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Silence – The Disappearing Vacuum

March 14, 2015


At last a break in the emotional weather. Seven weeks in which my attention has been almost entirely focused on physical ailments and a death in the family have come to an end.

During that time, Jihadi John has turned into Mohammed Emwazi, Binyamin Netanyahu delivered his rapturously-received speech to the US Congress, the Islamic State has bulldozed Nimrud and Hatra in the mistaken belief that it is erasing history, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow, England crashed and burned in the cricket World Cup, and a number of dogs that competed at the Crufts Dog Show appear to have been poisoned. Oh, and Britain’s politicians cranking up the silly rhetoric in anticipation of the May election. But the self-serving mediocrity of my country’s politicians is a perennial condition hardly worth highlighting just because many of them are about to lose their jobs.

All stuff that I might have written about had I not been contending with three weeks in a wheelchair while on “holiday” in Bali and Hong Kong, followed by suspected dengue fever and, for good measure, the death of my mother.

So the other day we buried my mother. As 94-year-old, she didn’t have many contemporaries left. And when she died, there wasn’t much of her either. Vascular dementia had taken its toll and pneumonia following a fall had delivered the coup de grace.

But there were enough friends, family, carers and fellow parishioners at the crematorium and the subsequent memorial service at the church of St Michaels in Barnes to make the event feel like an occasion rather than a lonely and anonymous disappearance into the unknown hereafter.

Judith, the priest who officiated, had known her for twenty years, and so had been able to talk about the person rather than blather on in the pretence that she actually had some kind of relationship with her. My brother provided the perspective on her life. And the organist was Martin Neary, who was the choirmaster and music director at Westminster Abbey, and directed the music for Princess Diana’s funeral. Mum would have loved that.

I’m not a deeply religious person, though I’m fascinated, or some might say obsessed, with religion. My attendances at church services are rare, though always interesting. Weddings, funerals and last year the ordination into the priesthood of my sister have all brought opportunities for reflection and observation, whether it’s the music, the ritual, the congregation or church itself.

On this occasion the one thing I yearned for was silence. There was very little of it as it turned out – probably not enough. Music and the spoken word came in a seamless procession. Only once punctuated by the ringtone of a mobile phone.

There’s something special – in fact very precious – about sitting in silence with a group of people, whether in prayer or simply in personal reflection. Where else do you find such silence? Not the silence of estrangement, between two people sitting at dinner who have run out of things to say to each other, or the silence that goes with reading a book. And especially not silent communion with laptops, smartphones and IPads.

My mother was no stranger to silence. In the last two years of her life she suffered from dementia, and would sit in her care home, often with her eyes shut but otherwise staring into space. She was no longer able to read, and I doubt that the pictures and sound that came to her on the rare occasions when she watched TV made sense any more.

But for those of us with minds that function roughly as designed, it seems that the moments when we deliberately sit in silent contemplation are fast diminishing. When we’re on our own we instinctively look for stimulus – a book, TV or radio, the internet or the company of online friends.

One of my abiding memories of the past six weeks of injury and illness was of a line of people sitting opposite the reception desk in our hotel in Hong Kong. There must have been a dozen of them, some related, others clearly not. Over a thirty-minute period I went past them three times. Each time there was no conversation. Each person was sitting, head down reading or tapping at their mobile devices. What were they doing? Scouring Twitter or Instagram? Sending messages via WhatsApp? Or just surfing the web? Or just aimlessly checking things, because the thought of sitting in one place with no stimulus was too awful to bear? Waiting for

Now it seems that we will soon be subjected by a barrage of peer pressure creation by Apple, who want to sell us a smart watch. So in a few years’ time there will be an outbreak of repetitive strain injury caused by the constant raising of the left arm to look at….what? Weather forecasts, email alerts, Tinder, tips on foreplay, heart rate, share prices?

Apple clearly understand their market. They understand that there’s a huge percentage of the population obsessed with measuring, defining, calibrating, monitoring. Seeing everything but understanding nothing.

I have never meditated, in the sense meant by practitioners of transcendental meditation, or by Buddhists, Trappist monks or the devout at prayer. But I’ve had plenty of practice at constructive silence.

Many decades ago, when I was at university, I had a summer job with Cadbury’s. I worked four 12-hour shifts a week. One of my tasks was to sit beside a bagging machine. For those who have never encountered one, a bagging machine sends a tube of plastic wrapping, fills it with product, – in this case chocolate – seals both ends and chucks the completed bag into a cardboard box on a conveyor belt. My job was to watch the machine, and press a button if it went wrong. Which it never did in my time of employment. For twelve hours a night, including a one-hour meal break and two 15 minute tea breaks.

You might think that this would be one of the most boring jobs on earth. Enough to turn your brain into sawdust. Yet I remember those hours as an enforced opportunity to put the brain to work. I would develop ideas and spin off new ones endlessly. Sometimes I would exhaust one train of though and say to myself “what am I going to think about next?” Sooner or later something else would pop up – sex, politics, religion, people, social behaviour. All stuff that these days I write about, but in those days stayed in my head. But the thinking was the thing, whether I replayed the output in subsequent conversation or years later in writing. There was no silence. The clattering of machines was everywhere. Yet when you’re internally absorbed you filter out the noise – or at least the repetitive sounds.

There’s some noise I find it impossible to filter – squealing babies, loud conversations in acoustically unsympathetic places and, increasingly these days, loud music. Yet for the past thirty years I’ve had tinnitus, a constant high-frequency whistling that I can probably blame on an earlier life in the music business. It bothers me not a jot because it’s become as much a part of me as the sound of my breathing.

Silence is a very rare thing. Real silence, so profound that it allows you to hear your heart pumping, birds singing, spiders crawling. Stuff that you don’t want to filter because it punctuates the vacuum. Sometimes in bed there’s a kind of silence, punctuated by the groans and creaks a house makes even though you don’t normally notice them. The deepest silence I’ve encountered has been in the desert.

But even in a noisy space, there are plenty of opportunities to sit and think – a park, a railway station, a street café. Yet I fear that small electronic devices have rid us of the habit of sitting in silence, just thinking. Is it because we feel that we’re not using our time wisely if we aren’t buried in an IPad? Are we worried about what others might think if we sit, Buddha-like, staring into space or eyes closed in contemplation? Are we mentally-unstable, demented, a religious nut or just stupid?

Another side-effect of mobiles is that we seem to be losing the art of casual conversation. When you have a smart phone, you always have an excuse not to speak to people around you. Ask yourself, dear reader, how often in a day you actually speak to someone you’ve never met before for anything other than a functional reason, such as to ask the time, or the directions to a place or to order a coffee.

A couple of days ago I struck up a conversation in a place where you normally not find a mobile phone. In a swimming pool. Aida is a 66-year old former nurse from Aden. She grew up under British rule, was educated in British schools and came to England to study nursing. She’s been here ever since. Her English-born husband died last year. She has several brothers and sisters in what is now known as Yemen. Years ago, when she went back to her homeland, the authorities took her British passport and gave her a Yemeni one. She had endless problems back in England, where she was treated as an alien despite holding down a responsible job in the NHS. She has been trying to help her sister, who is a doctor, to get a visa to visit her, but the UK immigration authorities refuse to issue one. The last time she saw her sister was in Sweden, a country she was able to visit without a problem.

Aida’s mother was illiterate, so she was very proud that her children all received an education. Several went to university, and are still working in Yemen and the Gulf. Aida will not go back to Aden because she thinks it’s too dangerous.

All this and more in a twenty–minute conversation between lengths. How many people in England would imagine that the nurse that treated them came from the Crater district, where Colonel Colin “Mad Mitch” Mitchell waged his counter-insurgency campaign in the 1960’s? How many would know that Aden was once a British colony – a convenient fuelling station for ships on their way between Britain and the Raj?

It was an unexpected and enriching conversation with a delightful person. And I wondered what those people in Hong Kong might have gained if they had put down their phones for a few minutes, turned to their neighbours and talked.

And failing that, what we all might gain from putting our phones away for a while and relying on what’s inside us for entertainment. Silent contemplation is a casualty of the wired world. Face-to-face conversation, for the joy of it rather than for a specific reason, seems to be going the same way.

Outside the “developed world” both are still normal features of daily life. But not, I fear, in my street or my town. Nor in my country, where forty-four million birds have disappeared in the past fifty years, and sixty million people are slowly losing their ability to think, listen and connect with others without the aid of technology.

From → Media, Social, UK

  1. Dementia in a parent has been an issue for a number of my friends of late. Maria Galinovic, a very dear friend has been recounting her experiences in her op ed as “Violet Grumble” in Australia.

    Here’s the latest installment.

    • Thanks Doug. She writes well. Dementia is everywhere, and we need to live with it when our loved ones get to that stage. However I prefer not to immerse myself in it. For that reason I have avoided the Juliana Moore movie, though hopefully it will help people to understand the path better. Iris, the movie about Iris Murdoch, was enough for me. S

  2. Elif permalink

    Enjoyed reading this, Steve, as I do all your writing… on my mobile phone, sitting in the car waiting for my daughter’s music class to finish : )

    My condolences on your mum’s passing. So nice that she had a whole community wishing her farewell. Sometimes I worry that moving around so much, we (my family) are depriving ourselves of this kind of bond. May be time to settle somewhere…

  3. Thanks Elif. I thought you were settled!

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