Another one of those diary quotes: Canned music is like audible wallpaper (Alistair Cooke, 1908 – 2004). He emigrated to America in 1937 and became an American citizen in 1941, six days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. We appreciated him for his regular Letter from America. He had a lovely radio voice and a way of making everything crystal clear to listeners back in the old country, without patronising. Here is just a sample of his measured tones, as he talks – after some background – of the death of John Lennon. John was my hero, when I was a teenager. His death shocked me more than I can say. He also explains, insofar as this could ever be explained to a British audience, about guns and gun control.
Alistair Cooke, it seems to me, would have been the world’s greatest blogger.
However, the Audible Wallpaper quote did make me think, about the music we choose to have on, not for the sheer pleasure of it but whilst working or reading. This ‘in the background’ music needs to perform a dual function. It needs to soothe us and aid concentration – but it doesn’t need to distract us. We don’t want to have to start listening to it.
I often have music on when I write. This is partly as a distraction from the tinnitus I’ve had since 1980 – the same year Cooke recorded the John Lennon Letter. Early Music works for me – lutes and that sort of stuff. And I’ve recently found a Nature radio station which plays this weird stuff – like a mixture of music and birdsong, or rustling trees, or babbling brooks. If I’m trying to sleep and the tinnitus is really playing up (I can usually forget about it, except when I’m tired or really stressed) I have a gadget that plays waves swishing on a beach or – my favourite – a tropical rainstorm. When I listen to that I imagine myself in some jungle shack, with a wooden rocking chair and not much else. I am sitting out on the veranda watching raindrop dripping off those long, tropical leaves and fat grey storm clouds scud across the horizon…
Not everyone feels the same though. Ex once got hold of one of my meditation tapes and played it from beginning. Not gifted with the art of sitting still, he found it excruciatingly – and amusingly – dull. When he used to paint – I believe he no longer paints but does important, mysterious other stuff – he used to listen to Classic FM and a particular presenter called Natalie Wheen, ad infinitum. The very name Natalie Wheen (sorry, Natalie, if you’re still alive) sets my teeth on edge – like scraping a saucepan with a knife – let alone the ‘classical’ music Classic FM used to play, which seemed to me hideously Light, and occasionally that made up pseudo-classical rubbish they have as the background to 1950s films. One of his paintings could take six weeks to complete, so it must have worked.
Stephen King, so he says in On Writing, works to loud music – “hard rock stuff like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica”. Maybe it helps, for horror.
Nowadays – after the auditory psychosis that’s descended on my mother (that’s on top of the dementia) partly through refusing to wear hearing aids – I do tend to be wary of silence. Not that silence is ever entirely silent, to me, but I make an effort to keep something on in the background – radio, music, TV – and stop at intervals to listen to it. Nature abhors a vacuum; if your brain is starved of auditory input for too long it starts compiling strange and threatening tapes of its own and playing them back to you, day in, night out. And you really don’t want that.
I listen to the radio in the car. When I used to do seven hour shifts at the call centre, cold calling for market research surveys using a script, I would tune in to Radio 4 programmes about Biodiversity, Statistical Analysis and Neuro-linguistic Programming during the hour and twenty minutes’ drive home late at night, to get my brain back. Nowadays I listen to Heart in the car, and the latest pop anthems. It gives me a chance to sing at the top of my voice, which is good for me. This morning I had to drive over to Mum’s with an emergency car-load of groceries, since she seems to have got down to a store-cupboard devoid of all but soup and stale Ryvitas. To distract myself from the horrors to come (tales of gypsies lurking in the bathroom, requests to bury the toaster behind the summer-house and take away the back door etc) I sang, very loudly:
Superman got nothing on me. I am only one call away. I’ll be there to save the day…
My voice was never very good. Now it seems to have gone all quavery – I sound like those old ladies in the back pews at the Methodist all those years ago. Nevertheless, I bellowed (quaverily):
Superman got nothing on me…
…and felt a whole lot better. Evil toasters, lurking gypsies, people secretly digging up the drains… bring ’em on.
Could there be other kinds of wallpaper, do you think? Edible Wallpaper, for example. Mum could have torn off a few strips, spread it with peanut butter… It couldn’t have tasted worse than Ryvitas thinly spread with Nothing Like Butter.
Friable Wallpaper – touch it and it crumbles into incense-perfumed heaps on the carpet?
Disagreeable Wallpaper – does my bum look big in this, Wallpaper? Huge!
Emotional Wallpaper – that poor John Lennon… (snuffle)
Reversible Wallpaper – tired of purple chevrons? fancy some William Morris arts and craftsy stuff?
Bankable Wallpaper… Critical Wallaper..