Every day, come rain, come shine, come London fog, three pigeons start their mooing-cooing morning song on the fire escape outside my bedroom window. I used to hate it, this dawn sing-along. Doves on a balcony have romance; Bayswater pigeons none. But I’ve grown fond of them: my private dawn chorus up in the chimneystacks. They start before it’s light, following the seasons, earlier and earlier towards high summer. (By June, when they’re at it before 4am, I do, I admit, fantasise about a cap gun.)
My grubby pigeons may not have been quite what King’s College researchers had in mind when they published a study showing how even a short burst of birdsong – or a glimpse of blue sky, or lunch under a tree – improves mood and mental well-being among city dwellers. Perhaps something more picturesque: a jay, a chaffinch, a chatter of Cockney sparrows.
We’re supposed to deplore monk parakeets, exotic invaders of our city parks, but I love their tropical call. You hear them before you see their flash of emerald feathers – and for a moment you might be on the Equator.
If the pigeons get me up, the bells of St James’s Paddington mark my hours. Six chimes for breakfast, seven for a walk, twelve for lunch, five for pens down and saucepans out. On Sundays, when they ring long and loudly for High Mass at ten, I get a guilty feeling if I’m still in my dressing gown. Church bells are a comfort, too, to the insomniac. Companionable to lie there counting the small hours together.
In the list of city noise complaints – horns, car alarms, drills, revving engines, and the bleating of ‘This Vehicle is Reversing’ – you rarely hear anyone say: “I wish that church would put a sock in it”. John Betjeman captured the shyly welcoming tone in Summoned By Bellswhen he wrote of the ‘bearded rector’ of St Ervan’s ‘holding in one hand/ A gong-stick, in the other hand a book,/ Struck, while he read, a heavy-sounding bell,/ Hung from an elm bough by the churchyard gate./ “Better come in. It’s time for Evensong.”’
Do others feel mournful at the news that the twelve bells of St Paul’s northwest tower have fallen silent for the first time since the Second World War? They will be taken away for restoration and won’t peal again until November. No bongs from Big Ben, hushed bells at St Paul’s. The capital is strangely muffled.
Birds and bells are crowd-pleasers, but there are other, more niche noises that make up a city. I’m partial to the grumble of Tube trains beneath the stalls in West End theatres. There you are on the battlements of Elsinore, Hamlet’s father’s ghost flapping his bed-sheets… and a Piccadilly Line train thunders underfoot. Also, the clank-and-smash of recycling paladins tipped into lorries, wine bottles breaking as they go. If silence is golden, then familiar, reassuring sounds are a silver second-best.
I’m in Paris this week, in a borrowed flat above a school playground. At playtime, games, laughter, shouts echo up the lightwell. When the lesson bell rings, I think, with a lurch of stomach: ‘Double maths.’ It’s wonderful to realise each time that the bells aren’t summoning me.
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