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The sound of silence: Glen Mutel

There are few things worse than a noisy bus, coach or train, right? Actually, silence can be the noisiest thing on Earth

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I’m not really a morning person. To those who know me, that last sentence will feel like an understatement. Before the birth of my daughter, I’d happily sleep in until 1pm on the weekend. And on a normal working weekday, I spend my first few hours of consciousness wishing most, if not all, of my colleagues dead.

On my journey to work, all I really want to do is to bury myself in whatever I’m reading. And sometimes this is possible. But at other times it feels as if the dark lord has sent his evil wizards up to Earth to torment me.

These satanic imps take several forms. When I used to catch the bus to work, they were the people who’d sit next to me, broadcasting their awful music through the tinny speakers of their smartphones. Now I catch the train, they’re more often the thrusting professionals, barking self-serving instructions down their mobiles to the colleagues they’ll be seeing barely moments later. I’m not sure who I hate more — I just know it’s hard to lose yourself in a Jeeves and Wooster novel when you’re sat next to either of them.

However, at least my morning commute is relatively brief. The situation becomes far more grave when travelling. If you’ve a long coach or train journey ahead of you, an exasperating fellow passenger can be the stuff of nightmares.

But sometimes, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. For a man like me, there’s only one thing worse than a noisy carriage… and that’s a quiet one. Because, what I’ve realised over the years is that silence can be the noisiest thing on Earth. You see, the trouble with quiet environments is they bring into focus all the small noises normally drowned out by the hum of life — and these are the worse of all. Forget phone music or inane work chatter. Nothing — and I mean nothing — makes my blood boil more than hearing someone sat behind me taking forever to eat a bag of crisps. Or the muffled clunk of bottles, keys and pens as someone rummages through their handbag. Or the noise of someone trying to open a chocolate wrapper and making a sodding pig’s ear of it. Just open the thing! It shouldn’t take you 10 minutes — it’s a Crunchie, not a Rubik’s Cube!

If you ask me, these people are the real menace to society. These packet-rustling, key-tapping, nut-crunching, lip-smacking, heavy-breathing, finger-licking, audibly-dithering, incessant nose-blowing, loud-whispering buffoons. And they’re everywhere — not just on public transport, but in offices and cinemas, in waiting rooms and at dinner tables — anywhere where it’s a little too quiet for comfort, up they’ll pop with their rotten soundboard of sniffles and sighs!

Now I realise by now your sympathies probably aren’t with me, but instead with all those who have to contend with me on a regular basis. Fair enough. Perhaps I ought to lighten up a bit. After all, whoever said public transport should be peaceful? And maybe intolerant gits like me are just as big a problem as those other gits with their phones.

But if that’s true, what’s to be done? Well, as is so often the case, I think the answer lies overseas. Whenever I contemplate this issue, I’m reminded of my time in India. There, the public spaces are often implausibly boisterous. On buses and trains, in the cinemas and restaurants, quiet moments really aren’t on the menu. And you’ve no choice but to embrace it — the chattering, laughing, squabbling and shouting; in fact the whole darn cacophony. But if you do, soon you begin to sort of like it.

And what I remember most vividly was how, in dins like these, it was impossible to be riled by any individual, no matter what they were doing. Which, for an irritable swine like me, was wondrously liberating.

So here’s my proposal: let’s all start making as much noise as possible. Let’s treat our trains and buses like social clubs. Let’s raise our voices and make our laughter raucous, our debates heated and our quarrels animated — and together we’ll drown out the tinny smartphone anthems and the dreary work calls — not to mention the crisps and the bloody Crunchies too.

But please, let’s do it soon. Before I kill someone.


Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)