Silence is Golden. One of those perfectly formed sixties pure pop songs. It was written and first performed by the Four Seasons, but found its lasting fame in the UK with this recording by the Tremeloes from 1967. The title is a ready-made cliché which sounds like something out of a Victorian schoolroom, but it’s a cliché which has great appeal to me.
Why is the world so noisy? And why are we so uncomfortable with silence? These linked questions quite often occupy my mind amidst the hubbub of life. I enjoy silence, or at least quietness, and within reason I enjoy being on my own.
I did think that intolerance of noise was a growing older thing, but a recent incident reassured me and made me think:
After the wonderful #TADtalk, a conference for people with diabetes in London on April 22nd this year, we all adjourned to a hotel bar for drinks and chat among delegates and speakers. Drinks and conversation were flowing, with much excited chatter about the day’s content as acquaintances were made or renewed. It was a pleasure to be there, except for one thing: as in so many bars, there was loud music. I was trying to engage in conversation with interesting people, many of whom I was meeting for the first time, with little prospect of seeing them again within a year or more. All had interesting things to say and stories to tell, and the sense of camaraderie and enjoyment was palpable. Except that I couldn’t properly hear what they were saying against the music. Not nightclub volume, but loud enough to make meaningful conversation a challenge. I stuck with it, reading lips, smiling and nodding in the right places (I hoped). It’s a familiar experience.
But as time went on I found it increasingly tiresome. Then I became aware that among the crowd of my friends, two in particular were anxious to get away for the meal that we had tentatively agreed to share later in the evening. They were, like me, fed up with the noise and difficulty of making conversation. I took my cue and decided to join them in politely taking my leave and finding somewhere quiet where we could sit down, relax, eat and....talk, not shout. Given that I was one of the oldest people in a group of around a hundred, there was nothing remarkable about that, except that those two others seeking peace and quiet were two nineteen year old young women. Not some of the other fifty or sixty-somethings, but two of the youngest in the group.
So the three of us took our leave and quickly found a restaurant, chose a quiet table, ordered some food and drink and started to enjoy a proper conversation, able properly to catch the subtleties and nuances which to me are part of the joy of human interaction. You can only fully sense what someone means, how they are feeling, how they are reacting, when you can hear them and they hear you. What delighted me was that these two younger people felt this just as strongly as me, and we enjoyed a leisurely meal talking about all sorts of stuff of mutual interest. All at a civilised volume, and it confirmed my view that far more people - of all ages - might actually prefer a rather quieter world.
Why do we put up with noise we don’t want? It happens so often at social events - weddings for example. How many times have I found myself shouting in the ear of someone I really want to talk to, having maybe not seen them for years?
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE music, including loud music. I even have a Spotify playlist of Angry Songs that I play at top volume (with windows closed) when I’m on my own in the house and annoyed. I enjoy - very occasionally - discos and dancing, but only if there’s somewhere quiet where I can chill out, give my ears a rest and chat quietly to someone. In the right circumstances, I love being in a noisy crowd: just over a week ago, I was one of 20000 excited Bolton Wanderers fans chanting WE-ARE-GOING-UP as our team celebrated promotion back to the Championship with a perfect 3-0 win in the last game of a successful season.
I suppose what I object to is unnecessary, intrusive noise in inappropriate places, from which there is no escape. I don’t mind lawnmowers and hedge trimmers from neighbouring gardens, but object to having to hear someone else’s music from next door.
And it’s not just music: I hate unnecessary chatter in places where peace and quiet are what I seek. Most obviously in church, where I increasingly find that people who are old enough to know better feel compelled to engage in inane small talk and banter in a place where I seek contemplation, thought and silence.
Of course silence can be uncomfortable, especially in the company of others, and there are times when a bit of background noise is welcome. There’s something very creepy about being in a pub or restaurant as the sole diner, or with just one other person and no background noise at all. On such occasions, a bit of music is welcome, but only as background.
But we shouldn’t be afraid of solitude, silence, or at least quietness: I am a habitual early riser, largely because of diabetes, and instead of moaning or worrying about it, I have grown to enjoy early mornings on my own, especially in summer when the dawn chorus gives a beautiful soundtrack to my contemplations. I’m not antisocial either: conversation is one of life’s great pleasures, but I prefer to be in a small group where there’s a chance to listen, think and respond, rather than clamouring for attention.
Perhaps my thoughts are best summed up by one of my favourite hymns, the much-loved Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. It’s no coincidence that the words were written by a Quaker, the American J G Whittier. Silence and contemplation are central to the practice and beliefs of Quakers, but hymns are not. Whittier wrote the words - as a poem - and they were set to music by Hubert Parry, writer of the very different but equally treasured tune to Jerusalem.
The last two stanzas say it all, and could have been written in the noise-infested modern world, not nineteenth century America, as they seem to me to express what we all need to do from time to time: slow down, be quiet and listen:
Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace;
the beauty of thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm;
O still, small voice of calm.
Peace and quiet - even silence - is a fundamental human need, recognised I think in the current fad for mindfulness, but really just obvious common sense. We are by nature a contemplative species - it’s what makes us human - but if we allow our lives to be overwhelmed by noise, we undermine our very humanity.
I conclude with another quotation, from the opening of a piece of writing, Desiderata, which in the seventies was a best-selling poster, and which I have long regarded as a pretty good manual for life. In case you don't know it, the full text is here, but the opening line is as good as any:
Go placidly amidst the noise and the haste and remember what peace there may be in silence
Silence is Golden. We need a bit more of it.