Bill Bailey on the happiness of silence

Bill Bailey / 30 December 2016

Why a need for silence, or an absence of intrusive clamour, spawned an industry.

Looking out over the wilds of North Devon from a house near Exmoor, I often experience something that is a reliable source of happiness: silence. And when I say silence, I mean an absence of intrusive clamour.

No traffic, no overflying aircraft, very few people. No phone chirruping – the capricious mobile reception has put paid to that.

There are some gentle sounds, of course. The hawthorn bushes sieving the wind, the air-rush of swallows as they zip in and out of the gap in the woodshed. The gurgling of the dishwasher. The dog dreaming. I don’t count these as intrusive though.

It always takes me a little while to readjust to this relative calm. I am used to the city soundscape of distant trains, radios, clattering skip-lorries, buzzing motorbikes, the occasional unsettling shriek of laughter mingled with fragments of conversations and TV burble. I can sleep through all this urban racket. But mute the constant hum of the fridge (an F sharp) with a tripped fuse and I’m wide awake with a start. The silence is a deafening reminder of something I don’t even notice till it’s gone.

It’s true that the modern world with all its distractions and devices has also turned up the volume in public. Decibel levels in many New York restaurants are around 90db, which is equivalent to a pneumatic drill. Compared with, say, a tea room I once visited in the Cotswolds where I could hear the lettuce expanding in my BLT.

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To meet the demands of those who are seeking a bit of hush in their daily lives, there’s a growing ‘silence’ industry.

There are silent book-reading clubs. Don’t we have these already, aren’t they called… book clubs? Not a fan of small talk? Try a silent dinner party. The word ‘party’ might be pushing it and I think I’d struggle to know where to look. Talking while maintaining eye contact is good manners. Just eating and maintaining eye contact would be more like bovine gawping.

I’ve yet to try a silent dinner. Although it was pretty quiet one Christmas after the cats had gnawed at the uncooked turkey.

A recent documentary film In Pursuit of Silence claims that silence can be good for our physical and mental health. In a way that being on a train next to someone whose phone has a bagpipe ringtone is not.

I tried out a flotation tank once. The idea, I was told, was that the absence of sound and light combined with weightlessness would create a relaxing experience. In fact, it might even clear my mind of troublesome thoughts, jet-wash the blocked guttering of my subconscious, so to speak.

As I clambered into this dark cabinet of salt-water, I was a bit apprehensive. Would I get claustrophobic and start hammering on the lid to be let out after 20 seconds? Lying in my tomb like an aquatic vampire, the warm water offering buoyancy and comfort, I started to laugh at the oddity of it. I was gently bumping the sides like a reluctant narrow boat in a lock, and it was utterly marvellous.

An hour had passed, in what had felt like minutes. The effect was a wonderful mind-trick. I felt the deep relaxation of a long soak, but the perception was I’d had a quick dip, leaving me energised. This time-telescoping was extraordinary, magic.

As the world seems to rush onwards ever quicker, the stillness of silence, and its uncanny ability to alter time, is ever more precious.

As Aldous Huxley said, ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music’.

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