Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
Not the first time I have kicked off with an Eliot quotation – but this one, from Burnt Norton in The Four Quartets, seems to me to have more prescience than Eliot himself could ever have known; it suggests something of how the poet might have described the Internet, had he encountered it. It’s not just the mention of ‘this twittering world’ which stands out, but if you have combed through a few typical Internet forums – or tweets, for that matter – you may feel that ‘eructation of unhealthy souls’ aptly describes some of the content.
Well of course for a couple of years I have been adding my own thin reedy voice to the raging hubbub of the Internet; whether this blog could be described as a series of eructations, or what it might reveal about the health or otherwise of my soul, is for you to judge, dear reader. But I will admit that I have also indirectly contributed to some Internet content that many of us would prefer not to be there. My work, up until I retired three months ago, concerned the provision of services to help companies increase their profits from selling on the Internet. So I can’t pretend that my soul is perfectly untainted, involved as it has been in the grubby business of taking from your wallet, rather than adding to your mind.
But I can at any rate claim never to have tweeted myself. Maybe I’m just too ponderous and verbose to be able to squeeze any of my thoughts into 140 characters. I do have a twitter account, but only use it for listening to what others have to say. I can even boast three followers, one of whom, I was surprised to find, is a prominent poet. So I can only assume that these are refined people who appreciate the value of silence. Perhaps, thinking of Eliot, I am putting ‘the darkness’ back into ‘this twittering world.’
But it’s really another sort of noise that I wanted to write about here, which also, by all accounts, ‘sweeps the gloomy hills of London’, as well as many other places. It must have been two or three years ago – I’m not sure exactly when – that I noticed a sound that I could hear at night when I was in bed. It was a soft, low humming that sounded like a distant motor running – constant but pulsating slightly. It wasn’t one of those noises originating in the house; the central heating and the fridge both generate their sounds only intermittently, and this never seemed to stop, and in any case had a distinct timbre of its own. I didn’t hear it during the day, but in daytime there are many other sounds to drown it out. I assumed that it must be some sort of industrial process in the area, and didn’t give any more thought to it for a while.
Every so often I would lie there and wonder about it. There is little industrial activity in our area, and I hadn’t noticed any sounds coming from what small factories there are. Then one day a few months ago my daughter (to whom I hadn’t mentioned anything about this) passed on to me something a friend had told her, about a phenomenon known as ‘The Hum’. The friend, who lives in a city distant from us, hears this sound and has read about it on the Internet. It seemed to match up with what I was hearing.
So a quick bit of Internet research confirmed that it had been reported for at least the last 50 years or so in many parts of the world. But also, oddly, according to most accounts, that only some 2% of people actually hear it. And, even more oddly to me, that many lose sleep as a result, and suffer stress and mental illness. There are even claims of suicides caused by it, although I could find no more details about who these individuals were. I am surprised at all this because the Hum, if that’s what it is, certainly causes no problems for me. Most of us sleep in the presence of all sorts of background noises which we can habituate to, and are mostly not consciously aware of; for me this is just one more such sound. People who hear it are often referred to as ‘sufferers’ – but for me there’s no suffering involved, just mild curiosity.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the fact that only a minority of people hear the Hum at all. I seem to be the only member of my family who hears it; although I’ve now found that our next door neighbour does, and claims that it can prevent her sleeping. All this suggests some kind of tinnitus – an internal effect generated by the brain or the auditory system. But in my case at least, I have satisfied myself that it is actually out there. Most people, including me, have some sort of noise in their heads – usually a high pitched ringing in the ears, as you can get after you have been exposed to very loud sounds – but much softer, and unnoticed unless you pay close attention to it. Tinnitus sufferers, of course, can have it much louder – distractingly so. But unlike those internal head-sounds, the Hum behaves like a noise in the environment; it appears to come from a direction (usually the window when indoors) and stopping the ears can block it.
If those who hear it are in a minority, perhaps there’s a clue here as to why it causes such distress in some. There may be a spectrum of sensitivity to this phenomenon – the majority unable to hear it at all; some, like me, just aware of it but undisturbed; and the few unlucky ones plagued and distressed. There is some evidence that most hearers are middle-aged or older, and it’s true that I never noticed it until a couple of years or so ago.
So where does it come from?
But the big question is, what is the source of this sound? I mentioned that it seems to come from the window, but if I lean out of the window I’m not sure I can hear it – it seems to be drowned by other ambient sounds (we live a mile and a half from a motorway). However one night recently I found myself awake in the small hours, when background noise is at a minimum. I went outside to listen and, yes, I could hear the Hum. The worldwide reports suggest that it’s not confined to certain localities; I was on holiday recently in Dorset, we’ll away from any towns or industry, and found that I could hear it there also.
It has been reported to be a mainly indoor phenomenon; but this may simply be that, being a low frequency sound, it penetrates walls and closed windows more readily than other background noise. Outside, it’s overwhelmed by other, mostly higher frequency, ambient sounds. My hunch is that it could be some sort of vibration originating from the earth below. This could mean that the walls of a building act as a soundboard, magnifying the sound within. The ground source theory is backed up by one recent report, claiming that it’s a seismic phenomenon originating from wave motion impacting the sea bed. This all sounds rather speculative, however, and the mention of 13 to 300 second bursts doesn’t fit with my experience of a constant background noise.
But I do feel that some sort of seismic explanation is the most plausible. It seems that, rather than a ‘twittering world’, we have a humming one. I’d be interested to see comments from anyone who experiences – or suffers from – the Hum. You can also register your experience with it on a website that collects such data: www.thehum.info. And of course, as always, there’s a Wikipedia article.