Human beings are seemingly adapted to environments with lots of natural noise: the rustling of trees, the trickle of a stream, the sound of my neighbour (the “Teutonic Terror”) calling after his sausage dog. Over the centuries this has also included an embracing of the noise of industry, transport and the acoustic accoutrements of the workplace. And in turn, to deal with this, we revert to an ambient setting of noise tolerance, something the sound boffins call the “baseline”. So, grow up in a city, you are more resistant to the sound of traffic; grow up in the countryside, you are less resistant to the sound of traffic (and sausage dogs).
Yet sometimes there are noises which trigger a more detrimental reaction: the sound of a child crying perhaps, your partner yawning theatrically or the relentless tapping of a keyboard in an open-plan office. And there is even a word for it – phonophobia although this evidently covers an adverse reaction to most noise.
I mention all this because these days, I try extremely hard not to intervene when there is a challenge to my acoustic autonomy, even in a city with the reputed quality of life of Vienna. Especially when there is a noise which is very difficult to ignore and in turn largely impossible to control. It’s not that I have developed a specific set of skills to remain stumm or even a sign of acquiescence, more that any intervention, as I have learned, comes a great psychological cost which can last for hours, sometimes days.
My therapist, if I had one, would probably locate this reaction in some deeply buried memory in my sub-conscious, probably a result of some childhood trauma associated with a lack of feeling safe. It might be, it might not. But all I can tell you that smart-phonophobia is alive and well and the number one city is not immune. Those little black and silver rectangles in everyone’s pocket with their very public pings, rings and the 21st century curse of curses when it comes to noise and shared public spaces, the video chat, are evidence enough that Steve Jobs better be turning in his beautifully designed grave.
Although the news had been circulating for days, confirmation of the second lockdown and the necessary measures to reduce the rate of infection in the number one city and beyond, reached me as I was enjoying a quiet pint with Mrs Barratt after a long walk along the Liesing Stream and through the fields of Oberlaa in Vienna’s tenth district. Although the Shankraum (think of it as the tap-room) of the Dorfwirt where we sat was largely empty on that Saturday afternoon in late October, we were fortunate to be sitting near another guest who generously piped the televised announcement from the Austrian Chancellor through the tiny speakers of their bastard tiny television.
The sounds of Sebastian Kurz – the only exhibit from Madame Tussards to have developed the power of speech – informed us that from midnight Monday 26th October, pubs, restaurants, cultural life would close, the Oberstufe (think of it as the senior school) could stay in bed till lunchtime, and those still in work and who could feasibly do so, would be encouraged once more to avoid the office.
The restrictions were met with the usual phlegmatic shrugs although many parents reportedly reached for the sparkling wine cabinet to toast their good fortune that primary and junior schools would, re-open and stay open, for the time being, after half-term. (Educational fun-fact: 2020 was the first such official Austrian half-time break during the Autumn term; before it was just several days seemingly tacked together around the public holiday of the 1st November. Although if I was being pedantic, which I am, this is technically not the Autumn term but the Wintersemester – in English “winter semester”. Because in the country that continues to espouse the value of something as heinous as LederhosenRock, the education system is still psychologically geared to the two semester model: September to, er, February, and then February to June when the schools break up and parents all over Austria reach for the schnapps cabinet in the knowledge that nine weeks of summer holiday await).
Anyway, pedagogic interventions aside, as I sat in the Dorfwirt on that slightly disquieting Saturday afternoon, I took comfort in the songs on the radio: Don’t Worry, Be Happy; Under Pressure; I’m Still Standing; YMCA and then a bold yet cheeky change of tone, Daddy Cool by Boney M. It seemed an appropriate playlist given the circumstances although I couldn’t exclude the possibility that the controller of Radio Wien was having a wee lockdown joke.
Yet, Witz or no Witz, it was (and is) a testament to the usual misery of Austrian broadcasting (FM4 aside) in that I could name every artist. Although to be fair it did help to drown out the cherry-faced digital town crier over my shoulder, more so with the welcome arrival of Olivia Newton John urging me to get physical. However, even if I didn’t have enough to worry about (at the time) for the last couple of months of 2020 – an alarming lack of work, the haunting prospect of another four year term for Trump, or worst of all, another round of teenage home-schooling – it seemed especially cruel to be reminded of another dark chapter in the history of humanity, the 1980s.
Since then I have been embracing the second lockdown with all the vigour of a promised visit to Shopping City, which is fortuitous because it has come, in my mind, to symbolize the inconsistencies in dealing with the infection rate. As we all know, the number one city is a hotbed of hushed disapproval and it hasn’t escaped the notice of many people that while museums, cinemas, restaurants and hotels have had to close the doors, in spite of being perfectly prepared for restricting footfall and keeping people “safe”, anything devoted to retail has not. Only last weekend marking the end of the first week of lockdown the sequel, shopping centres and large shops were reportedly heaving with few attempts at social distancing and a sense that the intensive care beds in Austria were about to run out.
According to my spies, the reason that retail has been able continued to trade as if Christmas was just round the corner, whilst other areas of civic life and tourism have been furloughed, is because the retail industry has a more powerful lobby. But I am not convinced. Vienna in particular usuaully makes a significant song and dance about its cultural credentials and the importance of the tourist dollar (for better or worse) and we should not forget that many jobs and related suppliers are indelibly linked to the viability of these industries. Admittedly, one can easily make the case for allowing supermarkets or chemists to stay open as in the first experience of lockdown back in March, but IKEA? Yes, protect the jobs where you can, but how is allowing a bookshelf seller or DIY chain to stay open any different to a museum or public swimming pool (where the cerebral benefits are much greater)? Of course, this being the age of the press briefing where very little is explained and even less justified, we will probably never know. Which is a shame because I would really like to know the answer to the much bigger question of why would anyone choose to walk around an air-conditioned, soul-sapping silo of consumerist tat when they could, I don’t know, go for a walk, read a book, watch a great film or spy on their neighbour.
I have my hunches, of course, but we will have to leave them for another day. With the infection rates in Austria hitting record levels, the big question as I write is whether all the schools will close next week. In fact, by the time you read this, I might again be in the throes of full-on home-schooling experience (a delicious project about deciduous trees awaits it seems). This will inevitably require more “kit” and most likely a trip to … oh no please, not there … anywhere but there …
… Shopping City.
© 2020 RJ Barratt