Sounds of Sirens

by Elisabeth Field

12 October 2021
Originally published in our Old Blog.

If sound shapes the mood of a city, how is our mood shaped by the sounds we hear? Sound plays a vital role in our experiences, as we rely on aural symbols and signposts to navigate the unseen, the unusual and the unexpected. In doing so, these noises can lead us to fun, and to fear. Sound can guide us to safety without us even listening. It can be ever present and rarely acknowledged. During the height of the pandemic, sound became more than the ignored background to my days and nights. One sound became significant. It became a means to understand my city. 

I live in Newington Green, in north London. It is a diverse and multicultural hub nestled between Angel and Stoke Newington. Street noises, traffic and sounds of attention and alarm are a part of daily life. My front door opens to the A105, a thoroughfare for traffic racing from central London in the south towards Finsbury Park and Tottenham in the north.  I have lived here long enough that sirens barely disturb my day and never my nights. If anything, those sirens have been a constant reminder of the fact I choose to live in this great, dynamic – and yes sometimes scary – city. 

During the initial surge of the pandemic in early 2020, the sounds of those sirens changed, but so too did my reaction to them. I’m not sure anyone likes the sound of an ambulance. It usually means something is wrong, somewhere. Someone is in need of help, somehow. My mother was a nurse, so the sound of an ambulance would always make her blanch. It usually meant she was in for a busy night. That reaction has stayed with me. Frequently I think of her when I hear the ambulance’s call. There is a sense of trauma and crisis behind its hail. 

As we all experienced our first lockdown, the ambulance sirens came to be my bell weather. I discovered during those spring months of 2020 that I could tell the status of the pandemic, the hospitalisations, the death count, based on the sounds of my neighbourhood.  In a near silent city reduced to essential traffic only, those ambulances were stark reminders of the daily struggle for life and death. I noticed immediately when the number of ambulance sirens increased, and to where those ambulances were heading based on how they entered and exited the four corners of the Green. I knew before the daily news conferences if the numbers in London were increasing or decreasing, just by listening to the frequency of those ambulances. 

Sometimes sirens are silenced. That silence can bring with it a deep sense of unease. The quiet ambulance moving along still streets, heralded only by its throbbing blue lights as they are refracted through the green leaves of the surrounding trees. These moments were almost more unsettling than the loud wailing of the vehicles, as their quiet lights painted a pulsing blue glow across my living rooms walls. The siren’s silence speaking volumes of its cargo. 

This may sound traumatic. But in fact, the opposite was true. The pandemic sounds of my neighbourhood offered me a way to interpret the struggle we were all experiencing. Those ambulance sirens I heard – 20-30 a day some days – caused deep anxiety at times. They signified the dreadful state of the world, of our city, of my neighbourhood.  Those sounds shouted that someone needed help, but also that help was coming. Sirens can mean assistance, not just anguish. They can represent the risks people take to help others in need. Their noise is one of hope, of care and of shelter.

As those pandemic sirens became ever frequent, a new sound followed them. This one came once a week when we stood on our doorstep, blanketed by the night as we made sounds of appreciation and respect. In Newington Green that sound would echo around our space as our clapping rebounded on the buildings encasing our neighbourhood. That echo would amplify the clapping, making it louder than it really was, making it last longer than it really did.

The sounds of the city during those frightening early days in the pandemic imparted deep wounds, but when we listened carefully, they helped us heal, too.

Elisabeth Field is a postgraduate student (MA in Sociology) at Goldsmiths, University of London. She tweets @afewfieldnotes.

︎ Image by Elisabeth Field.