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Last Updated: Monday, 14 November 2005, 13:02 GMT
The sound of silence
By David Cannadine

David Cannadine
Silence is in short supply these days but when you do find it, it's in many forms, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly opinion column.

I'm spending a few days in New York, and as always, it feels great to be here.

Roy Jenkins once wrote that people could be divided into two categories: those who loved New York, and those who hated it, and like him, I've always belonged in the first of those two groups. Indeed, to this day I remain baffled by those sad and unfortunate Brits who don't like this town.

I've been visiting New York regularly for the best part of a third of a century; I taught at Columbia University, up on Broadway and 116th Street, for 10 very happy years as a history professor; and to this day, the first sight of the Manhattan skyline, greeting me as I drive in from Kennedy Airport over the Triborough Bridge, never fails to warm my heart and lift my spirits.

Trafford Centre, Manchester
The UK shares a rare silence
One sign of this is that I always get up in New York earlier in the day than in any other city I've ever stayed in. This isn't just on account of jet lag, true though that is; but also because there is a unique kind of frenzied, manic, electric energy, coming up from out of the sidewalks, which is irresistibly infectious.

And of course, New York is also famous for being the city that never sleeps: there's no hour of the day or the night when things aren't going on, and they tend to go on with a lot of buzz and din and racket. New Yorkers proudly claim that anything that can be sold is on sale here, but peace and quiet are two commodities that are almost impossible to obtain in Manhattan.

It may, then, seem rather perverse that while staying in this noisy, cacophonous, "in-your-face" city, I've been thinking a lot about peace and quiet and silence: what they are, how we get them, why we need them, and where they are available.

These days, in our 24/7 western world, silence is in pretty short supply, and in most of urban Britain, as in New York, it's pretty hard to find.

Inane chat

Noise pollution is one of the besetting sins of our time; even rail travel isn't the peaceful pleasure it used to be unless you sit in the carriage that is revealingly described as "the quiet zone", the chances of enjoying a journey uninterrupted by mobile phone calls, and inane or embarrassing conversations ("I've just reached Hemel Hempstead" or "I don't love you any more"), are less than zero.

As someone who has spent much of his life earning his living by giving lectures and making speeches, I have encountered silence a great deal - though I must say that it has been silence endured by my listeners rather than generated by me.

Just occasionally, there is the silence of an audience enthralled by what you are saying, and hanging on your every word. More often, there is the silence of indifference, as people try their best to be attentive, but gradually find themselves drifting off somewhere else.

Silence is a very varied and also a very audible thing, which we hear differently in different places
So while silence is supposed to denote the complete absence of noise, in practice it comes in many forms, which we hear and experience in many ways.

In one of their most famous songs, Simon and Garfunkel wrote of what they called "the sounds of silence". That may seem a perverse, paradoxical and even (if I might use such a pretentious word) oxymoronic way of putting it.

But in essence, they are right. Silence is a very varied and also a very audible thing, which we hear differently in different places and in different circumstances: the silence of peace and freedom and repose and contentment; the silence of stress and menace and anxiety and fear (as in Harold Pinter's plays); and the silence of joy and love and hope.

At this time of the year, as we leave behind the whizz-bangs of fireworks and the swooshes of rockets that we associate with the fifth of November, we approach the one occasion when keeping quiet in Britain is not so much golden as obligatory: the two minutes' silence on Remembrance Sunday which is the most poignant and resonant part of that whole ceremony of commemoration and recollection.


It first took place on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1919: the anniversary of the armistice which spelt the end of the First World War, and thereafter, the two minutes' silence was incorporated into the Armistice Day observances, which became an integral part of British inter-war life from 1920 onwards.

What did the silence mean? As usual, the answer, I suspect, is different things to different people. It was an opportunity for pause and reflection, as many Britons mourned the loss of husbands, brothers and sons who would never come back.

It was an official gesture of sorrow and atonement, which mere words could never hope to express, for the nearly one million men, from Britain and from its Empire, who had been killed in the war.

And it was an expression of relief, that the noise and din and horror and fear, of the Somme and Paschendale and Verdun, were finally over, and that the guns of August 1914 had at last fallen silent - though not, as it subsequently turned out, for all that long.

Brooklyn Bridge
New York is not a city known for peace and quiet
Peace, which for most of us is the kindred sister of silence, means not only an absence of noise, but also, significantly, an absence of war.

During the 1920s and 1930s in Britain, Remembrance Day was always held on the eleventh of November, and this meant that for five years in every seven, it took place on a weekday.

This made the effect of the two minutes' silence all the more resonant and pervasive, as virtually all business and commerce and transport and conversation came to a halt; the clatter and clamour of every day life was stilled; and the nation was united in a silent act of homage and grief.

Since the Second World War, Remembrance Day has been transformed into Remembrance Sunday. It's still a powerful and moving occasion.

One of the hymns most often associated with Remembrance Day, or with what has since become Remembrance Sunday, is "I vow to thee, my country", which was written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice in 1918. The first verse speaks of patriotic devotion, and the ultimate personal sacrifice of life for nation.

Hymn misread

Some have seen this as being about what Shakespeare described in Othello as the "pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war" and every so often, assorted Church of England clergy denounce Spring Rice's words, for what they regard as their inappropriate celebration of nationalism, militarism, and the drums and trumpets of battle.

I have to say that I think they are seriously wrong in this view. To be sure, Spring Rice was British Minister to Washington for much of the First World War, and he was in many ways a quintessentially establishment figure.

Like gentleness, silence has its virtues, too
But he lost a brother during that conflict, he was well aware of the tragedy and the transience of human life, and any careful reading of that first verse of his hymn makes plain that its key message is that war is not something great to be celebrated and glorified, but rather that it is something terrible to be stoically endured, with all its trials and tribulations, as best it can.

In any case, and rather like our national anthem, "I vow to thee my country" has a second verse which most people don't know and never sing:

    And there's another country, I've heard of long ago -
    More dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
    And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Peace, Spring Rice was saying, may come at a high price; but it's infinitely to be preferred to war. And, like gentleness, silence has its virtues, too - even, occasionally, here in noisy North America.

It's not easy to get New Yorkers to be quiet individually, let alone collectively.

But for a few brief minutes on the anniversary of 9/11, that's just what they have recently started doing. They too need now to stop, to pause and to remember.

If you want to experience that rarest of things, silence in Manhattan, then that's the day to be in town.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

What an inspiring and wonderfully written piece of something that truly means different things to different people and something many are indifferent to.
GERVASE DOUGAN, warmenhuizen, North Holland

One of the most beautiful writings that I ever read.
George Mendoza, Boston Massachusetts, USA

In cities like Tokyo and new York they have "stores" that offer sensory deprivation and or silenced "nap" time as a sellable commodity. Ambient noise is soundproofed out. They have these in a few other cities that are usually in malls like the mall of America in Minneapolis St Paul Minnesota or colleges. As for the meaning of silence that varies on the individual.
Rachel Hammer, Tulsa, ok USA

I was in Barcelona during the Madrid Bombings and was there to share in the first silent remembrance as all the people of Barcelona (it seemed)quietly filed into the streets, stopping traffic, glancing at their watches until the designated moment came and everyone lowered their heads. I was on the Ramblas and it was full of silent, still people-an incredibly moving and powerful experience that left me wondering where has the will, the unity, the engagement with the world gone from the American people? Maybe Manhattan joins in silence-but do the rest of us join them?
Beth Twomey, Oakland, CA, USA

I find people who talk a lot have very little to say. That's is why I love going to the mountains ..
Jackie, USA

I'm amazed at the desire so many people have to live their lives to the accompaniment of a soundtrack, plugged into iPods and so on. They're missing so much. One of the great joys of a train journey is the soothing, rhythmic clatter of wheel on rail. Walking, whether through town or country, gives us the chance to experience all kinds of sounds from which we're normally cut off by double-glazing or engine noise. Here in north America there's a TV commercial being shown for a cell phone with an integrated music player. The commercial shows a number of people walking through gently falling snow while plugged into these devices and listening to Christmas songs, thus cutting themselves off from one of the most beautiful of auditory experiences - the near-silent hush of falling snow and the echoless world that its accumulation creates. What madness! What a shame that the sound of the season is no longer the sound of snow falling or of children playing, but the irritating jangle o! f someone else's Ipod or the sound of children playing handheld video games. Call me an old fogey, but I think we've really lost something.
Sarah, Nova Scotia, Canada

I arrived in NY for the first time in October 1998. It was a Sunday afternoon. Everything was shut. Is this really the city that never sleeps
Paolo Sammut, St Albans

I recently moved back to my hometown in Wales, mostly because it is safer than where I was living and QUIETER! Or so I thought.. I open my windows and can still hear the birds singing but there's a creeping background buzz of traffic that didn't exist before. Is there no escape from this unless you can afford to buy a place out in the middle of nowhere? Everywhere you go these days people are talking needlessly and loudly, phones and other things beep at you and traffic noise or machine noise drive you nuts. Even this computer is humming at me. When the air conditioning and computers go off at work, its like a weight is taken off your shoulders - this can't be healthy - the body must be tensed against all this noise - no wonder people look exhausted most of the time. Think I'll drop out!
Linda Joseph, Cwmbran, Gwent UK

Please don't apologise for using a word like "oxymoron" when it is the only word that adequately describes what you are trying to say. It is not pretentious it is having a grasp of the English language, something as a writer you should be proud of. Also for the last few years we have returned to the 2 minute silence on 11 Nov whatever day it falls on.
John, Norfolk USA

A small, picky, pedantic point for Mr Cannadine to ponder... The national anthem has a number of verses, but no authorised version (according to the government's web site at http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/page317.asp ). However, the "second verse" that he refers to is generally acknowledged to be the third verse. And anyone who was in the Boy Scout movement (certainly prior to 1967) would have learned the "thy choicest gifts in store" verse as part of their badge work. My home town's Remembrance Day service included the singing of the "royal anthem" as it is called in Canada, and yes, we sang the third verse. And I'm pleased to say I remembered the words!
reg, calgary, canada

I object to being called a "sad and unfortunate Brit" by Mr Cannadine merely because I don't share his love of the noise & pollution of New York. I live in a part of the US that is both lovely to my eyes and provides me with the "sound of silence". But while I would call Mr Cannadine "unfortunate" if he hasn't had a chance to appreciate Utah, I would call him "sad" only because of his apparent bigotry over other people's opinions.
LH, Utah (ex-pat Brit)

I have recently had to wear hearing aids as I am becoming extremely deaf, but the best thing is when of an evening I stop wearing them and have perfect peace and quiet, for so long now I have not heard all the hustle and bustle of living in a city, and oh how noisy it is. It is time for us to become quieter and thing more about our surroundings and give thanks to God that we survived those two horrible wars and we must never let people forget them. We are already explaining to our three grandchildren why you have to have quiet for two minutes on the 11th and yes I think the younger generation are respecting that time of quiet. Lets hope it will continue
Linda Ashby, Worcester Park

In tune with your theme(s) here, I believe you would enjoy the wonderful novel 'Islands of Silence' by Martin Booth. Silences, in their many forms, are among the main characters in this under-appreciated work.
Curt Carpenter, Dallas, Tx USA

The following link is to a debate on the meaning of Spring Rice's words: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/reports/arts/vow_20040813.shtml The second verse seems to be very much about the Kingdom of God.
Rory Anderson, London, UK

Just wanted to say that Spring Rice's second verse is describing 'the kingdom of heaven' the King being the Lord Jesus and the people of that kingdom being those who have transformed hearts whose very nature is now peace and gentleness! These ones have accepted suffering now because they have the assurance of 'the kingdom to come' where peace and truth will remain. I couldn't bear for that not to be said - to hope for lasting peace in 'this kingdom' is to hope in vain - though we all still do hope for what peace there can be!
Daniel Morriss, Northampton, UK

This is a great little piece of work that makes its point well using seemingly disparate elements. I've only been to New York three times but for some reason it always feels like home to me. The city hums along day and night and it's energy is palpable but I've never found it obtrusive. As for remembrance, ground zero is the antithesis of the frenzied activity surrounding it like the eye of a storm and has a disquieting effect on all that look on it and probably will do even when it's reinstated.
Don MacAskill , Kirkcaldy

I think peace and quiet are very important. I live in Chislehurst on the borders of London and Kent, at the end of a long cul-de-sac, so cars are a rarity. Apart from birds, and the odd aircraft, it is very quiet. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in London, especially in inner city areas, or by a busy road - I think it would make me ill.
Rob Holman, Chislehurst, Kent, England

David, What a magnificent piece of writing, encompassing the whole spirit of the New York that I know. As an aside how good it was to see a detachment of old and bold US Marines marching past the Cenotaph yesterday honouring not only their own fallen but ours too. Long may that continue.
Julian Leggett, Swindon, Wiltshire.

There are some problematic silences not broken by David Cannadine's piece. One, amid the justly deserved remembrance of British and British Empire soldiers who have died in wars, is that over soldiers from other countries and all the civilians who have likewise died. These people deserve remembrance too, for all are victims in one way or another. Remembrance services and commemorations are too often silent about them, not silent for them. The other silence is that of 'the love that asks no questions'. If this love had asked more questions in the years of arms race and division all over Europe before 1914, the Great War might not have happened. If the victors at Versailles in 1919 had asked more questions about justice and lasting peace, and fewer about what their countries could gain, or if the people of Germany in the 1930s had asked more questions about what was justified by the love of their country, then perhaps the guns might have been silent for longer after the Armistice. You won't find me in any assortment of clergymen, but I too think that I Vow to Thee My Country is a part of 'the old lie', trumpets or no.
Ian, London, UK

I once experienced a delightful silence aboard a drilling rig in the Southern North Sea. We were in the galley at the time, and the rig generators went down. All of a sudden every single AC fan, compressor and speaker (not to mention the rotary table, draw works, shakers and mud pump fell silent, and it was heavenly. One could hold a conversation with a person on the other side of the deck, without shouting, and we could hear the sea crashing against the legs. Sadly it only lasted a few minutes.
Blewyn, Manama, Bahrain

Just a few thoughts after reading about the resonance of silence. I always recognise the impact when on a frequent visit to Cornwall where, lying in bed at night there is so little noise, that I actually begin to imagine a ringing sound. It makes me aware of how violated our senses generally are, and how hard it can seem to really "get away from it all." But also, with reference to New York I was think about the blackout of a few years ago, something referred to in a recent advert for a mobile phone company, and something which looks quite poignant, in such a bright city. Finally, I think that sometimes it takes a melee of some kind to make one appreciate the silence. Anyone who has been in a car crash would agree I feel. The crunching, and grinding followed by empty nothingness, and this is indeed the best time to reflect, most likely on how fortunate one is to still be alive and so able to hear at all. war is similar, although I suggest the silence is infinitely more deafening
John O'Shea, Watford

Dear David Cannadine, Unfortunately you are looking for silence in the wrong places and forgot all about the silence of thoughts. The silence within is what you should be looking for. Even the bible speaks about it - go and find it.
alilip, rennweg, vindobona , cisdanubia

My heart goes out to those lifeforms unfortunate to be 'sharing' this planet with us Earth lice. Imagine the stress we are putting all sea life through with the constant bombardment of sonar, propellers ect. Can you imagine being locked in a room with huge blaring speakers? And then there are the land based unfortunates who have no shelter from our logging machines, weapons, roads etc. Yes, peace and quiet is very nice if you have the freedom to go look for it, alas for 90% of our neighbours on this planet they will never taste it.
Mike Dziubinski, Blackpool Lancashire UK

I have only experienced total silence on two occasions in my life, i.e. an unpolluted silence devoid of human, traffic and aircraft noise, however distant, and without even natural contamination from bird-song or wind gust. The first was on the Grand Ballon in the French Alsace. It was unexpected, intense and quite sublime. The second was on Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor. In a time when, like many people, I continually seek sanctuary from an over-crowded and technologically infested world ¿gone mad¿, those moments are ones I increasingly treasure.
Richard Denne, Tunbridge Wells

It seems these days that silence and peace are hard to find. Even at home our peace is disturbed by our neighbours son playing his music extremely loud! Let alone finding some solace in our daily lives for thought and contemplation and just relaxing. I found it sad how at work during our two minutes silence I heard someone making a phone call, leaving a message for someone who was undoubtedly not answering their phone as they were observing their own two minutes silence, and no doubt quite embarrassed at their phone ringing throughout it. And yet, I feel two minutes is no-where near long enough to think back upon two world wars, an immense loss of life on all sides. The needless suffering of many and the terrible persecution of the Jews among others. And everyday there are new occurrences of death and destruction from all over the world. If we had two minutes silence for each and every one of these, this world would be a very quiet place. And perhaps we need it. Our world is fast becoming a peaceless place. To the point where children are seriously attacking other children in schools. For me, two minutes silence is a time to remember those who sacrificed so much for us all and to have respect for those who fought and saw so much horror and returned home to live in today's society where few seem to care. Sometimes we all need time to be quiet and to think. Perhaps if more people did, things might be a little less tense and stressful.
Alex Griffiths, Calne, Wiltshire, UK

I think David is confusing 'silence' with something else. Its the shocking aspect of these events which people should be reflecting on. The fact we live in a big city is incidental.
David, London

Pure silence that is absence of all sound whatsoever (like in a vacuum) would be so noticeable that it would be quite deafening.
Dave, Gibraltar

I cannot remain silent (although the only sound is my keyboard) but have to correct you that Paul Simon alone wrote "The Sound of Silence" and can get pretty noisy with people who think that Garfunkel was a co-writer of their material.
Nick Goodall, Southampton, UK

Noise is ok if you can get away from it. Much reference is made to urban noise, but I live in the countryside where the constant drone of A road traffic, light aircraft, lawn mowers and barking dogs make life hell. We are very noisy creatures with little regard for quality of life.
Davey, Norwich

Max Ehrmann put it best in the opening lines of Desiderata: "Go placidly amid the noise and the haste and remember what peace may be found in silence"
Matt Doran, Derby

Silence is natural - most noise nowadays is created by ourselves. Give me a quiet walk where I can hear nature at its own volume level.
Richard, Gillingham UK

When all human chatter stops and our own presence is felt.. this is were we find God ! When we listen. The still small voice inhabits the second land... in the second verse.
David Matthews, Belfast

To the contrary, silence is the most productive part of the human condition and activities. It's self-evident that without proper sleep, the quitest of all activities during the 24 hour cycle, not much of value will happen or endure. Silence is the gateway to all great discoveries of any kind.
Kamil Rustam, Houston, USA

I've just returned from a retreat - something I do once a year or so - when we spent a couple of days saying nothing, except in religious services. It's a refreshing way of getting real time to think or to relax. We had just one problem: how to observe two minutes' silence on Remembrance Day, when we were already silent. Each of us solved it (or didn't) in our own way.
Robert, Reading, England

An interesting theory, but I would disagree with fighting for your country. Those men didn't fight for their country, they fought for their freedom for they knew the consequences of defeat, a German ruler.
Stephen, Cardiff

I can't say there is anything sad about not liking New York. As with London, the 24 hour noise and fumes is not my idea of a good time. San Francisco and Brighton are nearer to my ideal with a good mix of quiet and lively areas. Mind you, Los Angeles is my idea of absolute hell as the car rules. James
James Styles, Whitstable U.K.

Thank you for a very moving piece : silence and peace seem very hard to come by these days. "I Vow To Thee, My Country" has always been one of my favourite hymns since singing it at the top of my voice in the choir at a naval school where for some, although not myself, the loss of loved ones to war was a reality, keenly felt for example during the Falklands conflict of 1982 - and we always sang the second verse. But I think the most poignant part of your story was about the New Yorkers now having to commemorate their own form of Remembrance Day on the anniversary of 9/11 : it seems globally we are united in war, yet that doesn't seem to stop the fighting anywhere in the world. Perhaps we need to remember that Christmas Day in the WW1 trenches when the fighting did stop and the English and German soldiers played football on No Man's Land to remind us that peace can be found, if only fleetingly...
Andy Funnell, Chelmsford, UK

"The first verse speaks of patriotic devotion, and the ultimate personal sacrifice of life for nation." - this is incorrect. The hymn is about giving everything to God, including your country. That's why there's a comma between "thee" and "my". Getting back to the point, there's still lots of places (call centres for example), that don't observe the silence. Their shameful excuse is that they can't leave the 'phones unanswered. A simple hold message regarding the silence would suffice.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

Silence is a joy that many of us have little oppurtunity to savour. The resurgence of walkmans, in their MP3 guise, and people's lack of respect for anyone else, mean there is no longer that traditional peace/contemplation/sleeping time on a commuter train after work. Fireworks, motorbikes (which seem to be developed to be as noisy as possible), alarms, shouting, to the hum of air conditioning. I find silence in my house deep in rural France, where periodically I hear nothing, not even nature, but perhaps I enjoy that because of its rarity.
Grant, London

My recollection is that to commemorate the fallen in WWI we had one minute silence. This was extended to two minutes after WWII. As David Cannadine is a historian I think it is important for posterity that he gets this right.
John Buekett, Kings Langley, UK

I have experienced the "sounds of silence" in NYC in November right after 9/11. My family went to NYC to do volunteer work and serve the workers meals at Ninos restaurant...That restaurant was a sanctuary for the many workers...outside the restaurant and in the streets, it also was eerily silent and remains so today in that area.
Cheryl Connolly, Phoenix, NY USA

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