Barbican.

Also nearby is the site of Cripplegate, once an important entrance into the city-that-was, before the city came along and destroyed it all. All you see now at Cripplegate is office blocks looming on all sides, and the flower boxes covering the sides of the Barbican. There’s history here, but it’s not easy to see. You have to immerse yourself in some good books, then stand between the offices with your eyes closed, and imagine.


Outside Royal Festival Hall

End of the day, and the terrace outside the Festival Hall on the South Bank is heaving with men in men suits and women in women suits. Everyone looks smart, and gorgeous. And rich.

The bar here is popular for lots of reasons: it overlooks the Thames and the rest of the city beyond; it’s a glorious place to enjoy the London commuter’s favorite summer after-work activity—standing in a crowded noisy outdoor spot, drinking lager, and balancing your glass on a tiny handrail.

And it’s near several major rail stations. A quick drink after work, then another quick drink after the quick drink, then perhaps one more for the hell of it, then home to the suburbs. Thugga-thugga-thugga. Chep-chep-chep. Chivvy, chivvy, chivvy.