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  • The Age of Noise in Britain: Hearing Modernity by James G. Mansell
  • Bill Luckin (bio)
The Age of Noise in Britain: Hearing Modernity. By James G. Mansell. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017. Pp. 246. Paperback $30.

In this intriguing study, James Mansell engages with interactions between noise, modernity, and the construction of the self in interwar Britain. His book is divided into four parts, including a weighty introduction. In the first section, Mansell surveys a rapidly expanding secondary literature: this makes for dense but rewarding theoretical reading. Next, he focuses on themes that have already received detailed attention—neurasthenia and "nerves." This chapter contains a succinct micro-history of the Anti-Noise League and its figurehead, Sir Thomas (later) Lord Horder, a member of the medical super-elite who was convinced that it was possible to trace connections between noise and specific problems in body and mind. The League attracted the support of a wide range of members, including, among literary household names, H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley.

Mansell points to the fact that the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) became affiliated to the Anti-Noise League. This reveals much about linked mentalities sub-textually present in each of Mansell's chapters: anti-urbanism and anti-mechanism. These ideas derived from a conviction that the spread of factory-based (and noisy) urban-industrialism had been a social and cultural disaster. Leading members of the CPRE strongly subscribed to this view. The leader of its Welsh wing, the architect Clough Williams Ellis, author of England and the Octopus, had contempt for what he described as noisy working-class visitors to the countryside. As Mansell notes—here he touches on John Picker's excellent monograph—nineteenth- and early twentieth-century "brain workers" were convinced that they possessed a sacred right to inhabit an environment from which "rowdiness" would be banished.

Mansell's chapter on the mystically healing vibrations of music is marred by an important omission: there is nothing here on Edgard Varèse, whose seminal contribution in the 1920s was to juxtapose music against noise, with the former being nothing more or less than an "organized" version of the latter. Varèse lived in New York, mixed with American musicians (including Charlie Parker) and composed work—only three and half hours of it has survived—that made a significant impact on later compositional approaches to electronic and computerized music. Mention also should have been made of jazz—in the eyes of the great majority of musical opinion-makers, it was a form of "unorganized cacophony" which could do untold damage to the human nervous system. In addition, Mansell might have mentioned the early Shostakovich (the first four symphonies) and the early Stockhausen. A close reading of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century would have strengthened this chapter. [End Page 980]

Mansell is back on form with his account of the rational control of noise as canvassed by industrial-psychological, social scientific, and architectural experts. The only missed opportunity here is the absence of detailed analysis of some of the writings of W. H. Auden, who, as Mansell tells us, wrote the script for the famous General Post Office Film Unit documentary Night Train, which also featured music composed by the youthful Benjamin Britten. Throughout the 1930s, Auden was the most important Anglophone poet writing about a distinctively twentieth-century "mechanical culture." The rhythms of his work precisely mimic the repetitious click-click of a kind of imagined production line.

Mansell says that the Second World War marked the end of the classic age of noise in Britain. This is a credible conclusion. By this juncture, a war-battered urban population had experienced unprecedented levels of threatening noise and was also in the process of adjusting to an ever-changing range of factory soundscapes. Most important of all, noises on streets and roads that had appalled Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and E. M. Forster—he published "The Machine Stops" in 1909—were now only meaningfully opposed by a much-shrunken Pedestrians' Association, an organization dominated by a tiny number of the social elite. From the early 1950s onward...


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