This article originally appeared in the Oldie magazine:
The other day I went for lunch with an old friend at a fashionable Peruvian place in Soho. The food was nice, the noise was appalling. It was more like being in a nightclub than a restaurant. Afterwards my ears were ringing and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Admittedly my hearing isn’t the best. Deafness runs in our family. In her later years my grandmother would answer all questions with the word whisky. My friend though has perfect hearing and she had the same complaint. We swore afterwards to go somewhere quieter next time , but where?
Restaurants used to have tablecloths, cushions and curtains which all absorbed sound. Things began to change with the opening of Kensington Place by Rowley Leigh in 1987. This restaurant not far from Notting Hill Tube quickly became fashionable; Princess Diana was a regular. I went once and left feeling like I’d spent an hour in a cement mixer. It was a vast room full of steel, tiles and glass, reflecting the noise of a hundred Absolutely Fabulous types relentlessly pitching at each other. Nobody was doing anything as old-fashioned as listening nor indeed was it possible to.
Where Kensington Place led others followed. From then on restaurants had to feel buzzy, a synonym for noisy. Terence Conran’s 1990s empire, Quaglino’s, the Blueprint cafe, Le Pont de La Tour, shared this feel. This minimalist look began to take over the humble boozer around the time that Tony Blair was on the rise. Blair won the 1997 election with a manifesto entitled New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country. There was no place in the New Britain for class distinctions; out went the public bar, the snug and the saloon. Partitions were torn down. We were all now in one big room so let’s remove the curtains and let in the light of the new dawn.
From then on it was bare boards all the way. A couple of years ago I went back to a much loved pub in Cornwall that I’d last visited in 1995 and found that it had been gutted and replaced with bleached wood. The smoking ban of 2007 was the final nail in the coffin of the pub carpet. Once there was no smoke, landlords realised that their carpets stank and tore them up. This cleansing took place in the home too. Laminate flooring came in so that now you can hear every noise from the neighbours above. IKEA’s 1996 ‘chuck out your chintz’ advert campaign caught the spirit of the times.
The popularity of the minimalist trend might be because such places are cheaper to fit out and they save on laundry bills. The trend in restaurants is for tiny spaces where diners are expected to share plates. They promise value but once you’ve had some tapas, a few drinks, some nuts and olives, end up being almost as expensive as Le Gavroche. They all look very similar inside: bare brick, cramped tables, mismatched wooden furniture and tiles for maximum noise reflection. They’re restaurants for the under 30s. It also helps to be a little drunk to put up with the din.
Many pubs are now more like bars with music played at deafening volume for the amusement of the staff who do not respond well to requests to turn it down. No one else seems to mind. They’re full of excitable young people shouting at each other. Quite a few of them will be on cocaine. Blair’s premiership coincided with rocketing cocaine use in Britain. In 1996 less than 2% of people admitted to using it in the past year. By 2006 it was over 8%. In the late 90s early 00s I began to notice drug use in the most unlikely places such at the pub in the village where I grew up in Buckinghamshire. People on cocaine aren’t listening. They are just thinking of the next thing to say.
Not that all these new style places are full of coked-up media types. Some are rather good. It’s great that you can eat proper Barcelona style Tapas in London rather than microwaved gloop in brown earthenware dishes. In the new pubs the food is better, there’s more choice in beer, and they welcome children. But the noise! Our local in Blackheath South London on a Sunday is brutally loud. Imagine a nursery school run by drunken teachers.
What we need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishing. It would be like CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) for those who savour a bit of quiet with their beer or a meal with an old friend. Rather than the Cask Mark, the symbol would be a wingback armchair. Inspectors will pay special attention to things such as curtains, carpets, large dogs, and tweed. Anything that absorbs sound. In short, if my father and I can have a conversation without shouting ‘what?’ at each other then it passes and they can put up a plaque.
It will be a while before the campaign takes off. Fortunately, I’ve found the ideal pub not far from my house. It’s an old 30’s boozer complete with a carpet, banquettes, nick-nacks and partitions. There’s four real ales, no music and the TV is only switched on for big matches. No, I’m not going to tell you where it is.
The campaign that ruined a thousand homes.