The War on Silence

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During the recent spell of warm weather, I have enjoyed a few pleasant summer evenings contemplating our garden from the patio with a glass of chilled white wine. All too often, however, I have been driven indoors to escape the sound of radios blaring from open windows and balconies. I don’t want to listen to saccharine soft-rock ballads and the vacuous, patronising banter of the presenters under any circumstances, but I particularly don’t understand why people need this aural backdrop when surrounded by birdsong and the sound of the breeze in the trees. These are music enough for me.

I rarely feel any need for background music, or any other aural diversion. When my car radio packed up recently, my initial annoyance was soon replaced by pleasant surprise at the time it gave me to think. Did I really want to listen to a repeat of Moneybox Live anyway? I suppose I’ll get it fixed, but I’m in no hurry. I appreciate that music may enliven repetitive manual tasks, and even improve one’s efficiency in performing them, but when writing or editing, it can only be a distraction from the close attention needed to do the job properly. And the idea that anyone might want background music while reading is utterly incomprehensible to me. Just why?

The problem seems to be not just the scarcity of silence in the modern world, but an active hostility to it. Fearing silence, many people seem to feel a need to surround themselves with an incessant flow of sounds – in restaurants, bars, in their cars, on their phones, in parks and public spaces. For others like me, this constant bombardment by unwanted music is an invasion of our personal space – and it’s getting harder and harder to escape it.

I used to love pubs; these days, I tend to avoid them. Do hospitality and catering colleges teach that speakers should be placed on every wall and in every corner, no more than five feet apart, lest any unfortunate customer miss out on the full volume – or any dissident evade the aural brainwashing and enjoy the now almost mythical ‘quiet pint’? Combined with the vogue for not having any soft furnishings, this causes the sound to ricochet around the bare walls, forcing customers to shout and creating a strenuous, almost aggressive atmosphere more appropriate to a gym than a place of rest and relaxation.

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‘All the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been
thrown into the current assault against silence.’

Aldous Huxley, ‘The Perennial Philosophy’
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More than 70 years ago, Aldous Huxley noted in The Perennial Philosophy (1946) that ‘all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.’ He understood the connection between this constant barrage of noise and the consumer economy. ‘Spoken or printed, broadcast over the ether or on wood-pulp, all advertising copy has but one purpose – to prevent the will from ever achieving silence… The condition of an expanding and technologically progressive system of mass production is universal craving.’

Huxley was writing just over a decade after George Owen Squier established the Muzak corporation (named by analogy with Kodak) in 1934 to deliver piped music to factories to increase workers’ productivity, and subsequently to shops to manipulate consumers’ moods and increase their spending.

In Manifesto for Silence: confronting the politics and culture of noise (Edinburgh University Press, 2007), Stuart Sim argues that ‘Noise is used extensively as a marketing tool (bars, restaurants, public spaces in general, radio, television, film), as a way of stimulating consumption… Such marketing techniques work to homogenise behaviour and restrict individualism; thus to resist them is to make a political statement.’

The problem is compounded by the fact that – like the soma-numbed denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World – we have internalised this consumerist agenda and come to accept it as the norm. We have grown afraid of the silence within ourselves, so that whether at home or on the move, our reflex action is to fill every moment with aural distraction by resorting to the radio, television or Smartphone. Having trained the public to expect constant aural stimulation, commercial interests can now claim that they are merely giving them what they want. Why else pipe music into spaces where we are not expected to linger for more than a few moments, such as hotel lobbies, lifts, corridors, and even lavatories? The assumption would appear to be that just a few seconds’ silence is liable to generate unease.

I’m not a total purist in such matters. There are bars and cafés where well-chosen background music is an agreeable part of the ambience. At least you can choose whether to go into a particular café or not. But canned music has become all but ubiquitous: in banks, shops – including, unbelievably, bookshops –and practically every other public place. In Belgium they even pump it into the streets from little loudspeakers attached to the lampposts. Canned music in hospitals, GPs’ waiting rooms and dentists’ surgeries is particularly invasive, as you have no choice but to be there, and are unlikely to be feeling your best in the first place.

Canned music colours our experience, imposing an irrelevant – and at times jarringly inappropriate – mood. A perky song playing in a café when you’re breaking up with a lover, or in a motorway service station on the way to a funeral, offends by its grotesque inaptitude; a steroid-pumping dancefloor mix is hardly conducive to a reflective cup of coffee in the morning. And where do you go for a quiet drink after a concert or recital when you want to linger in the afterglow of the music you’ve just heard, and not have the experience dissipated immediately by someone else’s choice of aural wallpaper?

Pipedown, the campaign against piped music that numbers Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, Alfred Brendel, Lesley Garrett, Philip Pullman, Simon Rattle, Mark Rylance and Prunella Scales among its supporters, points out that many illnesses and disabilities – including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, tinnitus, ME and general hearing difficulties –can be aggravated by exposure to canned music, and that its use therefore contravenes the Disability Act of 1995 and the Equality Act of 2010.

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‘I refuse to die to this music.’
André Previn
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For me, listening to music – including recorded music – is an active choice. I give it the full and undivided attention I would give a book, a play or a film. I can therefore understand why musicians of all genres dislike canned music, since their training and instincts dispose them to listen rather than to screen it out. ‘I can’t close my ears,’ Daniel Barenboim said in a 2006 Reith lecture in which he mounted a scathing attack on this ‘absolutely offensive’ practice which, he argued, degrades music and encourages people not just to neglect the ear but to repress it. On board an aircraft when it ran into turbulence and the crew piped ‘soothing’ music through the public address system, his fellow conductor André Previn complained, ‘I refuse to die to this music.’ And Alex Kapranos, of the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, in his entertaining gastronomic travelogue Sound Bites, opines that the only appropriate soundtrack to fine dining is the gentle murmur of conversation and the quiet clink of glasses and cutlery.

But nowhere, it seems, is immune. Even in libraries, canned music is recommended because people, we are told, find silence alienating. In October 2008, Andy Burnham, then Culture Secretary (now Mayor of Manchester), remarked that ‘solemn and sombre’ libraries should be ‘a place for families and joy and chatter. The word chatter might strike fear into the heart of traditionalists but libraries should be social places that offer an antidote to the isolation of someone playing on the internet at home.’

What Burnham failed to recognise is that libraries have long been an engine of the social mobility his government claimed to support: one of their principal purposes was to make the pursuit of learning available to children – and there are still many – who could not afford to buy books and whose homes were too crowded and noisy to allow them to study without distraction.

Burnham’s association of silence with the sombre and noise with joy is revealing. In A Book of Silence (2010), the writer Sara Maitland describes her own personal quest for silence, and examines our society’s ambivalence towards it. As she points out: ‘We have reached a point in contemporary Western culture where we believe that too much silence is either “mad” (depressive, escapist, weird) or “bad” (selfish, antisocial)…’

Noise is equated with sociability – but the noise with which we now surround ourselves is not that of human interaction, but of withdrawal: the television that precludes the need for conversation in the home, the canned music that makes it impossible in the pub, the headphones clamped to ears in public places…

Real, intense communication is punctuated by periods of silence and reflection, rather than the constant babble of what anthropologists call phatic communication – small talk to you and me. Of course small talk has real value in making strangers feel at ease with one another, but we only establish proper friendships when we move beyond it. Taken too far, phatic communication becomes nervous chatter, a substitute for communication.

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‘Silence is the element in which great things
fashion themselves together.’
Thomas Carlyle

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Silence is also essential for contemplation, reflection, and creativity. As Carlyle wrote in Sartor Resartus (1836), ‘Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together.’ During the 1950s, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor found it necessary to retreat to the Benedictine Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle in Normandy to finish a book with which he was struggling. In A Time to Keep Silence (1957), he records how at first, he found the silence of his cell oppressive, and suffered from insomnia, nightmares and daytime drowsiness. Then, as the ‘hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life’ fell away, he experienced a renewed energy for reading, writing, and exploring the surrounding countryside.

Fermor and Maitland’s rigorous, quasi-mystical pursuit of silence, which arose in both writers out of personal crisis, is probably not something that many people will either want or be able to put into practice, but what Maitland calls the ‘bits and pieces of silence woven into the fabric of each day’ are to be cherished, not feared and obliterated.

Our inability to tolerate silence for even a short time is, I believe, a symptom of neurotic anxiety; it is almost as though we are suffering from a mass outbreak of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It is not merely our addiction to noise that is at issue here, but a wider craving for constant stimulus. Consumerism has infantilised us, and we can go nowhere without our toys. Travelling on the East Coast Main Line from London to Leeds recently, I was struck as I walked along the train from the quiet coach to the buffet car how almost every passenger was hooked up to some device: laptops, iPads, DVD players, Wiis, each in their electronic cocoon, oblivious to the afternoon sunlight slanting across the fields outside the window.

At what cost? ‘I see patients deafened by inner and outer voices and sounds and just the sheer perennial pollution of irrelevant stimuli,’ writes the philosopher and psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci in Psychology Today. ‘If we lose our inner silence, we lose our very self.’ He suspects that we fear silence because it ‘reminds us of solitude and death’. But, he suggests, ‘how about facing the fear? We might find out that, instead of fearing silence, we enjoy it.’

Silence should be the default position, music a conscious choice, to be enjoyed in all its richness because it is not commonplace; increasingly, background music is the default position, and silence an extreme, eccentric – and usually expensive – choice. I believe we should be looking to build intervals of silence into our everyday lives, and to restore respect for silence in public spaces. Resist the temptation to turn on the radio first thing in the morning, just as you might resist the temptation to light up a breakfast cigarette; hold on to the silence as long as you can. Turn off the TV unless there’s something you really want to watch.

And maybe we should all have at least one ‘unplugged’ day a week. Switch off the iPhone, put the iPad away in a drawer, turn off the radio, and listen to the wind in the chimney, the sound of the rafters settling, the rattle of rain on the window, the foxes barking in the garden, the hoot of a train in the distance… and the silence.

What have we got to be afraid of?

The battle against beige

Lesley Blanch and the 1950s Woman: Waterstones, Gower Street, London, 5 July 2017

How did women who had experienced freedom, adventure and paid employment during the Second World War respond to post-war demands that they ‘settle down’ and devote themselves to the needs of husbands and children? That was the subject of a lively discussion between the writers Elisa Segrave and Georgia de Chamberet at Waterstones’ Bloomsbury branch the other night. As they explored the contrasting experiences of two specific women of that generation, these fascinating individuals were poignantly situated in their historical period.

When Elisa Segrave was caring for her mother, then suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s, she came across a cache of wartime diaries that revealed a very different woman from the conventional if distant wife and mother she had known. In The Girl from Station X: My Mother’s Unknown Life (Union Books, 2013), Segrave discovers the woman her mother had once been: Anne Hamilton-Grace was an adventurous girl from a privileged background of finishing school and hunt balls, who had driven a Ford V-8 from Tunbridge Wells to Russia in 1938.

During the war, she worked as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park, before moving to Bomber Command in Grantham, where she assisted the famous Dambusters raid. VE Day found her in Germany, amid the ruins of Hildesheim, where she found ‘not a house left standing’. There were parties, passionate crushes on other women, a romance with an American GI…

Like all the others who worked at Bletchley Park, Anne never breathed a word of her wartime activities and, once the war was over, quietly assumed the role of housewife and mother. Her diaries cease in 1955, when her beloved five-year-old son drowned and she began a long, sad descent into depression and alcoholism.

Georgia de Chamberet’s godmother, Lesley Blanch, was determined not to succumb to domesticity – and she never did. Born in Chiswick in 1904 to artistic but impecunious parents, she seized her opportunity to escape from suburbia when a mysterious Russian, whom Blanch only ever referred to in her published writing as ‘The Traveller’, entered their lives.Only many years later did she reveal that he was in fact the theatre director Theodore Komisarjevsky. He whisked her off to Paris, seducing her on the Train Bleu and introducing her to fellow Russian exiles such as Diaghilev, Rachmaninov and Chaliapin.

It was the beginning of a lifetime’s obsession with travel that would take her to such remote places as the Sahara, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Bukhara and Samarkand during the last age before the mass tourism she would come to deplore had ‘overrun the globe, overwhelming its multifarious flavours and traditions and destroying forever those romantic images, or illusions, of remote lands which we once sought and which could, often, still be found.’

Towards the end of her long life (she died in 2007, just short of her 103rd birthday), her god-daughter assisted her in writing the autobiographical essays that, along with a selection of her travel writing and an account of her volatile marriage to the French novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, form the posthumously-published memoir On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago, 2015).

During the 1920s and 30s, after studying at the Slade, Blanch designed stage sets for Komisarjevsky and Marie Rambert, who became a lifelong friend. She also produced artwork for the London Underground. After Komisarjevsky left her for Peggy Ashcroft in 1933, Blanch acquired a set (an apartment) in Albany, where her neighbours included the theatre critic James Agate, Philip Gosse and Dorothy L Sayers, who, she recalled, ‘had an attractive voice and was usually alone, drinking wine’.

Blanch’s theatrical and artistic flair carried over into her next career, as a journalist. A new collection of her profiles, essays and travel articles, Far to Go and Many to Love: People and Places (Quartet), has been edited by De Chamberet, who also provides an absorbing biographical introduction. Illustrated with period photographs and a selection of Blanch’s stage designs and other drawings, the articles range from the 1930s to the 1980s, and include several unpublished manuscripts found among her papers.

Her opening salvo as a journalist appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1935. Entitled ‘Anti-Beige’, it was in effect her manifesto, the declaration of a lifelong war against dullness, convention and timidity that found expression in brightly coloured clothes, Middle Eastern robes, floating scarfs, beads and bangles, long before the hippies made such attire fashionable. But this flamboyant romanticism concealed a determined professionalism, and the article landed her a job on British Vogue, on which she served as features editor from 1937 to 1944, writing articles on women’s war work, often illustrated by her friend, the photographer Lee Miller.

A 1945 article for The Leader introduced the still novel personality of Peter Ustinov to a wider public: ‘When he ambles about the room, I’m reminded of a performing hippo on its hind legs. But as a conversationalist, he’s as mercurial as any Harlequin.’ There are memorable portraits, too, of Billy Wilder –‘The façade is Austrian Baroque, but the structure is, I fancy, Pittsburgh steel’ and Vivien Leigh –‘She tore off her eyelashes – the false ones – and those beneath were almost as long.’

Blanch’s acute observations of places and people can be found in pieces on subjects as diverse as polygamy, souks, picture postcards, the Orient Express, Christmas in Mexico and life in post-war Bulgaria. Her travel pieces are all the more poignant in view of the subsequent fate of many of the places – Kabul, Aleppo, Palmyra – she describes so vividly, and the collection as a whole forms a richly engaging record of a life lived to the full.

Both books provoked fascinating contributions from audience members about their own experience and that of their parents’ generation, and this summer evening in Bloomsbury also engaged with the ideas, issues and choices that face young women as they create, write and engage with life today, and the continued relevance of inspirational women from the past.

The welcome return of the stag beetle

On my evening walk the other night, a ‎stag beetle flew past me at eye level, little more than two feet away, affording me an amazing view of the creature in flight. With its body at a 45-degree angle, its heavy antlers aloft, its wing-cases open and its legs dangling awkwardly beneath its buzzing wings. It looked for all the world like some clockwork flying machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci.

You most often see stag beetles in flight at dusk, at the close of a warm day in June. It’s a minor miracle they get airborne at all – indeed they often have to launch themselves from trees to take advantage of a supporting breeze. Usually they zigzag about clumsily, like oversized bumblebees, but with enough wind in their sails they can go at a fair clip. Though dwarfed by some tropical species, they are the largest terrestrial insect in Europe, and an impressive sight by any standard.

These fabulous creatures have attracted the attention of writers and artists for hundreds of years. Pliny the Elder noted that the Roman scholar Nigidius named the stag beetle “lucanus” after the Italian region of Lucania, where people used them as amulets (they are a member of the scarab family). The reference forms the basis of their scientific name, Lucanus cervus.

In 1505 Albrecht Dürer painted a powerful and astonishingly accurate watercolour of a stag beetle (left, now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), its antlers raised as if for combat. Macbeth, contemplating the murder of Banquo, says that before “The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums/ Hath rung night’s yawning peal, there shall be done/ A deed of dreadful note,” and “the beetle wheels his droning flight” through the country churchyard of Gray’s Elegy.

At the risk of anthropomorphism, I find a certain tragic grandeur in the life cycle of the stag beetle. After five years buried in a woodpile in the guise of finger-sized maggots with fierce orange mandibles, they pupate, and then the adults emerge in May or June in all their Baroque splendour. The male flies off in search of a mate, who then lays her eggs. By the onset of autumn – if they haven’t already become a handy, protein-rich snack for magpies or foxes – they die.

Despite their fearsome appearance, stag beetles are strictly vegan; the adults, having accumulated enough fat as larvae to last for the rest of their brief lives, ingest little but sap and the juice of rotting fruit. Quite harmless to humans and animals, they play an important role in the environment by breaking down dead wood to form new soil.

Nationally they are endangered, a victim of our practice of tidying away any pile of rotting wood, the use of grinders to obliterate tree stumps, the destruction of hedgerows, and pesticides. Perhaps counter-intuitively, they seem to fare better in London suburbs than in the countryside, perhaps because of the absence of agricultural chemicals and the number of compost heaps, rotting fences and decaying sheds.

If you live in southern England, this is the perfect time to spot them. In order to understand which habitats are best for the insects and to improve conservation measures, the London Wildlife Trust is calling on Londoners to report any sightings to the Greenspace Stag Beetle Survey.

Stag Beetle Survey: http://www.gigl.org.uk/online/staggeringgains.aspx

Outside London, you can report sightings to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species as part of their Great Stag Hunt: http://www.ptes.org/moremammals/greatstaghunt/stag_beetle.php

Both groups provide useful information on how to make your garden stag-beetle friendly by creating a log pile in which their larvae can mature.

http://www.ptes.org/files/1871_stepping_stones_final_lowres.pdf

Six of the Best

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The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award shortlist readings

These days I seem to be shuttling between book events at Daunt’s in London’s Marylebone Road and Waterstones’ flagship store in the old Simpson’s Art Deco palace on Piccadilly. I was at the latter just over a week ago for the launch of Meike Ziervogel’s excellent new novel The Photographer, and back last Thursday to hear the six writers shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award read from their work.

The award is presented annually for the most promising debut published in Britain during the previous year. From its inception in 1954, it has consistently picked out novelists who have gone on to have long and distinguished careers. Early winners included Brian Moore for Judith Hearne and Alan Sillitoe for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the prize was subsequently awarded to Paul Bailey, Gilbert Adair, Jackie Kay and Diran Adebayo.

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Just the Facts? Some thoughts on writing non-fiction

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Talk given at the Authors’ Club in London, 26th April 2017

The term ‘non-fiction’ is freighted with implications and expectations. The chief of them is an implicit contract with the reader that what is to be found between the covers will be truth rather than fictive invention. ‘But what is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ Of course the author of a work of non-fiction has a responsibility to the facts, but the relationship is never a straightforward one, because even supposed facts are open to interpretation.

Genre is significant here too: the different categories of non-fiction – history, biography, travelogue, nature writing, memoir and the wider genre now known as ‘life writing’ – lay claim to differing balances between objectivity and subjectivity.

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