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Harry Vassallo | Wednesday, 30 December 2009

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The sound of neurosis

If music is an emotional quick-fix setting the mood, undesired noise is an experience of violence. Only the very odd could possibly enjoy a loud and sudden explosion. Fright, alarm and anger follow in quick succession when it is realised that the cause is no disaster but somebody’s idea of fun.
Festa bangs are a horrendous nuisance imposed on the many by the few at significant risk and expense. Those of us who remain unable to tune in to the system that produces them most often escape to another location whenever we can. If escape is impossible, work, rest or the simple enjoyment of one’s home are obliterated in the series of sudden and apparently pointless bangs.
Soon enough the week or weekend of mayhem passes and so does the sting from that long series of slaps in the face. Our routine regained, we carry on and are glad to forget the torment.
If that is our only experience of extreme sound pollution, we should count ourselves lucky. Our lives are full of it. God help us if the plot next door is redeveloped. No prayers can save us from the morons who come back from their disco in the early hours entirely oblivious to the shattered silence of the street as they park their cars, their sound system still set to reach their impaired hearing. What’s the matter with people who call for their friends and honk their car horns instead of ringing their doorbells? The list is endless.
However the most insidious are the permanent noises, the hums and whines, the thumping sound of distant music which never quite go away but dominate the night. When a friend of mine discovered that the stationer’s below his flat had been transformed into a butcher’s shop he did not pay much attention until it began to operate. The refrigeration compressor was mounted on the wall, a few feet below his bed. While the butcher slumbered in some remote location his infernal machine would suddenly burst into life keeping its neighbour awake.
Battle was joined and it turned out that no permit had been obtained for the change of use of the premises on the ground floor. Planners and the Police were drawn into the dispute. The butcher resisted in order to save his investment. His neighbour persisted engaging lawyers to vindicate the rule of law. It took more than two years of lawsuits and sleepless nights to sort that one out. In the end, victory meant only that the very basic right of a good night’s sleep was regained at disproportionate effort and expense.
It was a signal victory nonetheless. In the annals of sound pollution in Malta such triumphs are few and far between. Fatalism and the reluctance to make a lifelong enemy of some tattooed thug in such a small place drive most victims to submit. The quality of their lives is devalued, the sanctity of their homes desecrated and they bottle it all up or try to psyche themselves out of it to preserve their sanity. Many do put up a fight.
If it turns out to be impossible to edit out the thump, thump, thump of the loud music somewhere below, it can become an obsession. Eventually the reluctance to take action is overcome. A report is filed with the police. And nothing happens.
Then another report is made on the assumption that the first one had fallen foul of some more pressing police business. And nothing happens again. Now the victim has two adversaries: the noisemaker and the Police.
The third report is more strident, hinting at recourse to superiors. The uniform at the counter listens to what it considers to be another noise neurotic. Unlike the victim, the policeman has been here before. Suppressing noise pollution violations is like removing a tomato skin that attaches itself to the roof of your mouth: it requires a momentous effort to achieve the insignificant. When did the violation take place and what is the evidence available. Nobody has a decibel meter attached to his ears. “Loud” can mean different things to different people. Obtaining a court order to monitor sound requires a massive effort in itself. Once that is done, an expert sound engineer must be available at the drop of a hat to turn up and nab the offender in flagrante delicto.
If a number of witnesses are available such that the weight of evidence could be expected to make a charge stick, the habits of the courts have to be taken into account. They generally prefer traders to non-traders, commercial operators to ordinary householders. The investment in an internet cafè illegally transformed into an all night disco is counted worthy of greater respect than the investment of a family in its home. This has been my experience so far and if some magistrate takes offence he or she can change my opinion by changing my experience.
With this as a background, it is not surprising that policemen are generally reluctant to chase wisps of smoke or faint echoes of the rule of law. From the victim’s viewpoint the original and continuous violation from sound pollution becomes magnified by the realisation that he has been stripped of his basic rights by being denied a remedy.
All too easily the suspicion arises that the Police are in cahoots with the tormentor. What has the victim to offer the Police if not more paperwork? The tormentors have a range of options in complimentaries.
When the source of the pollution is not clear, matters only get worse. The wrong people get blamed. Having done everything possible to reduce the inconvenience, having successfully eliminated it, they still remain the object of resentment if one of their competitors shrugs off the complaints. The police get a rotten reputation with the operators too. If they appear to persecute one operator, the unuttered suspicion is that they are in the pay of his rivals.
Apart from the masses of people who have been scandalised by police inaction with regard to hotel generators, air-conditioning units and roof top parties, there are masses more who have been traumatised by the experience of failure when they attempted to secure a remedy through the courts. Who can gauge the depth of abiding resentment and profound scandal arising from the impotence of the state to regulate sound pollution?
In this age of wondrous technology it would be more than simple to issue a noise monitor with every license to play music, something like a speed camera for bars and discos. The device can be linked to the nearest police station or simply be available to register offences. A regular series of offences should mean suspension of the license and persistence in error withdrawal of the license. Nothing could be simpler. The system is already in operation abroad.
It may take a decade or two more but only because the victims of noise pollution do not get together to get the job done sooner.


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